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Outlook: Iraq Casualty, Protestor Father Both Doing Their Duty

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Andrew J. Bacevich
Professor, Boston University
Tuesday, May 29, 2007; 12:00 PM

When my son was killed in Iraq earlier this month at 27, I found myself pondering my responsibility for his death. Among the hundreds of messages that my wife and I have received, two bore directly on this question. Each one held me personally culpable, insisting that my public opposition to the war had provided aid and comfort to the enemy.

What exactly is a father's duty when his son is sent into harm's way? Among the many ways to answer that question, mine was this one: As my son was doing his utmost to be a good soldier, I strove to be a good citizen.

Boston University professor Andrew J. Bacevich was online Tuesday, May 29 at noon ET to discuss his Sunday Outlook article on the loss of his son, anti-war protests and civic duty.

I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose. We Were Both Doing Our Duty. (Post, May 27)

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

Bacevich teaches history and international relations at Boston University. His son, 1st Lt. Andrew John Bacevich, died May 13 after a suicide bomb explosion in Salah al-Din province.

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Andrew J. Bacevich: This is Andrew Bacevich. Thank you for joining me in this exchange.

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Bowie, Md.: Dr. Bacevich, I was very sorry to hear of your son's death in your article. My prayers are with you. Having been at SAIS when both you and Dean Wolfowitz taught a seminar on U.S. Strategic Challenges, I remember clearly the Dean's call for action in the Middle East. As I remember it, though, the key actor was Iran, not Iraq. It seems to me that he was looking beyond Iraq the whole time. I wonder how much of a factor in this debacle was the presumption that Iraq would be a walk-over, with the main act being Iran? Are we still on that trajectory?

Andrew J. Bacevich: From the outset, key members of the Bush administration viewed Iraq less as an end in itself than as a stepping stone toward a much large end. The larger purpose was to "transform" the so-called Greater Middle East, to include Iran.

This project appeared plausible (to some) given what appeared to be our matchless military power. What Iraq has so painfully revealed is that our military power is not anywhere nearly as great as we imagined.

Our failure in Iraq has killed the transformation project -- and leaves the United States without anything remotely resembling a coherent national security strategy.

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washingtonpost.com: We're experiencing some minor technical difficulties; Professor Bacevich should be answering questions again momentarily.

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Kalamazoo, Mich.: Mr. Bacevich, do you believe the military leadership is capable of coming to grips with the fact that any reasonable definition of success in Iraq is irretrievably beyond its grasp? Or is the "can-do" attitude of the Pentagon too pervasive? Is it really wise for Gen. Petraeus to pursue a strategy that will take years of commitment to possibly succeed when we only have months of wavering congressional support, and when public support effectively has collapsed for continued American involvement? This is not an impingement on the bravery, duty, or loyalty to the members of our armed service who continue to fight and die for their fellow comrades in arms, it is merely a question of the duty the leaders of our brave warriors have to not put their soldiers in a situation in which they have no ability to influence the outcome.

Andrew J. Bacevich: The quality of American generalship displayed throughout this war has been disappointing, to put it mildly.

On that point, I invite your attention to the very important article by Lt. Col. Yingling in the current issue of Armed Forces Journal (available online). In it, he presents a powerful case that the armed forces are doing an abysmal job of identifying, education, and developing senior officers. This is a huge problem that needs fixing.

You are correct to point out that the Petraeus strategy will require a lot of time. Petraeus has been candid on that point. It's the Bush administration that refuses to face up to the fact that the time needed simply is not there.

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Tyson, Va.: Do you think the difference between the military families' perspective and the general public's perspective is greater for this war than it has been during previous wars?

Andrew J. Bacevich: This is a good question, but tough to answer.

When we left the funeral home last Monday en route to our church, the streets of our small town were lined with people who had turned out to honor our son. Both yesterday and on Sunday, when I visited my son's grave, there were strangers there when I arrived, paying their respects. So people do "care" -- they do appreciate the sacrifices made by soldiers.

Yet somehow the caring does not have a politically meaningful effect -- at least that's my view.

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Newton, Mass.: Professor, according to your article, money pays the defining role in our nation's policies. Freedom of speech, rule of and by the people have devolved into well-worn cliches. If this is the case -- and you argue strongly and compellingly that it is -- then who and what are we as a nation? If the ballot box no longer ensures that the peoples' voice is heard, then what recourse remains? I also have a son who served. If you failed, then so did we all.

Andrew J. Bacevich: Free speech still matters because that's one way that "we the people" can register dissent -- we express our refusal to endorse the status quo. Unfortunately, dissent -- even when it rises to the level of something like the November 2006 elections -- doesn't have much of a political effect.

I don't have any easy answers on this. But it does seem to me that we should no longer assume that "democracy" provides the best one-word descriptor of our political system. In a superficial sense, we remain a democratic nation. But peer beneath the surface and the reality is something else again.

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Washington: First, I want to express my condolences for your loss -- I was a student of yours at Boston University for two courses and your son and I were friends during our time at BU. My thoughts and prayers have been with you, your son, and your family.

Although I have been a staunch supporter of the war, I have read several articles lately, including your book, your articles, and others writings (such as James Fearon's "Iraq's Civil War" in the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs) that have convinced me that the war is unwinnable by military means. Although in your most recent article, "I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose. We Were Both Doing Our Duty," you reiterate the argument that the U.S. should "liquidate its presence in Iraq," you do not outline a U.S. exit strategy to implement the same.

I believe that simply "placing the onus" on the current Iraqi regime could be catastrophic, both for regional stability and for the Iraqi people, who may face a long-term, genocidal civil war. It seems painfully apparent to me that the U.S. might need to remain involved both militarily and diplomatically in Iraq, if for no other reason than to prevent mass killings and essentially try to mitigate the damage caused by our presence there. In addition, I believe we have a responsibility to try to mediate and help facilitate a peaceful co-existence between the Sunnis and Shiites.

In light of the Kurds involvement as peacekeepers in Baghdad (The Economist, "A truly national army?" May 17, 2007) and our recent diplomatic contacts with Iran and other regional players on these issues, could you outline a proposed exit strategy, if any, that would maximize the possibility of achieving these and any other of your proposed goals for withdrawal? MJW, CAS '02

Andrew J. Bacevich: The truth is that no one knows what will occur if the U.S. withdraws from Iraq. Many of those who predict the worst case (genocide, the rise of a new Caliphate, al-Qaeda taking over Iraq) are the same people who in 2002-2003 were making rosy predictions about a "cakewalk."

A second truth is that it lies beyond the capability of the United States to determine the course of events in Iraq. The "world's only superpower" is along for the ride.

It's neither prudent nor morally acceptable to continue to waste American lives and money just because we are reluctant to acknowledge and face up to the consequences of our folly.

What should we do? The recommendations of the Iraq Study Group provide a place to start.

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Pittsburgh: My husband served in Iraq in 2003. He came home physically whole but mentally and spiritually a changed man. I wake up thankful and angry every single day. My patriotism, my faith and respect for nearly every one of our country's institutions are gone. In my view, the senior leaders of our military failed us. There always seems to be another general waiting in the wings to tell the president exactly what he wants to hear. Cable and network news executives failed us. They seemed thrilled to have a glorious little war to pump up the ratings and bottom line. The executives who run these outfits have hands drenched in blood. Finally, there are my fellow citizens who seemed to think -- if they paid any attention at all -- that the Iraq war would be a good idea as long as it was someone else's responsibility to go fight it.

I guess this is what hurts most -- the acquiescence of the American people based on ignorance and bumper-sticker politics. The lives of our soldiers are too important to be sacrificed for such a venal and careless country. How will the military recover from this debacle? How long will it take?

Andrew J. Bacevich: The Iraq War is obviously a mess, but the truth is that we don't know yet how it will all turn out. It won't end in a "great victory." But it could end in something other than an abject defeat.

How it ends -- and how the American public and the military itself interprets that end -- will determine how long it takes for the military to recover, while also influencing the character of that recovery.

When the army came home from Vietnam, the officer corps said "never again" -- never another war of that type. So the officer corps ignored unconventional warfare -- and was therefore caught by surprise when it encountered an insurgency in Iraq.

How the officer corps will react to its experience in Iraq remains to be seen.

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Washington: I'm surprised by the unsophisticated argument you make against war proponents, given your stature. It is easy to simply hurl populist grenades and lambaste "Big Business," but that ignores some bigger complications. I'm all for getting out of Iraq as well, but as long as this nation insists on maintaining such a high profile in the region, it becomes more problematic. If we weren't concerned with a steady supply of oil or Israel's well-being, would Middle East conflicts matter any more than those of Africa? When I cite oil, it isn't the oil industry so much as the expectation of ordinary Americans that they are entitled to inexpensive fossil fuels. If the withdrawal stops at the borders of Iraq, we probably are setting up a return visit in the future. Why not admit that the nation isn't as powerful as we thought it was and that we can't take sides in regional conflicts without risking more 9/11s? As such, your article was a missed opportunity.

Andrew J. Bacevich: Perhaps you misunderstand the argument -- or perhaps I did not express myself clearly. My reference to "money" meant money -- but also was a stand-in for powerful interests that undermine or obstruct genuinely democratic politics.

In the essay I was expressing my frustration at the failure of genuinely democratic political action to end the war. The people have spoken and they want the war ended. But the war continues.

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Andrew J. Bacevich: Thank you for your excellent questions.

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