The End of American Exceptionalism

I had a chance to see Andrew Bacevich deliver a lecture to the students of Deerfield Academy the other night. There was a notice in the paper, but I think I was the only member of the general public to attend.

Maybe it’s one of these old-guy things, but all the students seemed to be enormous. I’m five eleven and a half and even the sixth graders were taller than me. And of course they were all very healthy and well behaved.

Dr. Bacevich began his lecture by describing the view of American history that his students at Boston University bring to his classes — the city on the hill, birthplace of Liberty, spreading freedom around the world.

Then he took it apart in a few well chosen words, describing instead a policy of unbridled expansionism and more recently imperialism. We’ve heard all this for years from hippies in ponytails, but Bacevich is a conservative from a military family who served in Vietnam and lost a son in Iraq.

I’m a big fan of all his books. I give them to my daughter.

His message is we cannot and should not try to impose our values on the world and we should stop thinking about freedom in terms of acquiring stuff cheap. He says expansionism worked astonishingly well for 200 years, but it’s not working anymore.

He says, if I may paraphrase, that we should own up to the fact that we are a debtor nation with an inflated sense of self-importance.

He gave a short synopsis of his new book Limits to Power and took a lot of questions. Often he asked the questioners, “What do you think?”

One student, probably the resident righty, cited the reduced casualties in Iraq as a result of “the surge” as evidence US policy was “working.” Bacevich dusted him politely, saying of course he was glad that fewer soldiers were dying. But he said he would be happier if the number were zero.

Then he said the thousands of lives lost in Iraq have been “squandered,” which is strong language, but entirely appropriate to the situation.

At the end I was sorely tempted to ask a question about the conflict in Palestine, but I decided not to. Deerfield Academy is the one school in the country where students understand the situation there, since King Abdullah of Jordan is an alumnus.

I did get to approach Dr. Bacevich at the end. I asked if he had seen an article in the Atlantic Monthly by Roman Skaskiw, an infanty officer in Iraq and Afghanistan who has written some great articles for GoNOMAD. He hadn’t.

I gave him my card with Roman’s name on the back and the name of the article and he said he would check it out.

In his Atlantic article, Email From Afghanistan, Roman writes, “Just because an endeavor is sprinkled with the blood of good people, that doesn’t make it just, or noble, or even worthwhile.”

Andrew Bacevich and Roman Skaskiw are just what this country needs: a faceful of truth.

Then I asked Dr. Bacevich to sign my book, and to inscribe it to my daughter. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I guess that was a good way of showing how much I admire his work.