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In the months of July and September 1940 the French historian and future resistance fighter Marc Bloch, who fought in World War I and World War II, wrote a short book called L’Étrange Défaite or Strange Defeat. It was a searing condemnation of the French high command and political class which was responsible for the humiliating defeat and disintegration of the French army with the Nazi invasion of France. Bloch, who went underground to fight the Nazi occupiers, was executed by the Gestapo in 1944.
Bloch’s book, published after the war, was the model for historian Andrew Bacevich’s book After the Apocalypse. Bacevich is no less censorious of the political and military class that has led the United States into one debacle after the next since Vietnam, a war he served in as a young officer. He argues they are woefully out of touch with reality, and unable to adapt to a changing world. Unless they are wrenched from power, the twilight of the American empire will be one filled with catastrophe after catastrophe. Andrew Bacevich joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss his book After the Apocalypse.
Andrew Bacevich is a retired army colonel and Emeritus Professor of History and International Relations at Boston University. He is also the cofounder and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Studio: Dwayne Gladden, Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Chris Hedges: In the months of July and September 1940, the French historian and future resistance fighter Marc Bloch, who fought in World War I and World War II, wrote a short book called L’Étrange Défaite or Strange Defeat. It was a searing condemnation of the French High Command and political class, which was responsible for the humiliating defeat and disintegration of the French Army with the Nazi invasion of France. Bloch, who went underground to fight the Nazi occupiers, was executed by the Gestapo in 1944. His book, published after the war, was the model for historian Andrew Bacevich’s own book, After the Apocalypse.
In his book, Bloch wrote, “Our war, up to the very end, was a war of old men or of theorists who were bogged down in errors engendered by the faulty teaching of history. It was saturated by the smell of decay…”
Bacevich is no less censorious of the political and military class that has led the United States into one debacle after the next since Vietnam, a war he served in as a young officer. He argues, “the ruling elites are woefully out of touch with reality, crippled by self-delusion, and unable to adapt to a changing world. Unless they are wrenched from power,” he argues, “the twilight of the American empire will be one that will be filled, especially given our refusal to seriously address climate change, with catastrophe after catastrophe.”
Joining me to discuss his book After the Apocalypse is retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, also an emeritus professor of History and International Relations at Boston University. He is the co-founder and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
So as somebody who writes polemics, I love your book, but very early on you talk about the four horsemen of the apocalypse: rancor, pestilence, want, and fury, comprising our own homemade apocalypse. Just explain, flesh that out.
Andrew Bacevich: Well, I wrote this during the early stages of the Coronavirus pandemic, which was in and of itself, of course, a disturbing event. Not only disturbing in the havoc it wreaked in American society, but also, of course, the ineptitude with which the government authorities responded. But at the same time, evidence of the climate crisis was becoming impossible to ignore. And at the same time, of course, many factors, but primarily the pandemic, were creating enormous damage in the economy, millions of Americans thrown out of work, unable to support themselves. My focus for the past 20 years or so, I guess, has been on the failures of US national security policy, and it just seemed to me that these other events, occurring on top of our abysmal military record, showed that something was fundamentally amiss with our country, and what we imagined ourselves to be and what we actually were. So it was in that mood that I wrote the book.
Chris Hedges: Very early on you talk about Madeleine Albright, and this is a quote that she made on the Today Show. “’If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.’” And then you write, “Four days after Albright spoke, the World Islamic Front proclaimed a ‘Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.’ Co-authored by Osama bin Laden, then an obscure militant Islamist, that document identified the expulsion of US forces from the Arabian Peninsula as a moral imperative requiring the support of Muslims worldwide. Here, beckoned the actual future, one to which Albright and other members of the foreign policy establishment would remain steadfastly oblivious until the World Trade Center collapsed in a pile of smoke, debris, and dust.”
I want to talk about that disconnect, because it’s a constant theme in the book, which I think would go by the name self-delusion on the part of the military and political elite and how disconnected it is from the actual reality they’re confronting.
Andrew Bacevich: Well, maybe I’m a little unfair in singling out Madeleine Albright for treatment in the book, but I do think that she embodied, and that particular infamous quote embodies, a mindset that permeates the political establishment, and really reaches beyond the political establishment into intellectual and media circles. What’s the essence of the view? The essence of the view is that we define the future, that we are called upon to shape the future. And of course, inevitably, to shape it in our own image.
When I state it so baldly, it sounds preposterous. When I state it that way, no significant figure, I think, in our public life is going to say, yeah, that’s what I believe. But regardless of their denials, that is what our elites believe, and their particular reading of history affirms their view that we are the indispensable nation. And that when we use force, it is necessarily pursuant to a righteous cause. And therefore they remain blind to the faults that lead to so much suffering, catastrophe, missed opportunities, that, in my reading, have come to be particularly common over the last 20 or 25 years.
Chris Hedges: Well, as you point out in the book, it’s a very selective use of history, because in order to perpetuate that idea, you have to whitewash or essentially erase huge parts of American history.
Andrew Bacevich: You’re absolutely right. There’s a paradox here, or a contradiction, that I think is difficult to pull apart. On the one hand, it is certainly the case today that American history, as written by professional historians, as studied in our colleges and universities, is a warts and all chronicle. Nothing is hidden, nothing is off limits. And yet, on the other hand, that history, the warts and all history, seems to figure only marginally, if at all, in our politics. And then we much prefer the sanitized version, the heroic version, the version that I think, more than anything else, centers on the way we choose to remember World War II and the way we choose to remember the role that the United States played in World War II. And I phrase it that way because the way we choose to remember is radically at odds with what actually occurred.
Chris Hedges: You have this juxtaposition, which you note in the book, between states like Texas that are removing texts and historical accounts that challenge that kind of mythic narrative. But you also are, I think, disturbed by things like the 1619 Project done by The New York Times. Can you talk about that juxtaposition, those two polar ends?
Andrew Bacevich: Well, I have a bias in favor of historical revisionism. I think revisionism is inevitable. I think it’s essential. I think that the history that we need is a history that reflects our perspective, the perspective of living in the early decades of the 21st century. So in that sense, sign me up for welcoming the 1619 Project. But I just happen to think that the interpretation that the 1619 Project presents is deeply flawed and therefore not particularly helpful. So it’s revisionism of the wrong sort. And in that sense, I think that it actually is a missed opportunity.
Chris Hedges: Expound upon that, revisionism of the wrong sort. What do you mean?
Andrew Bacevich: Here’s my interpretation of the 1619 Project, and I’ll lay it out, granting that it may not be what the people who created this project, undertook this project, what they themselves mean by what they have accomplished. But I take it to mean that the American Story centers on race, that the American story centers on racism. And not for a second would I wish to marginalize the importance of race in our story. But I think to put it at the center of things, and by implication exclude other aspects of our founding and of our national existence, I think it goes too far and therefore is not helpful.
Now, I guess my critique, if we want to call it that, is informed by my own contemporary concerns. I have come to believe, particularly, I think, since the end of the Cold War, that there is no operative definition of the common good to which we as Americans subscribe. And I think that absence is, in many respects, at the root of why our democracy has deteriorated so badly. Again, roughly since the end of the Cold War. And I fear that the interpretation of the 1619 Project of our past simply will reinforce that. I mean, my bottom line is, unless we can recover some shared understanding of the common good, then American democracy may well be doomed. I’m not predicting that. I just fear that.
Chris Hedges: To be fair to the disenfranchised, which were not just African Americans, but Native Americans, women, men without property, the common good as it was conceived of at the inception of the nation didn’t apply to them.
Andrew Bacevich: Oh, I’m with you. My argument is not, let’s roll back to the traditional story of these white guys gathered in independence in December of 1776 declaring that all men are created equal. I think that it’s complicated. It’s necessary to acknowledge the complications. It’s not useful to eliminate one set of distortions by then embracing another set of distortions.
Chris Hedges: We’ll do another show on that. I want to ask you about, I thought you made some really great points in this book, but one of them for me that was particularly interesting was how you write the Trump presidency signified the final demise of what you call “the New Order”. And you talked about the crazy conspiratorial right wing as embracing a heresy that terrified the established elites, the Bidens, the Clintons, the Bushes, and everyone else. Can you explain that?
Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think in simplest terms, it’s the heresy of America first. This goes back again to World War II, more specifically to the origins of US involvement in World War II, the great debate that occurred over a period of a couple years prior to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. That debate centered on whether or not the United States should intervene in the European war, specifically on behalf of Great Britain, which, after the fall of France that we alluded to early on, stood alone against Hitler’s Third Reich.
That debate occurred at a pivotal moment of US history and resonated for decades after that. And the prevailing interpretation among historians, within most of the political establishment – There were some individuals on the right and on the left that dissented, but certainly the consensus was that the interventionist camp was correct and the anti-interventionist camp, the America firsters, were profoundly wrong.
And that contention was the basis of post-war American internationalism, formed the cornerstone of the rationale for US policy during the Cold War, and by extension provided the rationale for the creation of the national security state, for the pattern of interventionism that became such an important part of US foreign policy in the 1950s, ’60s, and so on.
And Donald Trump runs for the presidency and he says, that’s all a lie. That’s all wrong. That what ought to be the basis of US policy is America first. This is, in the eyes of the establishment, a profound heresy, denying the truth of US intervention in World War II and of the pattern of so-called global leadership that continued beyond that. So to identify with the anti-interventionists of the pre-World War II period was simply an unforgivable mortal sin. And I think that accounts, at least in part, for the savage response of the establishment to the Trump candidacy. Let me concede, quickly, that he was a liar, a fraud, a scoundrel, corrupt, and should never have been elected president. No doubt about it. But I think, in many respects, it was his belief – His professed belief, who knows what he really thought – His professed belief in America first that put him beyond the bounds of respectability for the American political establishment.
Chris Hedges: Well, he also called out the debacles that in the name of national security had been perpetrated from Vietnam to the Middle East to everywhere else for what they were. And then, as you quote in the book, he’s interviewed at one point about Putin, and the interviewer says, well, Putin was a killer. And Trump says, well, there are a lot of killers. We’re not so innocent. So it was even beyond America first. It was, I think, naming a truth of the litany of disasters that had been perpetrated in the name of national security for decades.
Andrew Bacevich: Yes. And insisting, in his semi-incoherent way, that those failures deserve to be taken seriously. What I mean by that is I don’t think anybody, whether it would be Madeleine Albright or any other significant figure in the American establishment, is going to say that the United States, since it became the sole superpower, is blameless. There are few people who are going to say that the Vietnam War was a righteous cause and that it was competently conducted.
So members of the establishment will say, well, yes, there were certain things that didn’t quite turn out as we expected, but they will continue. Those miscues, failures, errors of judgment, don’t really matter. What matters is the historical mission that we have, as we the nation, the United States, the historical mission that we have been summoned to fulfill. And even if not everything has gone well, we must continue to pursue that mission. That is our calling. That is really the cornerstone of American exceptionalism. And in that sense, the critique doesn’t matter.
I want to go back to the 1619 thing very briefly. I actually believe that 10 years from now, not that the 1619 Project will be forgotten or that its efforts will have been to no avail, but nonetheless, my guess is that the patriotic narrative will have been restored, and that the events of July 1776 in Pennsylvania will once again drive the narrative. I don’t say that because I want it to happen. I just think that the desire to see ourselves as exceptional, as unique, as called upon by providence to perform a special mission, I think it’s kind of hardwired into our being. And, sadly, it’s likely to persist.
Chris Hedges: Well because it’s a form of self-adulation.
Andrew Bacevich: It certainly is.
Chris Hedges: And it dispenses with any kind of critical thinking. There’s so much in the book. I do have to just touch on Huntington, because I had to live through that as a foreign correspondent, and you nailed him. You said, this is the clash of civilizations, “Professor Huntington published an essay that future scholars are likely to classify among the urtexts signaling the coming demise of American primacy.” You said, “It cast a pernicious spell and underwrote the abandonment of reason.” And as somebody who spent seven years in the Middle East, that is so completely correct, but it did essentially give an ideological veneer to this. It was bought. I can remember diplomats being almost giddy about this. And just speak briefly about that.
Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think the broader point is that ostensibly sophisticated people, men and women of the world, are remarkably taken in by the latest intellectual fashion. And I think you’re right. When he published – Remember the argument initially came out as an essay in Foreign Affairs, was subsequently expanded into a book, but it was the Foreign Affairs essay that I think grabbed the attention of the policy community and seemed to provide a fundamental answer to the question, now that the Cold War has ended, how are we to understand the composition of the world? Huntington gave an answer. I’ll offend my political science friends by saying that because he was a political scientist, it was a greatly oversimplified answer, but one that was superficially satisfying, and told the American political elites what they wanted to hear. And enabled us to begin gearing up for the next set of challenges.
Chris Hedges: It was a cartoon vision of the world, especially of the Middle East. The conflicts within the Middle East were internal. I covered the Kurds, I covered the Shia. I was actually in Basra during the Shiite uprising. For those of us who were on the ground in the Middle East, it was stunningly ridiculous. And you’re right, but it was embraced.
Andrew Bacevich: Well, let me turn the tables on you. From the perspective of a foreign correspondent, that is to say with an on the ground perspective, why do you think the argument had such a powerful impact?
Chris Hedges: Because essentially, I mean, this goes to Marx. It was an ideology that justified military adventurism and corporate capitalism and exploitation, and it really wasn’t that different from The White Man’s Burden, in essence. And it was just as simplistic and just as stupid. But, essentially, I think most people think in cliches, and it was very cliche ridden, and those cliches justified what the powerful wanted to do. I think that’s why.
Andrew Bacevich: Well, that strikes me as correct. And the Cold War, the framing of the Cold War, relied on cliches, relied on dumbing down complex realities, and dumbing them down with a specific purpose in mind: to sustain the use of American power, the gathering up of American power. You’re talking about the Middle East, as we speak. I’m thinking more of Vietnam and the arguments constructed to justify massive US military intervention in a country that really wasn’t a country, that was of minimal interest to the United States of America, and where we lost 58,000 Americans and killed a couple of million other people and then walked away. I mean, it’s enough to make you weep, even all these years later.
Chris Hedges: You say, “Consider the West the contemporary equivalent of the Holy Roman Empire that Americans of my generation once encountered in junior high world history courses. Long after events drained out of substance, the carcass of the Holy Roman Empire lingered, even if, in Voltaire’s words, it was ‘neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.’ The same can be said of the West.” What you’re talking about is a kind of edifice, almost a Potemkin village, that behind the walls there’s nothing there. Is that where we are?
Andrew Bacevich: Well, I tend to think so, but let’s acknowledge that when I wrote those words, I certainly didn’t anticipate that there would be a war in Ukraine in 2022. That war is ongoing as you and I speak. And it would appear, at least in immediate sense, that that war has given the West, more specifically NATO, a new life. Now, I think that there is something of a fraud being perpetrated here.
A couple points on the Ukraine war. First of all, there’s no question that this is an act of criminal aggression engineered by Vladimir Putin. There’s no excusing that. Secondly, it’s entirely appropriate for other nations to include the United States to provide wherewithal to Ukraine, to enable Ukraine, the Ukrainians, to defend themselves. But third, this war was avoidable. There were opportunities for a diplomatic settlement that would have, yes, provided for security guarantees to Russia, and yet also would have potentially enabled Ukraine to maintain its independence without this horrible confrontation which is still unfolding.
That confrontation has now created this rallying cry in the West. The Germans agreeing that they need to spend more on their military. Nations like Sweden and Finland petitioning to join NATO. And so I think we have the appearance of a rejuvenation of the West triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Well, my bet is that when this war ends, and it will end, that that rejuvenation will quickly disappear. And when it does, then I think we can begin, we the United States, can begin to return to the question of what does define the world order in which we must play a part, in which we must be participants?
And I think that the answer is going to be this notion of a West, a Western civilization, of Western values, providing the basis for uniting Western countries into some sort of a bloc that represents liberalism, exalted values. I think we’re going to find that that was already eroding and it’s never going to come back. So what I argue in the book is it’s preposterous to say that we’re part of the West. If you acknowledge the extent to which the United States of America has become a multicultural nation where our people come from Latin America and from Asia and from Africa, the notion that we are somehow still tied to the so-called Mother Country, England, Great Britain, is really preposterous. But it’s just going to take us a while to outgrow that, I think.
Chris Hedges: Well, people have to read the book. You’re a great historian and a great writer, and you do a pretty good job of taking down our fascination with the royals and illusions about Great Britain.
I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivera. You can find me at chrisedges.substack.com.