The Short American Century
Edited by Andrew Bacevich
Harvard University Press, $25.95, 296 pp.
This collection of essays constitutes a how-to manual for people who sense something deeply wrong with the current bipartisan consensus on American power, but can’t quite articulate what it is. Bacevich, a Boston University professor and frequent Commonwealcontributor, calls this book “a dissenter’s guide to the American Century,” and that’s quite apt. One of the leading standard-bearers for a certain pessimistic strain of Burkean conservatism, Bacevich is broadly skeptical of our political parties’ embrace of mass consumerism, the national security state, and America as a “world leader.” Having spent most of the past decade and a half following William F. Buckley’s famous pledge to “stand athwart history, yelling ‘stop,’” Bacevich warns that this book does not aim to “prop up American self-esteem.” That’s for sure.
The ten essays in this collection (two of them by Bacevich himself) are loosely structured around Time and Life founder Henry Luce’s idea of the “American Century,” expounded in a February 1941 essay of the same name. On the eve of World War II, Luce argued that America in the twentieth century should be “the Good Samaritan of the world,” the “powerhouse from which ideals spread,” “lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels.”...