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Professor critiques war apathy

Dan Brombach | Thursday, October 4, 2012

Choose one of two options in the war on terror: Either assent to continued war as necessary for the preservation of freedom and commit fully to its material and human costs, or abandon the struggle and settle for a constricted definition of liberty.

These were the two options Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich presented to Americans on Wednesday afternoon in his lecture titled, “Cheap Grace and the American Way of War.”

Bacevich said the way in which the United States has waged war since the September 11 terrorist attacks can be defined by the term “cheap grace,” meaning the American public enjoys a life of freedom and privilege without participating in the armed conflicts that ensure these liberties.

By disengaging from the war effort, attempting to live unaffected lives by placing the burden on politicians, volunteer military forces and future generations, the American public has indulged in a “cheap grace” of unearned gifts, Bacevich said.

“[American soldiers] fought while we watched, uninvolved and seemingly unaffected,” Bacevich said. “When it came to fighting and dying, we not only got a free pass, but we got to feel good about it. Courtesy of the Bush administration, this free pass also extended to the financial cost, with the obligation to pay for this global war on terror falling on future generations of taxpayers.”

Bacevich contrasted the “cheap grace” of the war on terror with the shared sacrifice and commitment to the military cause displayed by the American public during World War II.

He said World War II is an example of “costly grace,” or grace earned through struggle and unified devotion to the cause of freedom. For example, Bacevich said this idea of costly grace is visible through the equality of American public participation created by the draft system.

“When it came to raising an army, equitability became a defining precept,” Bacevich said. “Rather than relying on volunteers, the United States implemented a system of conscription. The draft took black and white, rich and poor, the famous and the obscure, and Ivy Leaguers and high school dropouts.

“In other words, the United States waged World War II with a citizen army that reflected the reigning precepts of American democracy.”
Bacevich said such notions of collective responsibility in warfare have been replaced by a system in which citizens outsource their duty to defend American freedoms to a distant “warrior class,” alleviating their guilt for doing so through displays of veneration for the troops.

He compared this unbalanced relationship between the public and armed forces to that between the lower class and the financial elite of the one percent.

“If the one percent who are very rich are engaged in ruthlessly exploiting those who are not rich, their actions are analogous to that of American society as a whole in its treatment of soldiers,” Bacevich said. “The 99 percent who do not serve in uniform just as ruthlessly exploit those who do serve.”

The costly grace of complete public sacrifice during World War II launched the United States to dizzying heights of prosperity, whereas more than a decade of public disenfranchisement and cheap grace in the fight against global terrorism has dragged the country into its current pit of recession and moral uncertainty, Bacevich said.

The United States must either involve the public in its continued war efforts or accept limitations to its freedoms.

“Cheap grace has turned out not to be that cheap after all,” Bacevich said. “It ends up exacting its own costs.”