An Honest Conservative: Andrew Bacevich’s “The Age of Illusions”

age of illusion

In the time of Trumpism, we need more people like Andrew Bacevich producing more books like “The Age of Illusions.” A self-labeled conservative, a military man, and a person of faith, Bacevich possesses two elemental qualities – a keen sense of history and a desire to understand and tell the truth- that make his voice both important and clear.

In his new book, Bacevich rightly argues that the American elite consensus, irrespective of which particular party is in power, has always been a flawed one- one of arrogance, cupidity, militarism, and cultural and racial normativity. Insofar as this is his argument, Bacevich shares the podium with the Left, though he arrives as his conclusions from a different starting place. As such, he identifies Trump as indeed a malevolent force but also as in some ways the logical culmination of a political structure that has always conceived of exercising its freedom in excess, indulgence, greed and violence — and not in a larger, universal sense. In this way, Trump is certainly partially a creator of duress but he’s for the most part an epiphenomenon.

Bacevich offers an interesting glimpse of post-War US history- with a focus on the last 40 years, and identifies particular trend lines that indicate the ways in which, as the subtitle of the book reads, “…America squandered its cold war victory.” Of note here are four themes that characterize American polity and policy:

1) Routinization of Militarism

2) An increasingly imperial Presidency

3) A bi-partisan , elite consensus supporting neoliberalism

4) A religious belief in the normative goodness of globalization with America at the helm

He dissects each of these, replete with an analysis of the essential continuity offered by the post-cold-war Presidents, despite their putative differences.

Bacevich adduces this line of thinking to suggest that Americans had the post-cold-war opportunity to usher in an era of peace and decency but squandered it at the altar of greed and power. Here, Bacevich shows remarkable flexibility-of-thought for an avowed conservative who voted for Reagan twice (and Obama, twice, as it turns out.) What he hints at, here, is that with the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold-war, the operating narrative of Americana disappeared, to be replaced with banality, narcissism, identity politics, and a turn towards the most corrosive sorts of religious form. He doesn’t, however, simply come out and say it which certainly diffuses the argument and in that respect hurts the book.

Bacevich is acerbic and lexically dexterous when it comes to highlighting elite hypocrisy but indeed often does employ soft-language and elision to exonerate American presidents, the American military, and Americans in general. His unnecessary remarks about George W. Bush’s lack of racism, sexism, or homophobia are examples of this as is his reference to Bush’s “basic decency and amiability.” Here, Bacevich succumbs to the very tone-deafness he laments in others, forgetting the millions of people worldwide who suffered under Bush-The-Younger’s jackboot. Bacevich, though clearly erudite, is also selective in his references- to the detriment of this argument. Nowhere in the book does he take to task Bush-the-elder for his punitive and brutal attacks on Iraq or the murderous sanctions regime started by Bush and continued by Clinton. Such omissions are surprising in analyses such as these, especially by a person of erudition.

Where Bacevich is best is his analysis of inequality in the US and how this is tied to elite warmongering and the remote-control, technology-drenched, hierarchical polity that has come to define America. He notes that the Whole Foods and Aspen crowds were the ones most shocked by the Trump victory.

He argues, also, that Trumpism is separate from Trump and has to be dealt with head on. The way to do this is by creating a new narrative, a new raison d’etre for Americans. Near the end of the book, Bacevich suggests that perhaps Climate Change provides us with just that prime mover.

“The Age of Illusions” is replete with pockets of brilliant analysis and acerbic characterizations of American hypocrisy but at times appears desultory as it flits from theme to theme. Whatever the criticisms, however, they are minor. Honesty needn’t have a political affiliation. Nor should intellectualism.

Romi Mahajan in an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist




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Romi Mahajan

Romi Mahajan is an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist

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