Boston University history professor and retired U.S. Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich. (Courtesy of Boston University Photography)
Boston University history professor and retired U.S. Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich. (Courtesy of Boston University Photography)

Earlier this year Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, delivered the George C. Marshall Lecture on Military History (sponsored by the George C. Marshall Foundation and the Society for Military History) at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. In his lecture Bacevich explored the effects of the widespread American belief—based largely on the nation’s experience of World War II—in the efficacy of war. Affirming that history “must speak to the present,” he offered an alternative interpretation of the lessons of 20th century wars.

‘The two world wars do not provide especially useful reference points for our 21st century challenges’

What 20th century events led Americans to believe in the efficacy of war?
Above all, World War II. A particular interpretation of that event remains lodged in our consciousness: The war was bad news for the world but, on balance, good news for America.

What important lessons have Americans drawn from that war?
The key lesson—which I think has been overused and abused—is the lesson of Munich: In the face of perceived aggression, resistance is imperative. And the more quickly you resist, the more likely you’ll be able to manage or minimize the consequences. But I think in the 21st century events like Munich and the Holocaust cannot be the exclusive or overriding sources of historical lessons. My argument is not to disregard those commonplace lessons of the 20th century, but to expand the menu: Other insights are likely to be far more useful in helping us chart a sensible way forward.

Why do you believe it’s time to rethink the lessons of 20th century conflicts?
We’ve allowed U.S. foreign policy to become excessively militarized; since the end of the Cold War we have misunderstood and misused the military instrument. This tendency persists—despite abundant evidence it doesn’t work—in considerable part because we have fundamentally misunderstood the 20th century and neglected the parts of the story that matter most.

What is your view of those conflicts?
I describe the commonly accepted narrative of that period as the “short 20th century,” a triumphal story, beginning in 1914 and ending in 1989, from which the United States emerged as the sole superpower. I contrast that with the “long 20th century,” also beginning in 1914, but continuing to the present with no end in sight. It’s a deeply problematic story of Western nations attempting, through the concerted use of hard power, to determine the course of events in the Islamic world. Since 9/11 that has come to be the defining theme of U.S. foreign policy. But it’s not working and will not work.

If we place the “long 20th century” alongside the narrative of the “short 20th century,” we can begin to see how far off a sensible course we have drifted. The two world wars do not provide especially useful reference points for our 21st century challenges. The notion that the forceful application of military power can quickly translate into favorable political outcomes is just not sustained by the history of events in the Middle East.

What are the valuable lessons of the “long 20th century” view?
One reason to take the “long 20th century” seriously is that it strips away the illusory moral veneer of international politics. I emphatically concede that World War II, especially in Europe, was a war of good against evil. The good was flawed and imperfect, but the evil was evil indeed. But in that war of good against evil, the good guys made common cause with yet another evil in order to prevail. There is a moral ambiguity surrounding the Grand Alliance—the United States, Great Britain and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union—that ought at the very least make us uncomfortable. The so-called “good war” was not as neat and tidy as we like to remember.

When it comes to the narrative of the “long 20th century,” moral considerations have almost always taken a back seat. With rare exceptions, it has been a competition for power, with ideals figuring as an afterthought, if at all. That’s a sobering reality we would do well to acknowledge.

Why does the “long 20th century” narrative center on the Middle East?
The “short 20th century” was about a competition among great powers to determine who would dominate Eurasia. The competition to determine who will dominate the greater Middle East has pitted great powers against one another. But it’s also been a game of outsiders against insiders, an imperial enterprise in which moral considerations, for all practical purposes, don’t exist. The U.S. has been attempting to create its own version of empire in the Islamic world. My view is that the events of the past decade strongly suggest we won’t be able to achieve our stated aims there. Therefore, we need to either redefine those aims or devise methods other than war to achieve them.

What is America’s interest there?
The United States has not coveted a formal empire in the Islamic world as Great Britain did in the latter part of the 19th century. Back then the region’s significance was primarily geographic, symbolized by the Suez Canal. Oil was not a driving consideration, but 100 years later it is. Of course, during the Cold War we were also concerned about keeping the Soviets out of the region. And more recently we’ve persuaded ourselves that we are engaged in spreading democracy and advancing human rights. Yet at root U.S. policy represents an imperialism of a sort, even if our version does not emphasize the direct rule over subject peoples.

Should the United States ever employ military power where it has no national interest?
My view is that we ought to use force as a last resort, when vital national security interests are at stake. There is that little asterisk, however, that acknowledges there can be circumstances that are so horrific that we need to act, or we won’t be able to look at ourselves in the mirror. There are horrible events that simply cannot be tolerated.

You believe “humanitarian intervention” is acceptable?
On occasion. But even then we should be clear that it has costs. Americans are going to have their lives in jeopardy, and some are probably going to get killed—probably not the sons and daughters of those who are keen to intervene.

Is there such a thing as a righteous war?
I would shy away from the term “righteous.” I think that all wars, in a very real sense, are evil, that they brutalize, that innocents inevitably suffer. The notion that war can be controlled is an illusion, one to which people in Washington seem especially susceptible. Events have a way of taking over. Consequences are utterly unpredictable. The older I get, the more I think that one should be very wary of war in general and treat it with great respect.

But I am not a pacifist. I know there are times when force is the only alternative. And there, I tend to look to the “just war” tradition that emerged out of Christian thinking as a set of guidelines useful for evaluating not only whether a particular conflict is morally justified, but also whether it makes sense. The just war tradition possesses a utility beyond the moral realm.

Has America always seen its armed conflicts through a moral lens?
No, I don’t think so. Until the post–World War II era we were simultaneously bellicose and antimilitary. We were skeptical of standing armies, we didn’t want to pay for maintaining a big military establishment, and we didn’t hold soldiers in particularly high regard, especially in peacetime. Yet when we wanted something badly enough, we didn’t hesitate to use force to get it—the Mexican War of 1846–48 and the Spanish-American War of 1898 are very good examples. A huge change in our attitude toward military power occurred after World War II and again in the wake of the Cold War.