About Andrew Bacevich
Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, he received his PhD in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University. Before joining the faculty of Boston University, he taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins. Retired career officer in the Armor Branch of the United States Army, retiring with the rank of colonel.
Bacevich is the author of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (2010). His previous books include The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008); The Long War: A New History of US National Security Policy since World War II (2007) (editor); The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005); and American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U. S. Diplomacy (2002). His essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of scholarly and general interest publications including The Wilson Quarterly, The National Interest, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Nation, and The New Republic. His op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Boston Globe, and Los Angeles Times, among other newspapers. He is also the editor of a volume entitled The Short American Century: A Post-mortem, which was published in 2012. His newest book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, will be published in 2013.
In 2004, Dr. Bacevich was a Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. He has also held fellowships at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Lesson 1: The historian’s duty is to REVISE history. 01m 24s.
Lesson 2: Thinking of yourself or your country as exceptional is the Big Lie that imprisons you. 08m 38s.
Lesson 3: War is Uncontrollable 17m:45s.
Lesson 4: To fear ideology is irrational. 21m 48s.
Lesson 5: Never feel sorry for the people in charge. 26m 56s.
Lesson 6: Greatest sin of all: lack of empathy for others 30m 48s.
Lesson 7: Ambition CAUSES blindness. 33m 15s.
Lesson 8: Social media is inherently evil. 36m 37s.
Lesson 9: Money can’t buy you love. 39m 39s.
Lesson 10: Want to stay married? Take long walks together. 43m 25s.
Duff Watkins: [00:00:00] Hello, welcome to the podcast 10 Lessons it Took 50 Years to Learn where we dispense wisdom, not just cliches, but if you or your banalities for an international audience, of rising leaders. My name is Duff Watkins and I’m your host. Our guest today is professor emeritus of Boston University Andrew Bacevich welcome, Andrew. Welcome to the show.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:00:23] Thanks very much.
Duff Watkins: [00:00:24] Now I want to say to the listeners, professor Bacevich is an expert in military history and international relations, but he’s not some of armchair academic guy sitting in an ivy, hall mailing it in because I know Andrew, you were, you’re a graduate of the military Academy of the United States West Point, which is no mean achievement in and of itself.
You were a career military officer, you worked overseas, you’ve been in combat. You have. You have walked the talk, you retired as a Colonel, so you’re not some sort of armchair academic is what I’m trying to say. And you are, this is my favourite description of new. You are described as a persistent vocal critic of the United States.
And to which I thought, well, I should hope so because you actually know where whereof you speak about these things All right. We won’t, we won’t talk about politics so much. We want to really talk about wisdom. So, let’s talk about the very first lesson. You’re an American historian. Lesson number one, the historian’s duty is to revise history. Wait a minute. I thought the historian’s job was to record history.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:01:28] Well, I my first serious encounter with history was when I went to graduate school. This is back in the middle of the 1970s. I was a serving army officer. The army sent me to graduate school to prepare me, to teach history at West point for a couple of years.
And I must say that when I showed up in the Princeton campus, I thought that history was something that you memorized. No. I figured that all I needed to do to get my degree was to, you know, read it a handful of books and absorb what they said, you know, why did the civil war occur? And, and then to regurgitate that for my cadets, when I became a teacher, what I found was something quite different.
And that is history really is an argument. Each generation poses, its own questions. Of the past, to the past questions that each generation deemed to be relevant to contemporary concerns. And therefore each, each generation ought to come up with its with its own answers with regard to what history means.
I think we are experiencing that today in, in a very vivid way. And that has to do with the place of racism as part of our collective story, part of, part of American history. When I was going to go to graduate school, the historical profession that the professors did I studied with, who taught me were in the process I think of coming to a revised understanding of how race fit into the larger narrative. And I must tell you given my upbringing at that time, I don’t think I was particularly responsive to the new questions and that they were asking and the new answers that they were coming up with regard to race. You know, 40 or so years later, I can understand that those questions were necessary.
And I may not agree with all of the I agree with the way we have come to interpret the place of race in American history, but I think it’s been invaluable. So again, the questions change, the answers change. And I think what makes history exciting is that it ends up being a never-ending argument, not necessarily the way the public sees history.
But I think the way the public ought to see history.
Duff Watkins: [00:04:06] So I guess my takeaway from that is the history is continually being reinterpreted, but also, we experienced, I think somebody said the past as we experienced is, not even the past, you know, it’s the present really?
Andrew Bacevich: [00:04:18] Right. I think that’s exactly right.
I mean, I read an article over the weekend, an essay by a historian teaching at Oxford. What’s his name? Martin Conway never heard of the guy before Conway. The point of Conway’s argument of his, of his essay was to argue that, to argue about the meaning of the Trump phenomenon. I think there’s a tendency among not all Americans, many Americans sort of breathe a sigh of relief.
That, that Trump is out of office that our, our new president is restoring a sense of normalcy. To American politics Biden is a very conventional politician, middle of the road guy. He is a senior citizen who I mean not to be unfair but doesn’t seem likely to really shake things up too much.
And I think for many Americans after Trump does just what they want. But this guy is arguing. Is that the significance of Trump lies not in anything that he did any policy decisions that he made? The significance of Trump is the fact that we elected him. Yes. If the American people chose this, what should we say?
Non-politician unqualified for high office, either by experience or by temperament. And what he’s suggesting is that the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the fact that he got 74 million votes in 2020 is suggestive of a change in the American people. Where in a sense, the American people are now posing new questions about the past and looking for new answers.
The upshot is he argues. That history, as we know it, call it the history of the 20th century, that that history has ended that we are not, we have now embarked upon a new historical era, which we don’t come remotely close to understanding. But he argues to, to maintain the pretence that the history of the 20th century, as we understand it is still legitimate or valid is going to lead to enormous disappointment.
So the charge is to embark upon an inquiry as to what, what is the content or meaning of this new historical era? It’s fascinating piece. And I, and, and obviously reinforces my own my own biases.
Duff Watkins: [00:06:54] I’ve heard some of this before, because I just finished your, I believe it’s your most recent book? The Age of Illusions now, readers, listeners.
I want to say. Years ago, I read an article, one of your articles in the Atlantic, New York times, Washington post. So, I called it this mate of mine in North Carolina. I said, I just read this interesting article. I got to send it to you. And he said, yeah, I, I read Bacevich’s stuff all the time. So, then I bought one book, two books, three books.
I read several of your books most recently, The Age of Illusions. And I want to say. Readers, listeners you want to check out Andrew’s books because one, the really thin they don’t take forever to read. They’re very cogent, very lucid, every word counts. And I find myself agreeing with the analysis over and over again.
And when I did and it sure as hell made me think. So, I mean, that is a great, if you’re not really into history, you will be when you read some of Andrew’s books, The Age of Illusions is the one that I just finished and. Back to your point. It’s difficult to bring on the old paradigm of the past history because we’re living in a new age and we’re living in it.
So, we don’t have it, the reference, the old reference points no longer hold or pertain so much. Okay. Yeah.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:08:03] And we have no new reference points yet to replace them with.
Duff Watkins: [00:08:06] Yes. Yes. And you know, to your point, personally, which shocked me, I’ve lived outside the U S for 40 years, but the fact that a guy like Donald Trump would be regarded as a leader in the American, by the American public is what astonished me in 2016. Now, I suppose I’m over it. I’ve adjusted that paradigm. That’s the way it is. And we won’t talk politics. We’re talking more wisdom, but still the point is it’s a paradigm shift or it’s a shift in something.
Right. Okay. That takes us to point number two, thinking of yourself or your country as exceptional is the big lie that imprisons you. now, you’re going to get a lot of trouble in the U S if you say that I got to tell you, because you know, American exceptionalism is a religion over there, and you sound like a heretic.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:08:51] Well, it is heresy I think actually the second, the second topic, I think Follows on from the first. So, I was born in 1947, right after world war two, both my parents, world war II, veterans and proud conservative Catholic family, still a Catholic, both my parents, especially my mom, deeply patriotic, God bless her soul, but I have to say in retrospect, from my perspective uncritically patriotic, her history, my dad’s too, but in particular, my mom’s.
Her history centred on world war II. That was the, the fountain from which so much of her understanding of the world flowed and it was a heroic story, and I don’t want to come across a …. It was a heroic story. I happened to be reading just now I’d seen the movie, but I never read the book.
Cornelius, Ryan’s famous history of D day, the longest day. I can’t say that I’m learning anything that I didn’t know, but by golly, am I being reminded of the courage of the GI’s who embarked upon that treacherous undertaking. It paid an important contribution to the liberation of Western Europe and to the creation of the post-war world that I grew up in on the other hand, guess what?
The Soviets killed a hell of a lot more Germans than we did. The Soviets Joseph Stalin probably killed about as many people murdered about as many people as Adolf Hitler did. Stalin was in fighting for liberalism and democracy and freedom. No, but he was a crucial ally. So American exceptionalism tends to want to frame world war II as a liberating event.
Where America stepped forth from the Western hemisphere to save civilization. That’s the way my mom viewed it. That’s what I viewed it growing up. And that is a sort of narrative that then underwrites the claims of American exceptionalism. Who else? Who else would do what we did and coming to the aid of Great Britain and then liberating Western Europe?
And if all you know about history that then American exceptionalism is pretty easy to buy into, but guess what? As my little foray into re reminding about the Soviet it’s a lot more complicated than that. And the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to believe that the effects of American exceptionalism on us are pernicious.
And I think we saw that with enormous clarity in the wake of nine 11. You remember treacherous, murderous act, you know, we didn’t deserve it. We didn’t ask for it. George W. Bush, you know, who would want it to be George W. Bush on the evening of September 11th, 2001. When you have to go on television, you have to explain to the American people what happened on your watch and what now you intend to do about it.
He too, was not prepared to be president. What was his response? His response framed over the next few weeks was to embark upon a global war on terrorism against an axis of evil. Axis of evil compared to the axis of the early 1940s promises to eliminate explicit promises. To eliminate evil from the face of the earth, explicit promises to not only eliminate the terrorism, but to bring about the trends nation of the middle East spreading liberalism and democracy.
And that became a that became the argument in favour of going to war in specifically launching the Iraq war of 2003. In other words, what, what, what framed the Iraq war was less serious, thoughtful, strategic planning. It was ideology. It was the ideology of American exceptionalism.
Duff Watkins: [00:12:57] It was a conceit, a fabulous conceit.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:13:00] To my mind the result was catastrophe. Yeah. Yeah. It, to some degree, the result was Donald Trump. I mean, I, you know, people voted for Donald Trump for all kinds of reasons, but in, in my judgment, one of those reasons was that a large number of Americans were sick, tired of the Wars that had been undertaken pursuant to this global war on terrorism.
So, an argument to be made that American exceptionalism served us well for a time. You know, if you look at the Mexican war of 1846, 1848, Mexican war was a war of aggression by the United States that were directed against the Republic of Mexico, justified by claims of manifests destiny. That is to say some kind of a providential claim that it was incumbent upon us to spread freedom out to the Pacific coast. So we go to war with Mexico, we take California, we confirm the annexation of Texas. We, we, we bring the Southwest into the union. I don’t regret that. I don’t feel bad that we basically stole California from Mexico. I don’t buy the justification of manifest destiny any longer.
But I have to say that if you’re looking for, how, how is it that the United States of America created in 1776, small weak kind of huddled along the Atlantic coast? How do we get from there to 1945 to become the richest and most powerful nation on the planet? American exceptionalism. Used for example, in the Mexican war provided an explanation for how all that happened.
The problem in my mind, it is okay. It’s kind of goes back to we’re now living in a new history. So here we are in 2021, it’s not clear to me that the claims of American exceptionalism remain valid or, or, or perhaps more to the point that remain useful to us that we need to come to a different understanding of who we are as a people, as a nation, in order to, to accommodate a new reality.
After the cold war, there was a lot of talk about, you know, a unipolar moment. There’s only one superpower that history had quote, unquote ended. There was no alternative to American style, liberal democracy. I mean, I’m being sarcastic as I say it, but the truth is for a time. Those ideas were taken very, very seriously.
Duff Watkins: [00:15:32] They were.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:15:32] Well, they were wrong. They were incorrect. And therefore, now is a different perspective. So, it’s in that sense that I think if you buy into something like American exceptionalism, it makes it more difficult to understand, you know, who we are, where we are, where we need to go next as a nation.
Duff Watkins: [00:15:52] Hmm. Hmm. It is. For me, I just can’t find the evidence for it anymore. I mean, like you, I come from a military family, you were an army guy. I was, I was born in U S Marine base. My father is a us Marine. I raised in the us Marine town, U S Marines, buried my father have an affinity for the U S Marines.
But that was, then this is now like you, I believed everything. I was told didn’t until I stepped outside the country. And started seeing and observing. So now I just look at the evidence for American exceptions and can’t find it. Americans are great at manufacturing. Their own myths is what I have observed many times.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:16:25] Oh yeah. Yeah. I don’t think we’re unique in that regard. No, no. You know, I mean, do the Swiss have myths about themselves? Maybe so. And it doesn’t matter because Switzerland is not throwing its weight around as a major actor on the on the global stage. So, the, the negative implications of us buying into a false sense of who we are.
Can cause great harm to ourselves and great harm to others. And again, I look at the narrative, the military narrative of post nine 11, we did great harm to ourselves and great harm to others.
Duff Watkins: [00:17:03] That’s it. It’s the false sense of self that leads to self-harm and not in the long-term, but in the short term here and now, and also in the long term.
That’s my takeaway from, well, let’s stick with the military thing and point number four war for me, point number three, war is uncontrollable. I was going to say doesn’t everybody know that, but would actually, what I want to say to most people, especially young people. I think they believe war is a goddamn video game.
You’ve seen the reality. You wouldn’t know what it’s like. You’ve been there. You’ve seen it stuff explode. I mean, and people die. It’s. H, how do you, how do you convey that to somebody?
Andrew Bacevich: [00:17:45] Well, you’re making a good point. I mean, if, if one’s conception of war is a video game, you know, can’t conveying a sense of truth about war becomes very, very difficult.
Back when I was teaching, I used to teach courses in military history. And I, I think one of the things I was trying to do was to convey a sense of how, you know, once, once the, once the political decision makers say go, uncertainty takes over a chance, takes over. It becomes very difficult to project. The course that I did a war is going to take.
And I don’t want to keep talking about the Iraq war, but again, a good example, illustrative example, where. We undertook this war to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime. We knew Saddam was a, not particularly popular ruthless dictator, but we knew his army was weak. We’d beat up his army back in 1991.
Whole country been under severe sanctions ever since. So, the task, the military task of overthrowing sit down was not expected to be all that difficult. And it wasn’t all that difficult. The problem happened with what happened next. The, the uncontrollable part of the war happened when both senior us commanders and American politicians thought that the war was over, it was supposed to end.
With the, with the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. Instead, what we got was a civil war compounded by an insurgency with us forces struggling to impose a sense of order. Finding the truth, finding themselves called upon to fight a war radically different from the war they had expected.
They expected a war of, you know, tanks and fighter planes against organized formations that had their own tanks and fighter planes. But we ended up fighting insurgents. I mean the physical environment was radically different from Southeast Asia. But the nature of the war resembled the war that we fought in Southeast Asia, back in the 1960s and into the 1970s.
And we learn them too. We’re not perfect. We U S U S forces and they’re particularly adept at dealing with insurgencies. So, you know, there is a tendency in some quarters, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily young people today. And these are people. These are in terms of political labels. It’s people underwrite, it’s people on the left and on the left.
It’s the humanitarians, it’s terrible things going on right now in Myanmar. And there will inevitably somebody, we need to intervene there in Myanmar. We need to collaborate the Burmese army. We need to put a democratic order in place and fix this. It turns out to be a lot harder than that. So, I just think it’s one of those when, when you’re, when you’re, when you’re, when you become a grownup on you’re, you’re, you’re trying to understand that the difference between what, even a powerful nation like ours can do.
And what it should refrain from doing. It seems to me that what’s important is to be very wary of war don’t, kid, yourself. That war is going to provide a cheap and easy solution to a complex problem. There are times when war is necessary. But I think that the, the, the prudent statesman recognizes that those, those situations, those circumstances don’t occur all the time.
So that’s the point of that?
Duff Watkins: [00:21:18] Point number four to fear ideology is irrational.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:21:22] So when I was growing up talking 1950s, America, I was there early cold war. Clearly defined demarcation between our side and their side world against the slave world. What are the things that made them side dangerous? Was it they had a different belief system?
What do we want to call it? Communism. Marxism Leninism in China. Maoism as opposed to liberal democracy. Or more, more simply freedom on our side.
Duff Watkins: [00:21:56] Sounds better.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:21:57] So I very much, I pretty much grew up in a, in a, in a environment in which Marxism, the belief system was considered dangerous. I remember when I, when I was growing up and this is you know, I was probably like five- or six-years old people had radios on.
And you begin to just barely beginning to interpret what the news was about and the and the news people would talk about communism a lot. And I remember that my, at first, I thought communism was probably a disease. It was something that if you, if you caught it, you are going to get very, very, very sick.
Took me a while to figure out it wasn’t a disease. You know, it was it was an ideology. It was perspective as a set of ideas. But I recall the anecdote because it, it, it is remaining a reminder to me that I don’t think ideas are dangerous. I think it, maybe it’s, what’s dangerous is to be persuaded that.
Your ideas, you know, that the American ideas are definitive are right for us and a right for them a right. For all times. So here, you know, here we are that I w I would say that today, there’s an interesting theme in American politics where this is maybe the birdie Bernie Sanders camp. That’s a flirtation with socialism, not with Marxism-Leninism, you know, not with getting, but it’s, you know, people now maybe social, maybe there’s something to be said for socialism.
Here we are a country that. In the aggregate level. We’re rich. We have enormous poverty, enormous inequality and people, well like Bernie Sanders and others in his, in the progressive camp. I guess we choose to know maybe, maybe there’s something to social media that we should consider back in the 1950s.
You, if you said socialism, you’d be branding yourself. A communist. So, I think, I mean, I’m, I myself have come to be, I’m not a socialist, but I have come to be a lot more willing. To learn about consider the possibility of ideological alternatives or maybe to put it this way. I’m no longer persuaded that there is a one size fits all ideology.
You know, I, I don’t, I don’t approve of nobody’s asked me to approve of the communist party’s rule in the people’s Republic of China. I recognize that it’s an authoritarian government. I recognize that the Chinese people denied all kinds of freedoms that I cherish. I get as upset as anybody else. When we see the kind of a repression that occurs in Hong Kong when young Chinese in particular demonstrate on behalf of their freedom.
All of that said I’m not persuaded at this point. The United States of America from an ideological perspective has the answer for China. If they would only embrace our ideology, our values, that all would be well. I’m more inclined to say, well, you know, maybe China’s a different place than the United States. Maybe they need to be able to follow their own path.
Duff Watkins: [00:25:26] Well, talk to a Chinese guy in Australia who told me, he said he lived under communism. He said, it’s not so bad. And I was absolutely astonished my mind almost. I’d never considered the possibility. And, and that’s the point that, that, the US or you or I, we don’t have total complete, exclusive access to the truth.
The universal truth. And there are many mutations of truth in government. And there are liberal democracies. There are non-liberal democracies Fareed Zakaria writes extensively about that. And I think movingly about it. I have very eye opening and so. Yeah. I like to use this analogy. There was a smorgasbord of governments out there, a government type scheme and pick and choose, you know, and you like democracy fill up fine, but you know, there, there are downsides to both.
Anyway, Lesson number five, my personal favourite. My absolute personal favourites. Never feel sorry for the people in charge. Wait a minute. Are you saying I shouldn’t feel empathy, simple thief for all those CEOs and corporate executives and leaders who are, who are when they, when they lose their revenue streams or when they lose an election, and they lose their access to power?
I shouldn’t just weep for them.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:26:42] No, it should. I mean, they, they, they got to where they are because they wanted to be there. They acquired power, know wealth influence celebrity. Cause that’s what they wanted. I don’t know if it’s conscious or not, but I mean, they define their life’s purpose in terms of ascending some greasy pole and most people don’t get to the top and some people do as you and I speak Governor Cuomo.
Of New York state is being pilloried by the press because of accusations of sexual harassment being lodged against him by a couple of women who I think who were in his employ as governor. I don’t, I don’t frankly know all the details, nor am I making any judgment about the details. But he’s having some tough days right now.
Well, you know, everybody has tough days, and he didn’t want to be governor in New York and you know, be exposed as it were to all this media attention, he could have done something else with his life. So, I don’t feel sorry for the people in charge. I recognized that when you’re in charge, there’s always going to be people who are hoping to see you fall flat on your face.
I think that’s some something of what’s going on with Governor Cuomo right now. He’s, he’s not a pleasant character as best I can tell. And, and there are some in the press, I guess, even in his own party that are more than happy to see him get his comeuppance, but you know, that’s the way the game has played.
Right now, President Biden in my view is getting a bunch of sweetheart treatment from the press. Well guess what? That won’t last forever. And, and, and frankly, he probably knows it he’s been around. He’s been around long enough to know that you don’t take too seriously positive press coverage. So, you know, I just don’t feel sorry for the people in charge.
Duff Watkins: [00:28:38] Nor do I, I, I will say, I mean, I do have a respect because they do what it takes to get there.
When I say respect, I don’t mean support or. Affirmation. They do what it takes to get there. And by God they will do whatever it takes to stay there. And so, to me, that resonates why that’s one reason why I don’t feel sorry. I never have felt, sorry. I never will for us to feel sorry.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:28:59] You know, you’re, you’re reminding me, there’s a famous Essay, I think by a theatre Roosevelt where he, he talks about the courage of the man in the arena for him.
It’s a manner, of course you know, the, the, the person who has the gumption, the courage to, to, to offer himself or herself for consideration. Give me your votes, you willing to risk rejection, the humiliation of rejection. And there’s something to that. It does take courage to, to seek these positions and once you acknowledge that but when things don’t go, right, you know, I’m not going to be shedding tears for them.
Duff Watkins: [00:29:40] I suppose it’s like complaining about getting hit hard when you’re playing American grid iron at a very high level. I mean, they hit very hard in the NFL. I’m told to hit very, very hard, and I have no desire to experience it any more than that. Lesson number six, the greatest sin of all is the lack of empathy for others. That sounds like a good Catholic speaking.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:30:03] Well, I don’t know. Good Catholic, but I think I’ve come to know myself well enough to understand that that’s a, that’s a personal failing of mine that not to you know, to be so focused on some larger purpose. Which more often than not ends up being personal ambition that you fail to attend to what the people around you are feeling, what they need.
I think parents do this, you know, they’re absorbed with their professional life. Don’t give the kids the attention that they deserve, but I think it happens in a professional setting as well. When, when the emphasis on getting the job done, we’ve got to get the job done. Then I think that can easily result in that attending to the needs of the people who are trying to get that job done.
And I, I just know that in my earlier life when I had professional responsibilities, that that was a failing of mine too. But if someone didn’t tell me then of course, if they had, I probably would have said, Oh, come on. But I do think that I regret that. I, my lack of empathy.
Duff Watkins: [00:31:09] I must tell you this story I was doing I used to work as a psychotherapist and in Sydney and I was attending a course on emotional intelligence and there was a woman leading it. And I said something, this came up and I said something well, yeah, except in the military, when they give you a mission, they give you a task and you take that Hill and you know, they don’t ask for a show of hands who wants to go first and you know, how does everybody feel about it? They simply tell you, you do it. It’s a mission. And she said to me, she said Duff I work with the military all the time and they tell me over and over and over again; those are the worst officers they deal with.
Those are the worst and a light went on for me, Andrew and I, and I confirming what you say. I mean, human empathy, there is no substitute. There is no replacement for it. And even in the military and you’d know far better than me, there it is. It’s not optional. It is a requirement for leadership.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:32:06] I, I, I agree. And again, I can’t, I, in retrospect, I wish I had manifested more than I did, but you know, everybody’s got their own sense.
Duff Watkins: [00:32:16] Yeah. Yeah. Well, it takes us to lesson number seven. Ambition causes blindness. Now you were. You’re a career military guy and
Andrew Bacevich: [00:32:26] long, long, long time ago now. I mean,
Duff Watkins: [00:32:30] yeah, in the military, it’s up and out.
I believe it was then I believe still is now. And pretty much you don’t get to be a Colonel by accident in the United States army. You have to do a lot of things. Right. And, and a lot of things that are expected, I guess. So, tell me more how ambition causes blindness.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:32:48] That’s kinda, I think in a way, and it’s the flip side of the empathy point and you’re right.
The, the ambition that is that is promoted, the military profession is ambition that focuses on getting the job done the mission, whatever the mission is in combat, it might be taken to the Hill. You’re working in the Pentagon. It might be to complete some kind of study for some four-star general in the next two weeks and to brief it and get it right.
But it’s hard also to separate this determination, to get the job done from your own personal ambitions. Because if you, if you, if you complete that staff study and you’re able to make a persuasive presentation to the four-star general in the Pentagon, not only will that study produce a positive outcome we hope so. I was also going to make the four-step general thing. So I think that the mission orientation we’re talking about the military, I don’t think it’s just in the military.
Duff Watkins: [00:33:39] No, it’s not.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:33:40] I suspect it’s the same thing if you’re, if you’re working for Amazon.
Duff Watkins: [00:33:44] Yeah. Corporate world.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:33:45] Yeah. Yeah. That, that the mission orientation camouflage is ambition.
And probably contributes to not being sufficiently attentive to the needs of people who may be lower than you are on the totem pole. Even though, as you suggested in your anecdote, being attentive to the people lower in the totem pole can actually play an invaluable role in getting the mission done.
Because they believe the boss is the boss cares about me and I’m going to do my darndest to make sure the boss succeeds, not simply doing it because the boss gave me an order because I believe in the boss. And therefore, I believe in the boss’s mission. Now, as I say this to you, I say, we’re here, we’re here to talk about wisdom.
I say, it’s not wisdom. It’s like the most obvious thing in the whole world now.
Now, that’s right. Those are, those are the sorts of things that are much more difficult to discern. I think when you’re young now, some people get them right away. I was always a slow, slow learner.
Duff Watkins: [00:34:51] Well, you’re, you’re actually Ryder than you think in terms of neuro neuro-psychology ambition, over-focus, overlearning actually does constrict your attention so that you literally, your, your attention is narrow.
Your concentration is narrow. That’s not always, that’s not a bad thing necessarily, but what it means is you will miss, you will overlook. You will not see some, some. Probably very important things that are happening that are coming at you. You might be looking here when you should be looking there. You might be so focused on, you might not see that the goals have changed as you, as you were saying, you know, you’re, you’re, you’re so consumed with your own inner needs that you haven’t noticed that people in the team have needs as well.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:35:31] So, I think that’s true.
Duff Watkins: [00:35:34] Oh, number eight. Lesson number eight. Oh boy. Here we go. Social media is inherently evil.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:35:41] The guy I I’m not on Facebook. I’m not on Twitter. I’m not on any of that stuff. I do not have a smartphone. My wife has a smartphone. So, when we go someplace, you know, we can maintain communications with our kids and so on, but it seems to me that the evidence is clear.
Well, two things are clear. The first is that this social media, it takes over your life. I mean, you forfeit your autonomy, even though I don’t do all that stuff on my phone, when you and I are done talking and I’m looking at you on my laptop, then you and I are done talking. First thing I’m going to do is check my email because during the course of our conversation of roughly an hour, I have not checked my email.
And I can feel the need to do so I’m uneasy that I haven’t checked my email.
Duff Watkins: [00:36:29] It’s visceral.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:36:30] And I think I, yeah, well, I think I have kind of a mild case of this disease. No, the kids. Who cannot have their phone out of their hands and who are, you know, checking their Facebook page? I mean, I think there’s data on this hundreds of times a day are addicted again I think I have I, I am not immune, but I, I think I have a relative and I have a mild case because I don’t do Facebook or Twitter or all those things.
So that’s problem. Number one, problem. Number two is the way that social media just coarsened the discourse. It brings out the worst in us, you know, to, to snap back at someone or, or some opinion, not, not in ways that somehow expands the amount of wisdom in the world, or advances mutual understanding, but just sort of settled scores.
And that too, for me is a reason why I just, I just don’t want to do that. I just want to be part of that. Mm Hmm. So, I’m holding out.
Duff Watkins: [00:37:36] What you’re describing. The famous phrase by Neil Postman is amusing ourselves to death seeking the constant stimulation of not participating, but observing something. And it just blows my mind, and You know, like you, I mean, I got to say one of our guests on the podcast said when a piece of wisdom from him that he’s a political correspondent, he said, do not argue with people you don’t know.
And online, it is so easy to do that. And I have to say, and I’m full, I’m a full-grown ass man. I have three university degrees, but I’ve got more than once. I’ve caught myself with my hand on the mouse saying about to engage in some sort of nonsensical imaginary argument with somebody that whom I don’t know.
And I think, you know, one, I think what the hell is wrong with me too? What the hell is going on? And there is, there is something about that or that distance that as you so accurately say it does it, well, it brings out the worst. I hope maybe it brings out the best of us as well, but I do see the worst come online a lot.
Lesson number nine, a Beatles song, no less money can’t buy you love.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:38:39] Yeah, it’s true.
Duff Watkins: [00:38:42] I haven’t tried yet. So, I don’t know.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:38:45] I think I think that the statement applies beyond the United States, but I think it applies in particular in America that ours isn’t an inquisitive, materialistic culture prizes.
Consumption. We tend not to be satisfied with what we have. We tend to think that if we just, I said more in a bigger house, a newer car vacation place on the Cape that somehow life would be better. And I think that’s a pretty much a delusion. There’s lots of people who have quote unquote more, you know, the billionaires and celebrities and.
I mean, the ones we know about and it’s a celebrity, then didn’t seem like that. Being a celebrity is necessarily a, a path to happiness. Most of them seem to be afflicted in some way or another. So, I just I’ve just come. I just, I mean, again, because you’re talking to somebody who relative to probably 95% of the population on planet earth.
You’re talking to somebody who actually is quite comfortable. We don’t live in a mansion, but we live in a nice house since we don’t live in Texas. We’re not worried about losing our power for days on end. The furnace keeps us warm in the wintertime and the AC keeps us cool in the summertime. Once the pandemic is past God-willing.
We’ll go out to eat and then we going to go out to eat. We won’t go to the fanciest restaurants in Boston, but we’ll go wherever we want to go. So, so from, in a material sense, me, our family, we are privileged. There’s no question about that. My point simply is that you get, you get to, you get to a position in terms of.
Your physical security and wellbeing, just trying to get more is not going to make it any better. Matter of fact, I think to be satisfied, to be content from a materialistic point of view, maybe that’s one of the things that, you know, opens up the possibility of a different line of thought about the purpose of your existence.
It’s not simply to try to get a bigger car. I don’t know how many people would take that opportunity, but I do know money can’t buy love.
Duff Watkins: [00:40:52] Well, the Buddhist have nailed this centuries ago. They you’ll often hear the word. They talk about suffering. People suffer a better translation of that word is unsatisfied.
Not dissatisfied unsatisfied. It’s, you know, you get more and more, but is it enough? And it’s that lack, that feeling of I’m lacking something, and they say that’s a, that’s a Mirage that really that’s false, that you are enough. And that’s the lesson that you really have to get. And I think the antidote for that, at least my own personal experience is cultivating an attitude of gratitude for whatever the hell you do have.
And, and yes, because that’s feeling of unsatisfaction can really drive you to do some bizarre things.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:41:38] Again, I think that I mean, I’m an old guy and so the insight that you just offered, I just nod my head and say, yeah, of course. That’s great. I don’t think I would have said that. At age 35, you end up having a different vantage point on, on things as you, as you, as you, as you age different, a different vantage point on what matters on what, what should be valued?
Duff Watkins: [00:42:01] Well, because you’ve experienced what, doesn’t matter for one thing. And by the way, you’re old enough to be on the show. So, congratulations for that, you know, so, I mean, if you were 35, you wouldn’t be eligible.
Lesson, number ten, this is a very personal one for me. If you want to stay married, take long walks together with your partner. And I got to say, I’m my wife. We go out walking on the beach. We’ve got walking out of the park where we live and you know, I take the audio book. On the MP3. And she says, don’t even think about turning that on.
I said, wait a minute, baby, it’s an audio book. It’s a book by Andrew Bacevich, you know, and she doesn’t care. She doesn’t want it when you go for it. As long walks is all about communication and being in the here and now. And so, from my personal experience, you’re onto something here. Want to stay married, take long walks with your partner. Tell us more.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:42:53] Well, I’m, with your wife. And you know, we don’t, we don’t always walk together. When, when my wife walked by herself, she’s putting something in her ear to listen to news or music or whatever. And I walk by myself. I don’t do that when I walk, walk by myself, to me, that’s the time when.
My mind wanders in a productive sense. If I’m working on an essay or a book, it’s when I’m walking by myself that the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Oh yeah. Okay. I can see now where this chapter is supposed to go. And if I were sitting here in front of my computer, staring at that incomplete chapter, knowing I have a problem, I’ll waste an incredible amount of time to walk away from it.
And I’m walking by myself that the answer that comes. So, we, we walked together probably three times a week right now because of COVID and winter, sort of some of the walking places or. There are restrictions on where we can go. That’s not the point. The point is that when, when you walk together and we’ve been married more than 50 years now, there’s nothing to do except to talk to one another.
And it’s not that you talk to one another to say, know, let us discuss what we think is the meaning of life. It’s ordinary things. What do you want to have for dinner? Have you talked to so-and-so lately? Did you see that card? Ordinary things, but I think we have found that those conversations, even if at know, at a superficial level they’re ordinary is it is a different level in which they affirm intimacy and partnership. We remind one another through those moments that we are a couple and frankly, for the two of us, just like nothing more important than the fact that we are and have been a couple. So, it’s nurturing, I think in ways that in a way it’s kind of hard to explain, you know, give me a break, you go for a walk and that’s like, you know, a big deal.
Yeah. It’s a big deal. So, I, I think we both have come to believe that it’s one of the best things you can do to maintain a relationship, get away from the hubbub, get away from the internet, get away from Facebook, go outside, bring some fresh air. Walk for about an hour, talk to one another.
Duff Watkins: [00:45:20] And you use the word we mind yourself and each other that you’re in this relationship and you think 50 years, you need to remind her will actually the answer may be yes, but we need constant reminder. There needs to be a continual process, but you, your work you’re coming about. Walking, not listening, thinking about work and things just happened.
Remind me of Thoreau’s comment. Trust. No thought arrived at while sitting down. That’s what he said.
I mean, I, there are a lot of walking meditations that things just occur to you when you’re out there. hoofing around by yourself. And that’s a good thing. Let me finish with one last question. We’ve been talking about things that you learned. Let me ask you about something that you’ve unlearned something you absolutely positively knew to be true then, but now, now that’s, you’re wiser now, you know, is not true, not the case. Can you give me an example of that?
Andrew Bacevich: [00:46:18] I hadn’t thought about this. I think that I have a different view of success and where it sort of fits in my life. You know, I’ve, I’ve written or edited. I dunno how many books now? Dozen or so, thanks to my agent and my editor. I’ve sold more books than I ever possibly imagined that I would sell.
Some of my books have done poorly. Some have done pretty well. A couple have done real well. When I die, they could put on my gravestone best-selling author and it would not be a lie. And once upon a time, I thought that this is post army. To be a bestselling author, you know, to have to have a book on the New York times bestseller list, which was like the ultimate you’ve arrived.
Yes. And I don’t believe that anymore. I mean, I got a new book coming out in the summertime. I will be very grateful if people buy it and it does well, I’ll be disappointed if it flops. But I can’t say that I’m invested in that, that measure of my worth the way I once was sort of gone on to other things, if that makes sense.
Duff Watkins: [00:47:27] Yes, it does. It makes a lot of sense to me. And you’re not the first guest to say that about reframing success as you get older. And the pattern that I see among the guests is it becomes. Less and less material and more internally with an internal locus. I mean, you’re writing the book because you want to write a book, not because you want to sell a bunch of books is what, I’m, what I’m hearing.
What, what is, what is the new book’s title by the way? I just finished Age of Illusions, as I mentioned, what’s the new ones.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:47:55] It’s called After The Apocalypse that’s dramatic title. And the subtitle is America’s role in a world transformed. Again, you mentioned before that some of my books are short. This is a show.
I think, I think this is like 165 pages long. It’s quite short. I wrote it basically over the summer during the middle of the pandemic. And the argument is that, you know, the. The pandemic killed now he’s killed more than a half million Americans. The economic damage caused by that. The tumult of the, of the Trump presidency and a couple of other factors, all of these I’m arguing, the equivalent of an apocalypse has afflicted the American people.
And the book tries to say, well, given what we have experienced, this is how our role in the world ought to change. And to some degree must change. That’s what it’s all about.
Duff Watkins: [00:48:51] I look forward to reading that one.
Andrew Bacevich: [00:48:52] I hope you will.
Duff Watkins: [00:48:53] Count on it as soon as it comes out. And we will finish here on that note.
Folks you’ve been listening to the podcast and lessons. It took 50 years to learn. And our guest today has been Andrew Bacevich. Our producer today is Robert Hossary, and our podcast is sponsored by the professional development forum PDF. They offer social webinars, podcast, parties, anything you want, everything you need, and it’s all free.
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