- - Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Andrew Bacevich — soldier and scholar, professor emeritus at Boston University, graduate of both West Point and Princeton University, and author of several thoughtful, non-dogmatic books, including “The Limits of Power: America’s War for the Greater Middle East” and “Twilight of the American Century” — is an observant critic of past mistakes and their consequences. This makes his latest work, a slim volume on the weighty subject of the end of the Cold War and its aftermath, worth reading whether you agree with all of his conclusions or not.

“Ours is a nation that is coming apart at the seams,” he writes. “The ‘mystic chords of memory’ to which Abraham Lincoln once referred are stretched ever thinner. Indeed, smartphones, Google, and Facebook make memory itself seem superfluous.” Striking words, but a little less alarming when we remember that Lincoln’s America had plunged into a bloody civil war pitting brother against brother and fueling hatreds that still smolder beneath the surface.

If ever there was a time when our nation was “coming apart at the scenes,” it was in Lincoln’s day, not ours. On the other hand, it is quite true that historic memory, a knowledge of shared values and progress, and many other “mystic chords” grow weaker by the day in a society where machines do so much of our remembering — and thinking — for us. This is especially true at a time when an all-pervading popular culture undercuts rather than reinforces shared values and mores. 

Rudyard Kipling, who comes in for a few jibes from Mr. Bacevich as the exponent of an earlier English-speaking super power, understood the importance of a societal ideal, a shared dream that could unify and inspire even if it could never be fully realized, when he wrote:

“If England was what England seems,/‘An’ not the England of our dreams,

“But only putty, brass and paint,/‘Ow quick we’d drop her! But she ain’t!”

Prosperity, like poverty, is always uneven. It will inevitably be a source of resentment to some, especially when they are encouraged to blame their own problems on others. Mr. Bacevich seems to have concluded that the illusions in his title began long before the end of the Cold War, that contradictions in parts of American life — not to mention human nature — render the whole American experience, sometimes idealized as the American Dream, illusory, if not fraudulent.

In an imperfect world, all systems are imperfect. But some are essentially sound while others are essentially unsound, even downright evil. The end of the Cold War marked the downfall of one of the most evil systems of all: Marxist Leninism, preceded in death by its equally evil counterpart, Nazism. In a way, it was actually the successful conclusion of a much longer struggle that had begun in the upheaval of World War I, festered in the inter-war years, resulted in the emergence of criminal regimes under Stalin in the USSR and Hitler in Germany, led to World War II, and then transitioned into the Cold War.

That marathon struggle ended when the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Empire collapsed, and conventional political and strategic thinkers found themselves in unmapped territory for the first time since the “guns of August” ushered in World War I and the end of the old European order.

In a meeting at Key Largo in April of 1990, French President Francois Mitterrand seems to have understood this better than the senior President Bush:

MITTERRAND: I’d like to know what we’re really talking about. If the American leaders would spell out what they mean by “the political role of NATO” everything would be a lot easier …

BUSH [struggling]: Well, in a political situation that has changed, NATO’s role will be different. Not just military, but more political … NATO will have to change gear … to get us through the critical period. We don’t know who the enemy is anymore. 

MITTERRAND [silkily]: Yes, it’s a nuisance not having an enemy.

America should avoid all but the most necessary military interventions abroad. The runaway cost and power of the state — both military and civilian — need constant pruning. But the momentary “nuisance” of not having an enemy has come and gone, especially in the world’s sea lanes. This is particularly true in the Pacific, where China’s massive build-up and projection of maritime power is reminiscent of Germany’s naval expansion on the eve of World War I.   

Andrew Bacevich makes a number of valid points about the over-extension of American power. But there are times when he advances his own argument a bridge too far.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

• • •


By Andrew J. Bacevich

Metropolitan Books, $27, 236 pages

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