The retired Army colonel-turned-college professor and author of Breach of Trust examines the separation between the American public and its professional military.
Professor Andrew Bacevich
Tavis: More than a decade of wars with Iraq and Afghanistan has resulted in a separation between the American public and the professional military that fights in our name, or so argues retired Army colonel and best-selling author Andrew Bacevich in a new tome called “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.”
Now a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, he joins us tonight from that campus. Professor Bacevich, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your time.
Professor Andrew Bacevich: Thank you very much for having me on.
Tavis: Let me jump right in. How have we as Americans failed our soldiers?
Bacevich: Well, certainly on the surface Americans hold their soldiers in very high regard, and we see that manifested on public occasions, whether it’s the Super Bowl or a World Series.
My argument is that that’s pretty thin, and that substantively we haven’t provided support. Frankly, I think the proper expression of support should be that we would want to ensure that our soldiers are never sent in harm’s way unless absolutely necessary, and that when they go to fight they fight in wars that are properly managed.
As a practical matter over the past decade, neither of those has pertained. We’ve allowed the government to dispatch our soldiers to unnecessary wars, with Iraq, of course, being the principal example, and in both Iraq and in Afghanistan, our soldiers have been subjected to mismanaged, poorly managed wars.
The American people, for the most part, have stood aside and simply allowed that to happen.
Tavis: I think I take your larger point. Let me press a little further though, because when you look at polls and studies and surveys, even the president, of late, with this mess that we’ve gotten ourselves in with Syria, has said repeatedly that he knows the American public is “war-weary.”
So are you really saying that the American public, writ large, those of us who make up the electorate, have let these soldiers down? Or what you’re really saying is that persons who occupy the Oval Office, persons who sit on Capitol Hill and make these decisions in our name, that those persons, who admittedly that we have elected, have let these soldiers down? Those are two different things, I think.
Bacevich: Well, I don’t know, I think they’re connected. We have allowed those people who we elected to get away with perpetrating ill-advised policies. We have not insisted upon accountability.
I’m not even persuaded by the argument that in the recent Syria crisis that the American people opposed intervention because we are war-weary. It’s impossible for us to be war-weary, since we’ve been detached from the war.
I think that Americans have become somewhat skeptical of war because the expectations that prevailed when we first went into Afghanistan and when we first went into Iraq, those expectations obviously turned out to be false.
So we’re not war-weary, we’re war skeptical, and I think that’s a more accurate description.
Tavis: Let me ask you then what it is that you have expected of the American public that we’ve not delivered in the past, and going forward, what is it that we ought to do?
Because again, if you look at polls and surveys and studies, there are a whole lot of Americans who are tired of this. But once President Obama has been elected, there is only so much accountability we have once he’s been elected.
Once these members of Congress have been elected. Until the next election cycle, there’s only so much accountability we can press forward. So what are we not doing?
Bacevich: Yeah, that’s a fair argument. But I think the book, in a sense, tries to provide a version of U.S. military history going all the way back to the founding of the Republic.
Bacevich: That version of military history emphasizes that up until the Vietnam War, the citizen soldier, not the professional soldier, provided the cornerstone of our military system.
After Vietnam, for reasons that are quite understandable, given the catastrophe that Vietnam was, we jettisoned that tradition and embraced what the Founders would have called the standing army.
I believe that that standing army, as a basis for our present military system, has produced very negative consequences. So I think that when you say what am I asking the American people to do, I’m asking the American people to reconsider that tradition of the citizen soldier.
To recognize that inherent in our concept of citizenship should be some obligation to come to the defense of the country when indeed the country is in jeopardy.
Tavis: But that raises two – that raises a question and a comment. The question is are you then suggesting that we ought to reinstate the draft, and number two, I’m a bit confused, because while I take your point about the citizen soldier, by the same token, if you’ve got presidents and members of the Congress sending us on stupid missions, then why would I sign up for that?
Bacevich: Well I would hope that you would sign up for that because my argument would be that if indeed the citizen soldier was the cornerstone of our military policy, that would reduce the likelihood that the people in Washington would behave recklessly and use our soldiers stupidly.
But to your first question, I’m not proposing a resumption of the draft, and I accept that politically that’s simply not feasible. I am suggesting in the book that we ought to have a conversation about adopting a system of national service.
What I mean by that is that all 18-year-olds would perform a term of service to country and community, some of them in uniform in the military, the remainder in some other capacity.
Whether teach for America, Peace Corps, preserving the environment, taking care of the elderly, but everybody serves. My argument is that that would both close the gap between the military and society and arguably give us a more responsible approach to using our military, and also would enrich the reigning concept of citizenship by making the point that citizenship is not simply exercising prerogatives but involves accepting obligations.
Tavis: Colonel, I take your point about citizenship and I couldn’t agree more with you in that regard. For that matter, my hat is off to those who make the tough decision to protect the rest of us when they sign up for military service.
My father served in the military for 37 years. I’m a military brat, so I understand this as well as anybody else, I think. I guess what I’m pressing on is in the coming years, in the coming months and years, how do we make this turn?
How do we do what you’re suggesting ought to be done in this book? For us to take the notion of citizen soldier more important, if the history in the rearview mirror, the recent history is that of Iraq, where soldiers lost their lives over something that was absurd in the minds of many of us.
If we’re going to be drawing lines in the sand with Syria and then – I’m just trying to figure out how it is, if people look at wars of choice versus wars of necessity, how that convinces them to do their civic duty as a military enlistee.
Bacevich: Great questions, and I make two points. The first is I don’t pretend to suggest that this idea of the military service is itself going to be an easy sell. I make the comparison to healthcare reform.
That the late senator from my state, Senator Ted Kennedy, made healthcare reform his project. Over a period of about 25 or 30 years, he kept talking about it, he kept pressing it. He got it on the agenda.
President Obama rightly gets a tremendous amount of credit for being the president who actually put things over the top, but Senator Kennedy was the champion of healthcare reform. We’re going to need a champion of national service.
The second point, though, is why would anybody agree to serve in any capacity given our propensity for stupid wars? I think the issue there is that there’s a great urgency to critically assess what our infatuation with military power has achieved, especially in the greater Middle East over about the past 30 years or so.
It’s time for us to recognize not simply that we failed in Iraq or that Afghanistan is likely to have an unhappy ending, it’s time for us to recognize that ever since Ronald Reagan sent Marines into Beirut back in the early 1980s down to the present moment, we’ve failed to achieve our purposes.
We’re not making the region more stable, we’re not making the region more democratic, we’re not making the people of the Islamic world like us any better. Only if we pragmatically and realistically assess the failures of U.S. military policy in the greater Middle East are we going to begin to wean ourselves from our over-emphasis on military power, and therefore get to a point where young Americans are going to be more willing to serve.
Tavis: I’ve got a minute and a half to go here. Let me close with this question, since you mentioned the late, great Ted Kennedy. To my mind, there’s only one, maybe two, but I think one United States senator, sitting senator, who served in Vietnam. That would be John McCain.
John Kerry has now left and gone on to, of course, being the secretary of State, so I may be wrong. There may be one other, but I think it’s just John McCain.
The point is that we no longer have persons throughout Congress who served in military combat. I raise that to ask who, then, do you expect to be the ambassador for this, and tell me how this question, this issue, gets better before it gets worse if you don’t have folks serving in government who served in the military?
Bacevich: (Laughs) You’re doing a good job of identifying the weaknesses in my argument. I have to say that the guy I had hoped would take it on was Senator Jim Webb of Virginia.
Tavis: Right, sure. He retired, yeah.
Bacevich: Both in terms of his background and in terms of his outlook, in terms of having a son who served in the Marine Corps. He seemed to me to be the kind of guy who could take this on and it really disappointed me when, after one term in the Senate, he decided that he’d had enough and he retired.
Tavis: Yeah. Well, that’s in part because I think it’s a difficult place to get things done, but I digress on that. There’s a reason why Congress has a 6 percent approval rating. Another conversation for another time.
For now, we thank Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich. The new book is called “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.” Now a professor at BU, Boston University. Professor, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your insights.
Bacevich: Thank you.
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