Following War Tragedy, Son and Father Revered

Boston Globe

May 21, 2007 – Professor Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University rarely discussed his son’s service in Iraq, where the lieutenant was living a dream as an Army officer charged with the life-and-death responsibilities of a platoon leader.

The younger Andrew J. Bacevich, a 2003 graduate of BU, only sparingly mentioned to classmates and co-workers the well-known professor whom he resembled so closely in appearance and character.

But if they did not draw public attention to their relationship, father and son nonetheless seemed to be mirror images of each other to friends, co-workers, and comrades in the military. The adjectives they use, over and over, to describe the pair create an extraordinary portrait of the two: intelligent, confident, thoughtful, courageous, determined, and patriotic.

Now, First Lieutenant Andrew J. Bacevich, 27, is dead, mortally wounded by a suicide bomber May 13 in Iraq. And his father, who served in Vietnam and later rose to the rank of Army colonel, is left to ponder the searing loss of an only son in a war the professor has bitterly criticized.

“Our kinship is that we, he and I, had a knack for picking the wrong war in which to serve,” Bacevich told WBUR radio after his son’s death.

A professor of history and international relations, Bacevich told the radio station he has been struggling to fathom his own responsibility in his son’s loss. As a citizen, Bacevich said, he felt compelled to assail what he saw as an immoral war and a “catastrophic failure.” And yet, he added, exercising that responsibility does not seem to have made a difference.

“What kind of democracy is this, when the people do speak, and the people’s voice is unambiguous, but nothing happens?” said Bacevich, 59, who lives in Walpole.

Despite his opposition to the war, Bacevich supported his son’s decision to follow him into the Army, said Katy Bacevich, 22, one of young Andrew’s three sisters. According to colleagues, the elder Bacevich has always viewed the Army as a noble calling, which gives citizens the chance to give back to the country but should not exclude independent thought. And in that dynamic, they added, lies the strength of a man to whom patriotism does not preclude dissent. “His view of the military comes from a country he loves and an institution he cherished,” said Michael T. Corgan, a BU professor of international relations, who served two tours as a Navy officer in the Vietnam War. But to Bacevich’s mind, he said, “it’s his patriotic duty to speak out and say what he’s seeing rather than go along because it’s easier. Here’s a man of moral and physical courage.”

Bacevich has also brought that message to the classroom. Larry W. Matthews , a retired Army colonel and Gulf War veteran, encountered Bacevich during a Pentagon-sponsored program in 1997 at Johns Hopkins University, where Bacevich led a seminar. Bacevich’s message, Matthews recalled, was that as long as you could back up an argument, “you can, as an officer, challenge and disagree. . . . That’s a new muscle for some military folks.”

The seeds of Bacevich’s values were planted in Illinois, where he was raised as a deeply religious Catholic before enrolling at the US Military Academy. Shortly after his 1969 graduation from West Point, where he had been class president, was a poetry editor, and a rugby player, “Skip” Bacevich served as a lieutenant in Vietnam.

His 23-year Army career later included command of an armor regiment in 1991 in Kuwait, where Bacevich attracted the attention of another colonel, William Nash, who eventually became a major general in charge of US forces in Bosnia.

“He was a top-notch professional, both on the intellectual side and the practical side of soldiering,” said Nash, who has retired from the Army and is a senior fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think his analysis of the Iraq war has been extremely thorough, well-reasoned, and sound, and I can’t think of anything he’s said that I disagree with.”

Bacevich, who declined requests for an interview, seems difficult to categorize ideologically. In his writings, he has criticized both what he views as the self-indulgence of the radical left, and a neoconservative philosophy that endorses “preventive war” such as the invasion of Iraq.

The current war, he wrote March 1 in an opinion article in the Globe, has alienated America’s friends, emboldened its enemies, and left the nation in greater danger.

To Nash, Bacevich’s positions are bolstered by academic rigor and should be taken seriously.

“He has been intellectually solid and, I think this is very important, has differed with policy but not with service to the country,” Nash said. “When our chicken hawks of the administration try to argue that if you’re against what they’re doing, you’re unpatriotic, Skip Bacevich is living proof that it’s not true.”

The news of the younger Bacevich’s death hit Nash hard.

“The death of young Andy really makes me mad,” the retired general said. “Why? Well, because here’s a loyal soldier serving his country without regard to the wisdom of his country’s policies.”

Nash paused, then added softly: “Thank God we have people like that. Thank God.”

The younger Bacevich found the path to the Army to be much more difficult than his father’s. After a year in the ROTC program at BU, Bacevich was forced to leave because of a childhood history of asthma. Both Bacevich and his father were distressed at the setback and appealed the decision, said Beri Gilfix, the university’s Army ROTC office manager.

Although the younger Bacevich showed his fitness while a BU student by running the Boston Marathon in 3 hours, 35 minutes, the Army’s tough stance against asthmatics stood. The Army later relaxed its asthma restrictions. And in 2005, determined to join the Army despite almost-certain deployment to Iraq, Bacevich enlisted as a private and was accepted into Officer Candidate School.

“He didn’t have to join the military,” said Alexie Holmberg, 27, an Army veteran of Afghanistan who knew Bacevich in ROTC. “He could have gotten out of college and started making big money and living in places a lot nicer than Iraq. I’ll tell you what, we were lucky to have him in our Army.”

Holmberg, who has left active duty and is an Army captain in the Massachusetts National Guard, had used Professor Bacevich as an academic adviser. To Holmberg, the similarities between father and son were striking.

“They’re very solid characters. They were guys who were built on real solid foundations,” Holmberg said. “His dad was what you think of as an army colonel — very intelligent, very to the point, and very candid.”

Although he tried hard to keep his son in ROTC, the elder Bacevich steered clear of his son’s studies under fellow BU professors of international relations.

“We knew he was proud of his son,” Corgan said. “But Andy wouldn’t dream of asking anybody to do something on behalf of his son. Andy set a standard of behavior and performance, and his son measured up to that.”

Like his father, the younger Bacevich, who graduated from the College of Communication, showed a propensity for history and the benefits of a well-researched argument. Former colleagues at the State House, where Bacevich worked as an aide to Governor Mitt Romney and former state senator Jo Ann Sprague, a Walpole Republican, praised his ability to learn the intricacies of the legislative process.

“We always made the joke that Andrew had the most important job,” said Matthew Grew, who was associate director of Romney’s legislative office when Bacevich worked there in 2004. When a bill would go to the governor’s desk, Grew said, Bacevich would solicit reactions from concerned groups and then prepare a briefing for senior staff. “He was a really dedicated guy, and he exuded confidence,” Grew said.

Doug Shea, who was Sprague’s chief of staff, said Bacevich came to the office as a BU intern with a confidence seldom seen at that age. “Most of them are self-conscious and tread lightly,” he said.

That assessment was echoed by Joe Denneen, who also worked in Sprague’s office and is now chairman of the Walpole Selectmen. “The State House just came natural to him,” Denneen said.

A funeral Mass for Bacevich will be said at 10 a.m. today in St. Timothy’s Church in Norwood, near his Walpole home.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at

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