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“Passive Citizenship is Not Enough”

by Nancy C. Unger on Mar 29, 2007

Nancy C. Unger

Andrew J. Bacevich, Boston University professor and frequent critic of the war in Iraq, has startled his many readers by saying that “the will of the people” has no meaningful role in American politics.

Following the death of Andrew Bacevich, Jr., in that war on Mother’s Day, Professor Bacevich claims that while his son did his best to serve the country, his own books, articles, and op-ed pieces accomplished nothing. Yet his declaration denies the real value of the insightful protest that he has worked so hard to foster.

Bacevich’s claim that the will of the people has been ignored at all levels of government and on both sides of the congressional aisle itself ignores the fact that many people, and their representatives in Congress, continue the struggle to end the war. Protest HAS had an impact. Imagine the current state of affairs in the Middle East without it.

Bacevich himself served in Vietnam, ultimately rising to the rank of colonel before becoming an academic. A conservative, he nevertheless became one of the most thoughtful early critics of the war that ultimately took his only son. His current despair over American politics can hardly be dismissed as baseless cynicism or bitterness spawned by personal grief.

Bacevich contends that free speech is rendered little more than a means of recording dissent. Suppose he’s right. This certainly isn’t the first time that the will of the people has been defied. Although a plurality of Americans opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam by late 1967, the last American troops weren’t withdrawn until 1973. And yet few would dispute that opposition at home ultimately contributed to the conflict’s final resolution.

History is rife with patriots like Bacevich whose efforts to put their country on a better path were repeatedly spurned. Before he paid the ultimate price for his beliefs, Martin Luther King Jr., not only spent time in jail for repeated arrests but was stabbed and stoned. And it could be argued that it was all for nothing, as the United States is even now hardly a nation of racial equality. Yet what would our country be like today without King and all the others who persisted in their fight against a recalcitrant government?

The progressives at the turn of the last century fought against a government that was so openly corrupt that congressional seats were sold to the highest bidder, and urban bosses bragged publicly of the profits they made off graft. Undaunted despite repeated defeats, progressives battled for election and lobbying reform, ultimately culminating in the direct elections of senators and campaign and lobbying restrictions.

The continuation of the war in Iraq today demonstrates vividly that corruption of the government’s responsibility to represent the will of the people is hardly permanently banished. The progressive leader Robert La Follette foresaw this eventuality in a speech he gave hundreds of times in the early 1920s: “America is not made, but is in the making. There is an unending struggle to make and keep government representative. Mere passive citizenship is not enough. Men must be aggressive for what is right if government is to be saved from those who are aggressive for what is wrong.”

According to the English philosopher Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” La Follette agreed: “There is work for everyone. The field is large. It is a glorious service, this service for the country. Every American should count it a patriotic duty to build at least a part of his life into the life of his country, to do his share in the making of America according to the plan of the fathers.”

Professor Bacevich and his son, each in his own way, carried out their patriotic duty in the current war. Neither served in vain. Pentagon planners are searching for ways to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq as they shift the mission from combat to support. Even the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, recognizes that “the handwriting is on the wall,” and expects President Bush to move in a different direction in the fall.

All American citizens owe both Baceviches a debt of gratitude — and all have a responsibility to be aggressive for what is right if our government is be to saved, yet again, from those who are aggressive for what is wrong.


Nancy C. Unger is associate professor of history at Santa Clara University. She is author of “Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History” (Oxford University Press, 2012).