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Is This The 'End Of American Exceptionalism'?

Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a retired Army colonel, discusses his new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.


Other segments from the episode on September 12, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 12, 2008: Interview with Andrew Bacevich; Review of a new compilation of gospel music "Classic African-American gospel."


DATE September 11, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM

Interview: Andrew Bacevich discusses his book "The Limits of

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As America continues its war against terrorism, Andrew Bacevich warns that
there are limits to what military power can accomplish. In his new
best-selling book "The Limits of Power," he writes that we are now engaged in
a war with no exits and no deadlines, and that we are piling up debts that we
are hard pressed to meet. Bacevich is a retired Army colonel who fought in
Vietnam. He's now a professor of history and international relations at
Boston University and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Last
year, his 27-year-old son, 1st Lieutenant Andrew Bacevich, was killed in an
IED explosion in Iraq.

Michael Winship, a writer on Bill Moyers' Journal, wrote this about my guest.
"Bacevich speaks truth to power, no matter who's in power, which may be why
those of both the left and right are eager to hear his views." Perhaps it's
also because when he challenges American myths and allusions, he does so from
a genuine patriotism forged in the fire of his own experiences.

Andrew Bacevich, welcome to FRESH AIR. You describe us as being in a war with
no exits and no deadlines. Would you explain what you mean?

Mr. ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I've described it as that because that's what the
Bush administration has described it, the way they've described it. Shortly
after 9/11, in announcements both from the Department of Defense and from the
White House, the Bush administration went out of its way to indicate that this
was really an open-ended war. The Pentagon of late has begun to use the term
generational war. So the tendency of Americans to think of the war as Iraq,
with perhaps Afghanistan hovering slightly in the background, really doesn't
do justice to the ambitions of the Bush administration when it commenced the
global war on terror.

GROSS: And by that you mean?

Mr. BACEVICH: I mean that--seems quite clear to me that at the outset, the
strategy--and you almost need to put strategy in quotes because I believe it
was so reckless and misguided--the strategy really was to prevent the
recurrence of 9/11 or of something even worse than 9/11 by undertaking an
effort to transform the greater Middle East. Douglas Feith not too long ago
published a memoir in which he stated this quite specifically, quoting from
documents that were written after 9/11. The Bush administration intended to
drain the swamp of terrorists by bringing modernity or democracy or liberal
values, whatever you want to call it, to the greater Middle East. And they
believe that, apart from the preliminary step of invading and transforming
Afghanistan, the real main effort was to be Iraq. The expectation was that
Iraq would be an easy case, easy both to win a military victory and easy to
bring about significant political change, thereby establishing a precedent
that, in some way or another, not necessarily through direct military action,
could be applied to other countries in the Arab and broader Islamic world.

GROSS: You said that you think that Americans overestimate what we can
accomplish with military force. What do you think are some of the limits of
military force that we're not quite getting?

Mr. BACEVICH: Well, I think to understand the point, we have to reflect
back, I think, to the end of the Cold War, you know, that period 1989 to 1991,
just a flurry of historical activity beginning with the fall of the Berlin
Wall, and in a sense culminating in Operation Desert Storm. It was at that
moment, I think, that Americans generally--but our political elites
particularly--came to believe that the United States, as the so-called sole
superpower, possessed a military capacity unlike the world had ever seen, and
that highly trained professional high tech US military forces now could allow
the United States to use force to achieve political purposes in ways that no
other nation in history had ever enjoyed. And it was that thinking, I
believe, that informed that misguided strategy that the Bush administration
conceived after 9/11.

Now, what we've seen over the past seven years, certainly in Afghanistan, but
even more so in Iraq, is that our military power is actually far, far more
limited than we imagined, especially given the fact that any adversary that we
fight has some ability to make sure that the fighting happens as much on their
terms as our own. And that's why we have become bogged down in these two
really fairly small wars for such a long period of time.

GROSS: Are you worried about the stresses that the war in Iraq and
Afghanistan are putting on our military?

Mr. BACEVICH: Well, it's not just that I'm worried about the stresses. I
mean, one of the very--I think there's been a drumbeat of concern on that
point, expressed not simply by people like myself who are opposed to
administration policy, but expressed by the senior military leadership of the
United States, by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have repeatedly and publicly
indicated that the stress on the force is not indefinitely sustainable. I
mean, we all as Americans really should be in awe at the durability of our
so-called all volunteer force. The fact that we have young people going back
for a third, a fourth, a fifth combat tour; the fact that, measured by
discipline and cohesion, the force has hung together so well. But this cannot
continue indefinitely. And, you know, the prospect of generational war is
something that will inevitability at some point break the force.

GROSS: You describe America's leaders as being unable or unwilling to address
the disparity between what we want and what we can pay for.

Mr. BACEVICH: Well, I think this is what I hope readers will see as one of
the major themes of my book, is that we have for several decades now been
living beyond our means. And I try to provide a certain amount of empirical
data to support that point, whether it's dependence on foreign oil, or whether
it's trade imbalance, federal deficit, increased borrowing. I mean, the
national debt is now approaching $10 trillion on a $14 trillion economy. So
we've got a fundamental imbalance between that which we have come to expect as
intrinsic to the American way of life and that which we're willing to pay or
able to pay. I also believe that in many respects, the ambitious--and, I
think, highly militarized--US foreign policy of the post-Cold War era really
represents an effort to postpone a day of reckoning, to push back the day when
we're going to have to recognize the imperative of living within our means.

GROSS: You talk about what you describe as the rise of a new political elite
whose members have a vested interest in perpetuating the crises that provide
their source of power. What's this political elite that you're referring to?

Mr. BACEVICH: Well, that's a pretty harsh charge, but it's one that I'm
willing to stick with. I mean, here, I think, the historical horizon is one
that has to be even deeper. We need to go back really to the end of World War
II and the early days of the Cold War. And since that time, I think two
things have happened that are very important for us to understand. The first
is that the legislative branch of government has basically thrust power and
authority towards the executive branch on almost anything that relates,
however remotely, to national security. And the result is the imperial
presidency. An imperial presidency that many of us bemoan, but that frankly
both political parties wish to sustain. They simply want to own the imperial
presidency. So that's the first thing that happened.

The second thing that happened is that the ever-increasing emphasis on
national security as the paramount priority has resulted in foreign policy
becoming less and less democratic. Or to put it another way, to foreign
policy becoming the domain of a very small number of people, so-called wise
men or wise women who supposedly know more than the rest of us average
citizens do, and who supposedly we can count on to make expeditious and wise
decisions to keep us safe. My view is that this national security elite has
failed us utterly.

GROSS: You now think that Americans overestimate what we can accomplish with
military force. When you were in the military, did you think that, too?

Mr. BACEVICH: No. I can't say that I did. I mean, although it's been a
long time since I was in the military. And it was a different time. I mean,
my military service corresponded for the most part with the latter half of the
Cold War. I certainly believed that the Cold War was a worthy cause, that the
policy of containment was a sound strategy, an essential strategy. But I also
think I realized that the essence of that containment strategy was prudent. I
mean, we didn't set out in, you know, 1975 to liberate Poland by invading
Poland. Rather, we recognized that Soviet power had certain claims that
needed to be respected, even if in a sense resisted, if we were going to
maintain international stability and therefore secure our own well-being.
It's really only in the aftermath of the Cold War that this militarized
crusading instinct has manifested itself, and I think has gotten us in a lot
of trouble.

GROSS: My guest is Andrew Bacevich, author of the best-selling book "The
Limits of Power." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest Andrew Bacevich is the author of the new book "The Limits of
Power," about the limits to what military power can accomplish. He's a
retired Army colonel who fought in Vietnam. His son, an Army lieutenant, was
killed in Iraq by an IED explosion.

You say that when you were in the military during the Cold War, you were a
cold warrior in uniform. You write, "I was not oblivious to policy errors we
had made and some of the sins we had committed, but as long as I was in
uniform, I was willing to accept that these were peripheral to the larger
narrative." How much did you think about the politics of the wars that you
were--or the conflicts that you were involved with, starting with Vietnam,
when you were in the military?

Mr. BACEVICH: I have to say I didn't think a lot about it. I mean, to use
that old phrase political consciousness, my political consciousness was not
frankly raised until I took off my uniform and began to think about US foreign
policy in a more detached and critical way. I was commissioned in 1969 out of
the military academy, which really means I was a cadet at West Point from '65
to '69. Really, the period from the time when the war was Americanized
through the Tet Offensive and the beginning of the drawdown. So by the time I
got to Vietnam in 1970, the war was already pretty much understood to be at
least a mistake, if not simply a lost cause.

I don't know how my classmates at the time or other officers of my generation
approached their Vietnam service at the tail end of the war. But I know that
I myself decided that, at least the easiest approach, if not perhaps the
wisest approach, was a sort of click my brain into neutral and try not to
think too deeply about the politics of the Vietnam War at that point, but
simply to, you know, do my best to do my job, to perform my duties in a
responsible way, and then to move on. It was really only after I got back
from Vietnam that I began to think and read and study and certainly came to
different conclusions about the war than I held in 1970 or so.

GROSS: If you don't mind, I'd be interested in hearing what it was like for
you in like 1970 when you were in the military and you were an officer in
Vietnam. And you knew that your country was just like totally torn in two
over the war that you were fighting in. And yet you were able to remain
detached from that fight and just do your job. You say you were pretty
apolitical then. Was it easy or hard to be apolitical in such a politicized
time, fighting in a war that was so politicized?

Mr. BACEVICH: You know, I suspect if I had gotten my commission through
ROTC, meaning if I'd spent the years 1965 to 1969, for example, here at Boston
University where I teach, it probably would have very difficult. But the
military academy at that time--I don't know if you've ever visited West Point.

GROSS: I haven't.

Mr. BACEVICH: But it is really a physically isolated place along the Hudson
River, and the program of socialization into the professional ethic that the
military academy employed, at least in my day, was one that accentuated that
isolation--not simply physical, but I think intellectual and psychological.
So in a very strange way, when the country came close to coming apart between
'65 and '69, particularly in 1968, I think we at West Point viewed this as
almost as detached spectators. You know, what does this have to do with us?
That sounds very strange, but we were remarkably unaffected by all of the
political turmoil related not simply to the Vietnam War, but to the social
protest movements of the 1960s.

GROSS: How did you go from being this detached, apolitical military officer
to becoming what you are now, which is a professor of history and
international relations at Boston University? You're immersed in
international relations and analysis of international relations, and strong
opinions about foreign affairs.

Mr. BACEVICH: Well, I mean, I think I've been on an intellectual journey,
and I think that in the course of that journey, other aspects of my personal
make-up or my personal history have probably come more to the fore. And my
military background probably in some respects has receded in terms of shaping
my thinking. I mean, I've been out of the Army now for 16 years. Basically I
got out of the Army at the time the Cold War ended. I have to say that in a
loose, only partly formed way, I expected that the end of the Cold War would
see the United States returning to becoming something akin to a normal nation.
And I was taken aback when the end of the Cold War actually saw the United
States becoming more ambitious, more assertive, more certain of the way the
world was supposed to run.

GROSS: You've been a pretty longtime opponent of the war in Iraq, but your
son was a soldier who went to Iraq and died there in an IED explosion. What
was it like for you to go watch him leave for a war that you didn't think
should be fought?

Mr. BACEVICH: Well, I really prefer not to talk about my son. And I prefer
to keep that private. And I want to keep it private because I want to make
sure that I never do anything that will seem to exploit his memory and his
sacrifice. He is so dear to us that it's just better not to talk about him.

GROSS: Let me ask you this, and this isn't directly about him, but I know a
lot of people who have lost loved ones in the war feel that it's wrong during
the war for other people to oppose it in a vocal way because it undermines
morale. Or they feel that if there's strong opposition to the war, somehow it
would mean that their loved one had died in vain.

Mr. BACEVICH: Yeah, I will never try to instruct anybody who has lost
somebody in this war. I would never try to instruct them about how they
should deal with their grief. Nor will I permit anybody to instruct me about
how to deal with my grief and our grief. The position I take--and again, I'm
not trying to say this is the position others should take--but the position I
take is that my responsibility is to try to be a good citizen. People may
differ over what that means, but I believe one thing it ought to mean. At
least what it means to me is that I should do my very best to speak the truth
as I see the truth. I don't claim that what I see is somehow, you know, that
I've got all the answers, but it strikes me as irresponsible to remain silent
in the face of policies. And I mean that in a very broad sense, not simply
related to the Iraq war. I think it is irresponsible to remain silent in the
face of policies that serve the nation so badly. And so I would just like in
a very small way to try to contribute to a greater awareness of where we've
gone wrong, and in a very small way to try to suggest some alternative path.

GROSS: As a foreign policy matter, you've said in your writing that you think
what we need isn't a bigger military, it's a smaller foreign policy.

Mr. BACEVICH: Absolutely. I mean, again, to go back to at least my
understanding of the expectations that inform the global war on terror, that
we're going to bring about this fundamental change in the Islamic world, that
is so far beyond our ability to effect that it's almost laughable. But the
world is a difficult place, it's a complex place. There are people who hate
us. There are national security threats. And therefore we need an effective
military. But quite frankly, we need to ratchet down our ambitions and
expectations so that the tasks that we assign our military fall within the
capabilities of our military to effect.

GROSS: Andrew Bacevich will be back in the second half of the show. He's the
author of "The Limits of Power" and is a professor of history and
international relations at Boston University. I'm Terry Gross, and this is


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Andrew Bacevich, author
of the best-selling book "The Limits of Power." It's about the limits of what
military power can accomplish and about the implications of waging a global
war on terror with no exits and no deadlines. Bacevich is a retired Army
colonel who fought in Vietnam. His 27-year-old son, an Army lieutenant, was
killed in Iraq by an IED explosion. Bacevich is now a professor of history
and international relations at Boston University.

What type of support would you like to see the American people show for the
military? And I ask you knowing that you don't even support the war, but you
still have strong feelings about the troops who are there. And along with
that, what sacrifices would you like to see the American people make as long
as we are involved in war?

Mr. BACEVICH: Well, I think as long as we are involved in an open-ended
global war that we ought to pay for the global war. I mean, Iraq itself has
probably cost us somewhere to the tune of $800 billion. I know you're
familiar with projections, that it could cost us two to $3 trillion before
it's over. And we're paying for that by borrowing, for the most part these
days, borrowing from foreign countries. There's been no requirement for the
American people to modify the way they live in order to underwrite the war in
Iraq and the war in Afghanistan unless you call beefed up security at airports
a sacrifice. So I think that if the war is important, then, by golly, let's
pay for it.

But beyond that I think that what I really would like--this sounds, I mean, I
think this is pie in the sky--but what I would really like to see in terms of
what we owe soldiers is that to demand that a presidential election, which
we're now facing, actually feature as a centerpiece a serious debate about US
foreign policy, serious questions to be raised about whether or not this
so-called global war on terror really makes sense as a response to the threat
posed by violent Islamic radicalism. Are there strategic alternatives, or if
we have no alternative but to continue this global war on terror for the next
several decades, then what exactly is that going to cost and how is it going
to be paid for? What are the additional resources that we're going to need to
sustain a war for several decades? And where are they going to come from? It
seems to me that the foreign policy debate that we actually get from both
Senator McCain and Senator Obama tends to be exceedingly superficial and
focused narrowly on the questions of Iraq and Afghanistan. And those are
important questions. I mean, to a degree they are important questions, but
really they beg the larger strategic question about the overall direction of
US foreign policy.

GROSS: What are some of the questions you think they should be addressing?

Mr. BACEVICH: Well, I think--I mean, to me the core issue is: Will the
global war on terror, which has landed us in Afghanistan and Iraq, where we
remain many years later, will this ultimately achieve the objective that the
Bush administration has laid out? Are we on a path where we're going to see
the Islamic world--you know, something like 1.4 billion people--are we on a
path where we're going to pacify or liberate or dominate, depending on your
point of view, this region of the world? And if the answer is no--and I
believe the answer is no--then what are the alternatives? I mean, it seems to
me that we have two experiments in invading and occupying countries with the
expectation that that's going to produce some sort of useful political change.
And both of those experiments would seem to me to be disappointments. So is
there another way to deal with the threat posed by violent Islamic radicalism?
I mean, there are specialists who say yeah, there are other ways that we ought
to be pursuing, for example, a strategy of containment in lieu of a strategy
of liberation as the Bush administration would style it. So that argument
over strategic alternatives ought to be at stage center in the presidential
campaign, and it's not.

GROSS: Let's talk more about the alternatives that you see to waging war.
You mentioned containment. What would that mean?

Mr. BACEVICH: Well, containment here is not, it's not a synonym for
isolation. Containment is not a synonym for detachment. I think it would
mean at least some of the following things. Number one, we would greatly
reduce our military footprint in the Islamic world because our physical
presence there, our military presence there, has the effect of exacerbating
Islamic radicalism, not reducing it. I think that a strategy of containment
would try to reduce the financial resources that are available to Islamists,
and I don't mean simply by trying to cut off their access to bank accounts,
but by having a genuine energy policy that would reduce the hundreds of
billions of dollars that we're sending to Arab countries, some percentage of
which inevitably gets siphoned off to support Islamist causes.

I think containment would certainly continue to see intense intelligence
collection as an effort to identify al-Qaeda cells and similar organizations,
and then an international police effort to reduce, destroy those cells. I
think a strategy of containment should, at least on the margins--and we did
this during the Cold War during the strategy of containment--at least on the
margins should try to give indirect support or sustenance to liberal
tendencies within the Islamic world, whether that's through public diplomacy,
cultural exchanges, allowing students from the Islamic world to study in the
West, a whole host of things.

Now, a strategy of containment is not a strategy that's going to produce a
decisive success overnight. It would be as it was during the Cold War, a
strategy that we would have to sustain over the long haul. But even over the
long haul, I think that strategy would be more affordable and more likely to
yield success than the global war on terror as conceived by the Bush

GROSS: When you served in the military it was during the Cold War and you
describe yourself as cold warrior then. When you watched from afar Russia
invade Georgia, did you think, `Here we go again, this is Cold War II'?

Mr. BACEVICH: No. No. I mean, I think it's important for--you know, let's
do a quick comparison. Soviet Union motivated by--at least to a degree, or at
some point--a universalist ideology. Today's Russia motivated by nationalism.
Soviet Union, totalitarian state. Today's Russia, authoritarian. Soviet
Union had a Red Army that was massive, was very well equipped, was positioned
in Eastern Europe for offensive operations. The Russian army today is not
insignificant, but nothing like the old Soviet army. So this is not going to
produce--unless we insist on it--is not going to produce a revival of the Cold

My assessment would be this, that when the Cold War ended and the West was
strong and the Russians were weak, the West exploited Russian weakness and we
embarked upon a series of policies, some of them wise--I think the
incorporation of Eastern Europe into the EU was a good thing to do--some of
them wise, some of them perhaps not so wise, and the Russians continuously
objected, and we continuously said, `We're not interested in what you think.'
Well, we've now gone up to and into the traditional sphere of influence of
Russia. We are now in a position where they are no longer as weak as they
were 15 years ago, and they poked us back. And they've indicated clearly that
they will not permit Western intrusion further into that sphere of influence.
I mean, from the Russian point of view we have been pushing them around for
the last 20 years. And to tell you the truth, we got away with it. We got
away with it in Eastern Europe. We got away with it in the Balkans. And now,
finally, 20 years later they're beginning to push back a little bit. Well, I
would say we should be happy that we took about 15 tricks in a row before the
Russians were able to take one trick.

GROSS: My guest is Andrew Bacevich, author of the best-selling book "The
Limits of Power." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest Andrew Bacevich is the author of the new book "The Limits of
Power" about the limits to what military power can accomplish. He's a retired
Army colonel who fought in Vietnam. His son, an Army lieutenant, was killed
in Iraq by an IED explosion.

One of the themes of your book is that if we're going to fight expensive wars
we need to make certain sacrifices in order to be able to pay for those
things. And if we think our freedom is dependent on those wars, there's
certain adjustments we have to make at home for those freedoms. And you
contrast two presidents, Reagan and Carter, and how they dealt with things
like making sacrifices at home and spending. Would you make that comparison
for us?

Mr. BACEVICH: I understand sort of the popular verdict on Jimmy Carter as
president, that he was a failed president. In many respects I think the
verdict is a fair one. But as one respect in which we have failed to give
President Carter the credit he deserves, and that is that he is the one
president of our time who, I think, understood, anticipated where our
profligacy, our unwillingness to live within our means was leading. And I'm
referring here to the famous speech he gave--once-famous speech--in the summer
of 1979, derided as the "malaise speech"--didn't use the word malaise in the
speech, but that's what the press dubbed it--in the midst of the second energy
shock, oil shock, in which he argued that the United States, I think both
culturally and economically, was headed down a path that--in which we would
not simply lose our way, but ultimately come to embrace a false understanding
of the freedom that we all profess to cherish.

And Carter said, `We're becoming too materialistic, we're becoming too much
about acquiring, we're becoming too self-indulgent, and we need to change.'
And Carter said, really the energy crisis, this growing energy dependence,
which not only poses a direct threat to us, also provides us with the
opportunity to change, to learn to live within our means, to scrutinize what
we mean by freedom and perhaps come to the conclusion that it's not simply
consumption and acquisition. And he made that presentation to the nation, and
the nation rejected it out of hand. And in many respects I think that
presentation doomed his chances for being re-elected to a second term.

Now, Carter's antagonist in that election ends up being Ronald Reagan. Ronald
Reagan the great hero of the contemporary Republican Party. Ronald Reagan the
great hero of conservatives. Ronald Reagan that people believe somehow was
this champion of traditional values. But he was really--he was not a champion
of traditional values. What Ronald Reagan said, and the reason Ronald Reagan
got elected is Ronald Reagan said, `Don't listen to this guy Carter who says
you need to, you know, you need to get by with less. We're America. We'll
never have to get by with less. There's always going to be more.' And that
was the message we the people wanted to hear, and that was what brought Ronald
Reagan to the presidency, and in many respects that's the policies that Ronald
Reagan ended up pursuing. So, yes, big build up of American military power,
but also enormous deficits. He didn't shrink the government. He didn't
restore traditional values, however we want to define traditional values. He
became the most successful president of the modern era, and he became the most
successful president by acting on the notion that Americans should have, right
now, whatever it is they say they want and they need without worrying about
tomorrow or the next generation or who's going to pay the bills.

GROSS: Let me just ask you a little bit about another turning point in your
own life. You write that, you know, after you left the military, when you
started thinking about foreign policy you were a conservative, and a Catholic

Mr. BACEVICH: I am a Catholic conservative.

GROSS: Do you still think of yourself as conservative?

Mr. BACEVICH: I do. I mean, I think I am conservative because I am
absolutely persuaded that the Bush administration is not conservative, and
indeed the Republican Party is not conservative. Now, I think the term
conservative, not unlike the term liberal or progressive, in contemporary
usage can be defined in a variety of ways. I think relevant to this
conversation, which is mostly about foreign policy, my own definition of
conservative would include the following. First of all, we need to see the
world as it actually is. We need to recognize that the world or history
is--it's not a morality play. It's not a contest between good and evil.
History does not have some pre-determined direction toward the triumph of
freedom. I think that's a conservative view of the world.

And I think along with that, we need to have a conservative view of ourselves,
which means seeing ourselves as we really are and seeing American history as
it really is. You know, don't indulge in the mythic narrative of the United
States as liberator. The true narrative of American history is a narrative of
expansion in which--beginning shortly after 1776 a series of, for the most
part, very shrewd and frequently ruthless statesmen set out to enhance the
power of the United States of America step by step, enhance the wealth and
prosperity of the American people step by step, and to make possible thereby
the access to ever greater freedom for the American people. And that
narrative, roughly from the time of end of the Revolutionary War up through
the 1960s, albeit with missteps along the way, was a monumentally successful
project. As the United States goes from being this very small,
inconsequential, insignificant country on the eastern seaboard of North
America to becoming the greatest power in all the world.

Now, my argument also goes on--and I think this is where a conservative
realism is absolutely imperative today--my argument is that since the
1960s--roughly, more or less--this notion of expansionism fostering greater
power in abundance and facilitating the pursuit of freedom, that that's become
undone, that efforts to expand since the 1960s--and here above all I would
point to the global war on terror as an example--efforts to expand since the
1960s are having the effect of squandering American power, wasting our wealth
and compromising our freedom. So I think I'm a conservative acknowledging
that my conservatism, you know, doesn't look like George W. Bush's

GROSS: Well, Andrew Bacevich, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BACEVICH: Thanks a lot for having me on the program.

GROSS: Andrew Bacevich is the author of "The Limits of Power." He's a
professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a new collection of classic African-American
gospel music. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Milo Miles reviews "Classic African-American Gospel,"
a new compilation of 50 years of gospel music

It's easy for those outside the African-American Christian tradition to
overlook how much power and history both the churches and their music carry.
And even gospel fans might not realize how many nonfamous performers have done
stirring work decade after decade. A new anthology called "Classic
African-American Gospel" displays the range and persistence of sacred music.
Critic Milo Miles has a review.

Mr. MILO MILES: If Moe Asch had a guiding philosophy when he ran Folkways
Records in the 1940s into the 1980s, it was go for the margins. Partly out of
populism and partly out of parsimony, Folkways preferred the favorite local
performers to the national star, the unadorned ensemble to the elaborate act,
field recordings rather than studio sessions, even the part-timer to the solid
professional. This method favors tradition-minded musicians and produces a
body of work that shows how different modes of music persist through many
decades and how supposedly distinct types of music intersect over time. I've
never heard a finer showcase for the stark and simple Folkways mode than
"Classic African-American Gospel" selected by Kip Lornell of George Washington

Of course, the starkest and simplest recording is the solo human voice. As
Lornell notes, there's something of the 19th century spiritual in Doc Reed's
1950 version of "Low Down Death Right Easy."

(Soundbite of "Low Down Death Right Easy")

Mr. DOC REED: (Singing) Yeah...(unintelligible)...around the bed right easy
Right easy, right easy
Yeah....(unintelligible)...around my bed right easy
And bring God's servant home

Yes, low down the chariot right easy
Right easy, right easy
Yes, low down the chariot right easy
And bring God's servant home


(End of soundbite)

Mr. MILES: Now, one a cappella track from Doc Reed can be thrilling, but
listening to six of them could feel like a chore. This collection excels at
changing the sounds but keeping the plainspoken down home feel of the
performances right up front. This is that rarest of anthologies, one that's
diverse in style, but unified in concept.

Strong personalities abound, though. For example, The Missionary Quartet from
the Bahamas delivers my new favorite version of "Dry Bones." The old `thigh
bone connected to the hip bone' number.

(Soundbite of "Dry Bones")

Missionary Quartet: (Singing) Old bones, dry bones are walking
(Unintelligible)...dry bones are talking
Bones, bones, bones, bones, you hear me
Oh, bones, you hear me...(unintelligible)
And your toe and your foot bone are joined together
And your foot and your ankle bone are joined
Your ankle and your leg bone are joined together
And your leg and your knee bone are joined
And your knee and your thigh bone are joined together
And your thigh and your hip bone are joined
Ezekiel went and saw the wheels a rolling
Oh, Lord it was the turning over
Ezekiel went and saw the wheels a rolling
Buried in the middle of the...(unintelligible)

(End of soundbite)

Mr. MILES: "Classic African-American Gospel" not only features blues gospel
mixtures from the likes of Reverend Gary Davis, Leadbelly and, more
surprising, Little Brother Montgomery, but a remarkable blend by Sister
Ernestine Washington and the veteran jazz trumpeter Bunk Johnson.

In this rendition of the classic "Where Could I Go," you really can't tell
where the New Orleans swing leaves off and the gospel testifying begins.

(Soundbite of "Where Could I Go")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Well, life here is grand
With friends I love so dear
Comfort I get from God's own word
Well, but yet when I face the chilling hand of death
Tell me where could I go but to the Lord?

(End of soundbite)

Mr. MILES: Given the mandate of historical overview, compiler Lornell is
obliged to include as many gospel styles as possible. And the one time the
program flies off course is with the Mississippi Mass Choir. To me, mass
choirs deliver grandiose productions and supercharged lead vocals that sound
more frantic than ecstatic. Put it this way: It's the only track that might
make you think of Mariah Carey.

The final cut in the collection by the brass band called Madison's Lively
Stones was done in the mid-'90s, but it sounds like they could have been
captured in the years right after World War II when Folkways was just starting

(Soundbite of "It's Time To Make a Change")

Mr. MILES: The lack of polish and pretense on "Classic African-American
Gospel" combines with uncommonly sharp tune selection to create an atmosphere
where Leadbelly is no more famous than Horace Sprott, the Fisk Jubilee Singers
no more venerable than The Thrasher Wonders. The music and the congregation
of voices singing it are the stars.

GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed the new anthology "Classic
African-American Gospel" on the Smithsonian Folkways label.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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