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Questioner: I have a bumper stick on my car that says, “War is not the answer”… But of course the question is, if war is not the answer, what is the answer?
Andrew Bacevich: I’m actually a conservative. Look… let me cut to the chase: as a Catholic, I believe in original sin. I think that we are, in our nature, fundamentally flawed. And that peace, probably, is beyond our capacity to achieve. Therefore, to my mind, a more modest goal is more realistic: to minimize the occurrence of war, except in those circumstances when the highest values are at risk and there is no alternative but to resort to violence in order to defend those ideals. And even then, always, always, always to be cognizant of the fact that war occurs in the realm of chance, and that the consequences that will stem from war will defy your imagination.
So, therefore, one needs to be extraordinarily cautious, careful, and wary. And… especially since the end of the Cold War, we as a people — and in particular our political leaders in Washington — have entirely lost sight of these historical realities. They’re far too casual about going to war; they’re oblivious to the adverse consequences. They work on the most optimistic assumptions — that it’s going to be easy, that it’s going to be cheap, that once you achieve some goal you set for yourself, all other problems will vanish.
And so, from a conservative’s perspective, I say, “No, there’s no reason to think along those terms. And therefore, we should be cautious, and again minimize rather than expect to eliminate armed conflict.
West Point graduate, Vietnam War veteran, and Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, speaking during the Q&A portion of a recent panel on how the wounded come back from war. Below, watch a short clip of Bacevich testifying before Congress in 2009.
In 2010, Bacevich wrote a morally flawless piece in the Los Angeles Times that was published on Memorial Day, three years to the month of his son’s death while serving in Afghanistan. Bacevich summoned Americans to regard that day not as a holiday heralding the start of summer, but as a moment in which we solemnly memorialize fellow citizens who have come home draped in American flags. Let the article’s penultimate paragraph detonate in your mind:
How exactly did we get ourselves in such a fix, engaged in never-ending wars that we cannot win and cannot afford? Is the ineptitude of our generals the problem? Or is it the folly of our elected rulers? Or could it perhaps be our own lazy inattention? Rather than contemplating the reality of what American wars, past or present, have wrought, we choose to look away, preferring the beach, the ballgame and the prospect of another summer.
This issue of how our society processes its role in armed conflict, and armed conflict’s role in world affairs, is becoming something of a preoccupation of mine. Now that a half dozen of my friends have seen deployments and my brother-in-law has been awarded a Purple Heart for his service in Afghanistan, I have come to see their valor as fundamentally travestied by the quixotic missions for which they bravely sacrificed. More embarrassing, however, is the craven egotism of a society which has sacrificed nothing for the cause, leaving the immediate burden to a mercenary army and the bill to generations who were not alive when the war began.
As someone born the year the Cold War ended, I’ve now lived half my life as a citizen of “a country at war,” and I can remember skimming (when I was thirteen) Gore Vidal’s 2002 anti-imperial polemic Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. I loathed almost every page of Vidal’s cynical, careless screed, but I loved the title. It was so prescient, though the war’s peace would materialize most conspicuously in the minds of a civilian populace of which I am a part.
In the next week, I am going to publish a short reflection on Sebastian Junger’s tour de force WAR. In the meantime, I recommend watching Bacevich on how the wounded come home as well as reading his searing book Breach of Trust. If you are looking for more journalistic takes on our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, check out Dexter Filkin’s The Forever War or Chris Hedges’s War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.