Saturday, September 14, 2019

Book Review: 'The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory' by Andrew Bacevich

The Age of Illusions is a book I wanted to really like, but it has a lot of trouble getting out of its own way. Andrew Bacevich looks at the Trump administration through the lens of the post-cold war era. This is the era the USA was supposed to dominate in toto and complete freedom as the world’s sole superpower. Instead, he shows, the three presidents who came immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall squandered that hard-earned advantage, and set the stage for the ascent of Donald Trump.

This is an interesting thesis, and when Bacevich finally gets around to it, it is with rip-roaring point after point. Unfortunately, it takes him 80 some pages — nearly half the book — of laborious groundwork before he finally starts to hit hard and score points.

At his most damning, he lists he ways that America devolved into a jellied mess since the cold war ended. In three pages of relentless one-liner stats, he lists 25 of the astonishing ways Americans have self-destructed, just since the 1990s. In the year of Trump’s election in 2016, 19 million were suffering from depression, 46,000 were killed by opioids, 35,000 by guns, 1 in 6 were binge drinking at least once a month, 45,000 committed suicide, 40% of adults were obese, plus another 19% of children. America climbed to the highest incarceration rate in the world, and its residents owned 46% of the world’s small arms – more than the next 25 countries combined.

This snapshot is not a list of causes, he says. It is just how America has spent the “peace dividend” when the USSR collapsed. The dividend also shows up on some 40% of those born after 1980 who have tattooed their bodies. Seems like a pretty poor payout, is the point. The return on investment is negative.

On the other hand, he says this is normal in the USA. It has always has been “a nation in which the needs of corporate capitalism take precedence over the common good.” 110

Bacevich shows that Clinton, Bush II and Obama were weak in nation-building. They had no vision for any sort of peace dividend. He resuscitates their election campaigns to prove it. Once in office, it was never even in the back of their minds, let alone front and center. Bush took the country to a state of permanent war, which neither Obama nor Trump have been able to quash. While he was at it, Bush declared the US edition of freedom to be the sole and global definition and everyone had to conform to it. If they didn’t, he reserved the right to pre-emptive war to impose it on them. He was prepared to spread the privilege of democracy by unilateral war, and of course, made good on his threat, numerous times. The peace dividend came and went and nobody noticed.

Bacevich is capable of insight and perception, including of himself. It was during the Bush II administration that Andrew Bacevich became an oft-employed talking head and developed enough perspective to understand what they paid him to talk about was not actually up for discussion. It was rather, in his choice of word, theater. Americans have only to flip among their news channels to see it is even more so today.

He quotes Norman Mailer of all people as declaring “Ours is a nation adrift and coming apart.”  And so Bacevich proves.

What he does not do is use hindsight to say what should have been done. If America wasted 30 years of potential freestyle soaring, what should that have looked like, and where would the world be now? Astonishingly, at least for me, he never says. Which might or might not say – they did the best they could with what they faced. But readers will never know.

To Bacevich, Trump’s Make America Great Again is a longing for the cold war, where the USA had a life-threatening nuclear enemy, and everyone was much happier and less self-destructive. Apparently, Americans need a good war to focus on in order to stay on message. He does seem to be working hard to make that relationship real again. If not with Russia, then with China, Europe or Canada. It’s nice to have options.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.