Andrew Bacevich. The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

Andrew Bacevich has emerged as an important critic of American imperialism. He retired from the Army as a colonel and for many years was active in conservative political circles. He’s now a history professor at Boston University. In his important book,The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (Oxford University Press, 2005), Bacevich argued from the right as a true conservative concerned with how the military-industrial complex has corrupted and endangered American society with its imperialism.

Since that book came out, Bacevich’s credibility has, tragically, been enhanced due to the death of his son in combat in Iraq.  He has made more common cause with progesssives, and now has published The Limits of Power as part of “The American Empire Project,” a series of books featuring numerous writers more identified with the left side of the political spectrum (such as Noam Chomsky, James Carroll, and Walden Bello).

The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism is a worthy addition to this important series.  Problems identified in Bacevich’s earlier book have only intensified.  He discusses three interrelated crises in our society–the economy, the political, and the military.  With the first two, he gives a helpful if somewhat summary analysis.  It his third major discussion, of the military crisis, that the book hits paydirt.

In just 45 pages, we get an insider’s perceptive explanation of the problems that beset the American military system.  The major problem, Bacevich believes, has been incompetent leadership. He shows how military and political leaders have learned all the wrong lessons from the wars in Iraq (especially) and Afghanistan.  The lessons that have been learned (realizing that the military needs to be oriented toward the “next war” [e.g., rooting out insurgents, nation-building, and training and advising “host nation” forces], the need to empower military professionals vis-a-vis political leaders, and the need to repair the relationship between army and society [perhaps by reinstituting a draft]) are actually conclusions that will push the U.S. farther down the road of self-destruction.

Bacevich argues that instead of preparing for more effective engagement in “small wars” we need to devise a nonimperial foreign policy.  Instead of giving top military leaders more power vis-a-vis politicians, we need to find a way to develop and promote skilled leaders instead of the type who have risen in the ranks in the past generation.  And instead of expanding our military with a draft, we need to find ways to transform our professional army into a force for genuine national defense and service to the American republic (as opposed to the American empire).

Bacevich concludes, “American doesn’t need a bigger army.  It needs a smaller–that is, more modest–foreign policy” (169).

This is good stuff. All of us who oppose the Pax Americana should be grateful that Bacevich’s voice has emerged.  At some point down the road, though, after making common cause with people such as Bacevich, the Christian pacifist will recognize the need to part ways. Bacevich, in the end I think, wants to reform the system and create a kindler, gentler superpower that still relies on the power of the sword in furthering its self-interests. I suspect his reformist instincts will ultimately be shattered on the realities that our military-industrial system as its exists will never lend itself to the kind of changes Bacevich would advocate.  Perhaps then he will move further away from the idea that it is possible to have the kind of permanent military infrastructure he seems to envision and still have a functioning and humane democratic society.  Then maybe he will help in dismantling rather than reforming what we presently have.


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1 thought on “Andrew Bacevich. The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

  1. Micheal McEvoy

    I greatly appreciate your posting this. I spent 15 years (1977-1992) in the Marine Corps. I left for severtal reasons, the primary being a growing Conciencious Objection to killing. I saw many midlevel officers (Major, Lt Colonel) who ‘just missed’ the war in Viet Nam and didn’t have ‘those’ ribbons. They were willing to do nearly anything, including getting large numbers of people killed, so they couyd have those ribbons. From a military and political point of view, Bacevich is correct, the leadership is sadly difficient. From an ethical point of view, Bacevich joins Eisenhower and John Kennedy in his realization of the limitations of Imperialism.


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