Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
From an interview with Niall Ferguson in the Atlantic (May 25, 2004):
In the book you break down the typical pattern of U.S. intervention into a series of stages. So far in Iraq we have gone through the first and second phases—the"impressive initial military success," followed by"a flawed assessment of indigenous sentiment." Now we're heading into phase three,"a strategy of limited war and gradual escalation." (The subsequent stages you identify are,"domestic disillusionment in the face of protracted and nasty conflict,""premature democratization,""the ascendancy of domestic economic considerations," and finally,"ultimate withdrawal.")
I'm afraid most Americans tend to think of Vietnam as the parallel to Iraq, but the pattern goes back a lot further than that—at least to the Philippines in 1899. These sorts of overseas undertakings do have a tendency to go wrong. I think the book has an important contribution to make there, by pointing out that this pattern is, in a sense, a function of America's political culture. It's almost a consequence of being both a republic and an empire, that your staying power isn't very good. And I do think it helps answer the question: Why is this fantastically rich, economically sophisticated country relatively unsuccessful at overseas intervention? When you actually make a list of all the interventions, you find that only about two or three of them are unqualified successes. I don't think anybody I've read has come up with an entirely clear explanation of why the failures outnumber the successes by maybe three to one. It's a little dispiriting to be vindicated on this point, but from a selfish point of view, it beats being wrong.
I was especially interested in the second phase, the"flawed assessment of indigenous sentiment." In your book, you point out that a third of Americans thought the Contras were fighting in Norway, and you discuss the lack of Arabic speakers in the CIA. And, of course, the invasion of Iraq was pushed by a President who had only been out of the country three times before taking office.
It's obviously a phenomenon that isn't peculiar to George W. Bush. A very large proportion of Americans don't have passports. But even more striking to me is the fact that the kind of people you might expect to be well-equipped to engage in what we rather euphemistically call nation-building—that's to say, the graduates of the elite universities—disproportionately avoid overseas engagements. The ambitions of the educational elite in this country are quite domestically focused. They really would rather be running a Wall Street law firm than governing Baghdad. And I think that's a fundamental social-cultural reason why the United States is bad at empire.
Right now in Iraq, the reliance on the military is almost complete. The British operation a hundred years ago was much more evenly divided between military and civilian administration. And indeed the civilians predominated. There aren't that many Jerry Bremers. This country doesn't produce people like him in large numbers. And you need to have hundreds of them to make a success of something like this. What's interesting is that in 1945 through to the early 1950s, when Germany and Japan were the targets of American quasi-imperial nation-building, the talent was there. And the reason the talent was there was the draft. By 1945, the American armed services were full of all kinds of diverse talents because of the sheer scale of World War Two. That meant you could turn to the army in Germany in 1945 and find economists and lawyers and people who had an understanding of business. In today's volunteer professional army you don't have those skills at all. You have people who are tremendously good at being soldiers and Marines. But they're not really trained to do the sorts of thing that you have to do once you've won a war. And they're the first to admit it. They're quite candid that they are practitioners of offensive military operations—killing bad guys is what they're trained to do. The business of constructing the rule of law and a functioning market economy is about as far removed from their expertise as you could get.
Posted on: Friday, May 28, 2004 - 20:29
From an exchange on Richard Jensen's CNET list:
Matthew Richer (5-14-04)
The origins of conflicts are difficult to date, for sure. Some argue that our present conflict stems from the founding of Israel, others from our support for the Shah of Iran.
But does anyone seriously believe that Muslims knocked down the Twin Towers solely because of a grudge over Crusades?
Daniel Crandall (5-14-04)
Zuheir Abdallah, a columnist for the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, wrote
the following in a recent commentary,
"Most Arabs hate the West, especially the U.S., for many reasons; some
date back to the Crusades and the Andalusia period, and more recently, because
of Palestine and Iraq."
In an article titled 'Nine Hundred Years and Two Crusades' published in late 1999, Dr. 'Azzam Al-Tamimi predicts that the Zionist enterprise will last 88 years, just like the Crusader invasion: "On the morning of Friday, 23 Sha'ban 492 H (July 15, 1099 C.E.), Jerusalem was raped by an estimated 1 million Crusaders who came all the way from Europe to allegedly liberate local Christians from Islamic oppression. Jerusalem was consequently turned into a blood pool. Between 60,000 and 70,000 Muslims and Jews were butchered. This was the ultimate conquest of a trail of blood that extended for thousands of miles. Nine hundred years later, Jerusalem finds itself once again in bondage. The invading crusade this time does not hoist the cross but rather the Star of David. The similarities are striking. Both campaigns originated in Europe, both used religion to justify aggression and butchery, and both were in essence motivated by purely mundane (secular) rather than religious considerations. In both cases, too, it was the weakness and disunity of the Muslims that contributed to the success of the invaders... In some ways, the 12th century awakening resembles today's Islamic awakening. In some other ways, the liberation of Jerusalem after 88 years of European occupation promises an imminent end to modern-day Zionist occupation of the first Qiblah [direction of prayer - i.e. Jerusalem]. In less than 40 years from now, this vision may just prove to be true."
Source: Palestine Times, August 1999, Dr. 'Azzam Al-Tamimi, 'Nine Hundred
Years and Two Crusades.'
20, 2003, as U.S. forces launched attacks on Saddam's regime, Al-Azhar University's
Islamic Research Complex called upon all Muslims to launch a Jihad in response
to the U.S. actions: "Jihad is an individual duty for all Muslims if the
U.S. launches a war against Iraq. Arabs and Muslims should be on high alert
to defend themselves, their doctrine and lands. [Muslims] have to forget all
internal differences so as not to surrender to prospective attacks. Jihad is
an individual duty in case an enemy occupies Muslims' lands. Our Arab and Muslim
nation will face new crusades that aim to deprive us of our homeland, doctrine
I can't resist providing another example of how the Crusades still dominate the lives of many Muslims. This is a portion of one of the Friday sermons delivered in the main mosques of Saudi Arabia. These are available on the Saudi-based website www.alminbar.net. Notice how the Sheikh paints a straight line from the Crusades to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In the Mecca mosque, Sheikh Adnan Ahmad Siyami said, regarding International initiatives aimed at promoting interreligious harmony, "The Pope's recent visit to Syria, to the Al-Umawi mosque is, without a doubt, another manifestation of that call. The call by [the Pope] - may Allah punish him as he deserves - to the people of the [different] religions in Syria to live in peaceful coexistence is nothing more than an audacious call for the unification of religions, in accordance with the principle of human religious harmony. This Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, and those behind him calling for the unification of the religions, are the descendants of the Spanish inquisitors who tortured the Muslims most abominably. They are the descendants of those who led the Crusades to the Islamic East, in which thousands of Muslims were killed and their wives taken captive in uncountable numbers. They are the perpetrators of the massacres in Bosnia-Herzegovina. in Kosovo, in Indonesia, and in Chechnya. Can we expect compassion from these murderous wolves? What made the Pope go on his visit was his dissatisfaction with the robbing of the Muslims' lands; he wanted also to rob their religion, so that they lose both this world and the Hereafter."
Again this is from the MEMRI
Posted on: Tuesday, May 25, 2004 - 21:34
Franz Schurmann, editor of the Pacific News Service and emeritus professor of history and sociology at U.C. Berkeley, in PNS (May 18, 2004):
Much of the American media paint the President as helplessly caught in the vortex of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. But the fact is that Bush, by saying only a few words, can easily resolve the Iraq conundrum by announcing that the bulk of American soldiers will be home before June 30 this year.
However, the history of America's wars since February 1945 suggests that, just before ending a war and bringing soldiers home, the then-presidents all felt they had to -- or had to threaten to -- kill large numbers of enemy soldiers and civilians as their exit strategy. For example:
--Franklin D. Roosevelt and his British ally Winston Churchill, on February 13-15, 1945, carried out raids against the demilitarized German city of Dresden. Deaths: 135,000 or more. Both leaders knew Germany was on the brink
--Harry Truman knew in July 1945 that Japan's leaders were desperately looking for a deal. Japan's vaunted navy had no fuel and its army was seething with discontent. Nevertheless, Truman dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, and another one on Nagasaki on Aug. 9. Total deaths: 150,000. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan on Aug. 7, and Japan's surrender came on Aug. 14.
--Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in November 1952, and in July 1953 ended the Korean War. Up until the day of the signing of the Panmunjon Truce Accords on July 27, President Eisenhower kept on threatening both the North
Koreans and their Chinese allies with laying a radioactive cobalt belt over the narrow neck of North Korea that would shield South Korea from any new attack from the North. But former General Eisenhower undoubtedly knew that the cobalt belt was militarily useless since American planes had already flattened every city and town in North Korea.
--Richard Nixon, after his November 1972 landslide electoral victory, ordered the most severe bombings ever of Hanoi and other cities and towns of North Vietnam. The media called it Nixon's Christmas presents for Hanoi. Yet on January 27, 1973, the United States and the two Vietnams signed a peace accord in Paris.
--George H. Bush presided over the Gulf War, the shortest war in American history with the fewest American deaths and injuries. But according to a recent Business Week story, Beth Osborne Daponte, a demographer in the Commerce Department assigned to do work for the Pentagon, estimated in 1992 that 40,000 Iraqi soldiers died along with 13,000 civilians. Much of that destruction happened after Saddam had abandoned Kuwait. Then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney rejected her figures.
What the exit strategies of all these presidents have in common is that they all had little military merit, but were designed to terrorize entire populations of enemies, and impress allies and the American people as well. In the two World War II cases, total victory was at hand. In the Korean and Vietnam wars, draws were at hand. And in the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein had moved his troops out of Kuwait. The killing of most of the 40,000 Iraqi soldiers while they were retreating was an act of terror aimed at both enemies and friends, with the message that, if enemy or even friend got out of line they would again suffer destruction from the sky.
President George W. Bush has announced that, at June 30 midnight, America will return Iraqi sovereignty to a legal government. Colin Powell in Amman, Jordan, and Condoleeza Rice in Berlin reinforced this date. If the President follows in the footsteps of five of his predecessors, including his father, he will launch a massive terror attack in Iraq before June 30.
The target that stands out in Iraq is the war waged in the Shiite holy shrine cities of An-Najaf and Karbala. There, an"Army of the Mahdi" led by Muqtada al-Sadr has been fighting American forces for many months. Last week, Iran announced that an agreement had been concluded between the Army of the Mahdi and the Americans. But now the"Tehran Times" reports that on Sunday, May 16, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blasted the desecration of Iraqi holy sites by U.S. troops. Khamenei, though a hard liner, has been a supporter of better relations with America. But when American soldiers apparently damaged the holiest shrines of the Shiite faith, his tone turned hard again.
If George W. Bush opts for an endgame strategy similar to his father's, chances are that his ratings in the polls will go way up, at least temporarily. He is betting that Khamenei will accept the endgame as he did in February 1991, though the Iranian leader fulminated then about the Great Satan. And it would send a message, lethal as it would be, both to the Iraqis and the Iranians.
Posted on: Saturday, May 22, 2004 - 03:16
Victor Davis Hanson, on his website (May 21, 2004):
General William Tecumseh Sherman--a quirky, difficult, and much misunderstood man--deserves a place on the roll call of great liberators in human history. More than any other person, he destroyed the institution of American slavery and the Southern aristocracy that was interwoven with it. In the late fall of 1864 he marched an army of over 60,000 rural, voting Americans--mostly farmers from the Midwest--into the heart of the Confederacy, a patrician society based on bound labor. Shermans agrarian citizen-soldiers upended that world of slaves and masters, instantly liberated tens of thousands, and helped therein to destroy forever the idea of privileged nobility in America. In a 300-mile march covering less than 40 days these armed men changed the entire psychological and material course of our national history.
Make no mistake about it--Sherman waged total war. After taking and burning the city of Atlanta, he set off across the heart of Georgia on his way to the Atlantic coast. Moving without an unwieldy supply chain, his men lived off the land. Earlier Northern battlefield successes had neither destroyed Southern morale nor dented the Confederacys ability to field new armies. Union forces had gotten to within a few miles of the Confederate capital in Richmond yet the South had not sued for peace and did not, in fact, feel it was beaten.
This army, however, was aimed at the heartland of the Southern aristocrats--their land and slaves--and left them impotent and discredited before their helpless women and children. Facing little opposition once they left Atlanta, Shermans men destroyed the very infrastructure that supported slavery and upheld the slaveholding elites--plantations, communications, factories, and government facilities. Southern military officers put great capital in the idea of the sanctity of the Southern homeland. They deemed themselves great raiders and marauders, who harassed fixed garrisons and terrorized timid populations. Sherman, however, gave the Confederacy the raid of its life. The central objective could be summed up quite simply: Freeing the unfree and humiliating the arrogant.
As the war dragged on, President Lincoln and his Union generals persisted in the idea of unconditional surrender and with it the end of slavery. Facing the specter of an egalitarian nation where race and class would lose their power to command, recalcitrant Southern elites dug in deeper for their Armageddon of 1864. There was no tomorrow in defeat, so the entry of Northern invaders created an understandable panic over the end to an entire way of a century-old existence. Many Southerners lived far removed from the mainstream of North American mores. Defeat, the planters believed, would mean surrender to a foreign culture antithetical to their existing hierarchies. It would wash away status gained at birth, and allow neutral, heartless markets to govern the opportunity of all citizens. Success and status would be found solely in profit, not in inherited reputation. An all-powerful and distant federal government, not local oligarchic councils, would to a far greater degree dictate how money was raised and spent.
Shermans men delivered much of what the South feared: not only because they were ordered to, but because gradually they became driven, by an ideological furor, to destroy the nature of Southern aristocracy. At the outset, the Midwesterners Sherman led really knew almost nothing about slavery or slaves. Indeed, most Northerners had never seen a Negro or a plantation; many were, in the abstract, racists. But once Shermans men observed the conditions in which slaves were kept unfree, and the ideology and venom of the so-called master class, there arose among these small farmers from the mid-American frontier a powerful repulsion. Very quickly, Shermans young troops came to abhor the rich Georgians they overran. A soldier from Illinois was only too happy to burn Atlanta; it "and every other Southern city deserve nothing better than general destruction," he wrote, for "buying and selling" other human beings.
Enlisted men talked agitatedly of the exploitation they saw, and their officers nodded in agreement. Given that almost all the regimental commanders of Shermans forces had been promoted from within the army, and that almost 50 percent of the armys captains and 90 percent of its lieutenants had also served as enlisted men, there was an unmatched familiarity between officer and soldier--and thus a deep populism embedded in the ranks. A Southern witness in the Carolinas wrote of the unanimity of spirit and cause within Shermans army:
"The officers and men are on terms of perfect equality socially. Off duty they drink together, go arm in arm about the town, call each other by the first name, in a way that startles. . . . A friend heard a private familiarly addressing a Brigadier General as Jake. Miss Lee saw another General taking hold with his men to help move a lot of barrels on a wharf. He took off his coat and worked three hours, like a common porter. This seems strange to us, accustomed to the aristocratic system.....
Historians operating with the modernist assumption that idealism is only a veneer for self-interest, that war is always amoral rather than on occasion utilitarian, and uncomfortable with absolute notions of good and evil, have downplayed the actions of Shermans soldiers as political avenging angels. But the root of the fearsome spirit and success of Shermans Union soldiers in Georgia was their collective fervor for emancipation and destruction of the tyrannical Southern ruling class. Sherman and his Midwestern farmer-fighters had a keen appreciation that the landed lords of the South, for all their proclamations about states rights and the preservation of liberty as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, had championed secession mostly to preserve and expand their own vast estates and multitudes of slaves. Property and position, not ideas, were the ultimate issue of this war. This Sherman, almost alone of Northern generals, understood.
After Shermans march through Georgia and the Carolinas, every child of
the South knew that the will of the Confederate people, as well as their army,
had been crushed. Yet, Sherman killed very few, and with genuine reluctance.
Rapes during the march were almost unknown. But he and his men were harshly
unkind to the elitists running the Southern plantations. In the process, these
soldiers did more than any abolitionist or liberator ever born in our country
to guarantee the American proposition that each man is as good as another.
Posted on: Friday, May 21, 2004 - 21:32
Christian G. Appy, in the Boston Globe (May 16, 2004):
ON MAY 4, CNN's Larry King asked Secretary of State Colin Powell about the
photographs showing American GIs abusing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.
"I don't know what to make of it," Powell said. "I'm shocked.
I mean, I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. . .. In war these sorts
of horrible things happen every now and again, but they're still to be deplored."
It was a startling moment: an unsolicited reference to the most infamous American atrocity of the Vietnam War from a top official in an administration that has routinely rejected any analogies to that failed two-decade-long effort to create a permanent non-Communist South Vietnam. Ordinarily, the Bush administration won't even use the word "guerrilla" - never mind "quagmire" - for fear of conjuring up a nightmarish history. And in the most recent of his rare press conferences, the president insisted that any comparison between our occupation of Iraq and the Vietnam War was not only false but would strengthen the enemy and demoralize our troops.
Perhaps, then, it's a measure of just how rapidly the American mission in
Iraq has unraveled that our secretary of state would remind us of March 16,
1968. That was the day a company of US infantrymen landed by helicopter in the
South Vietnamese village of My Lai. Though they had been told to expect fierce
armed resistance, they did not receive a single round of hostile fire. Nonetheless,
during the next four hours, with time out for C-rations and cigarettes, the
American soldiers proceeded to slaughter 504 civilians, most of whom were old
people, women, and children. According to former door-gunner Larry Colburn,
who along with helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson managed to save some of the Vietnamese
villagers in My Lai, the GIs "were butchering people. The only thing they
didn't do was cook 'em and eat 'em."
As the massacre unfolded, colonels and generals flew in choppers over the scene. Those
officers and many others participated in a massive coverup that successfully prevented the world from learning of the atrocity for 20 months. It might never have surfaced had it not been for the persistence of Ron Ridenhour, a Vietnam veteran who learned of the massacre and reported it to hundreds of military and political authorities. The arrest of Lt. William Calley, a platoon leader at My Lai, did not gain national attention until investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, then working as a freelance journalist, published accounts of the massacre through an alternative news service in the fall of 1969, at first primarily in Europe. Only then did major American publications like Life pick up the story and publish gruesome photographs of the carnage.
The killing of several Iraqi prisoners, and the torture and abuse of others, is not equivalent to the slaughter of 504 Vietnamese civilians. Nor has the military's effort to prevent, or at least delay, the full exposure of wrong-doing at Abu Ghraib equalled the My Lai coverup, which included the reporting of a phony battle in place of the massacre. (The mainstream press, including The New York Times, initially ran the false story, relying on US military accounts.) Yet the two events certainly merit comparison.
Indeed, on the surface some of the parallels are almost uncanny. In both cases GI whistleblowers (Joe Darby now, Ridenhour then) prompted investigation, the work of Seymour Hersh (now writing for The New Yorker) was crucial to public exposure, and graphic photographic evidence made it impossible to refute the horrible nature of the crimes. (As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it in testimony before the Senate last week, "Words don't do it." More significantly, the memory of My Lai should prompt us to think about how the current revelations will affect homefront opinion of the American occupation of Iraq. Then, as now, US officials attributed "un-American" behavior to a few, low-ranking "bad apples" who either lacked proper training or acted in defiance of higher authority. Then, as now, our leaders assured us that the crimes of a few were an isolated aberration from an otherwise just cause. And then, as now, many Americans seemed, for a time at least, willing to believe them.
In 1969 domestic responses to My Lai included a mix of outrage, disbelief, denial, and evasion. Some people insisted that the photographs had been fabricated or that the Viet Cong had actually done the killing. Others tried to diminish the wrongdoing by arguing that the Communists had committed even worse atrocities. With time, however, the "everybody does it" rationale wore thin among a people raised to believe that Americans have a higher regard for human life, and a higher standard of civilized behavior, than their enemies.
Eventually My Lai marked a turning point in American attitudes almost as significant as the Tet Offensive of 1968. Even many who continued to support the war increasingly doubted Washington's ability to prosecute it successfully. And millions who had believed the war a misguided policy or a tragic mistake began to consider the possibility that it was fundamentally unjust and immoral. That claim had long been a staple of speeches at antiwar rallies and articles in underground newspapers, but by the early 1970s it was debated for the first time in small-town coffee shops, executive offices, and mass-circulation magazines.
Not long after My Lai was exposed, antiwar veterans like John Kerry began to testify that war crimes were an inevitable outcome of such military policies as rewarding units that compiled the highest "body counts"; the creation of "free fire zones" in which US forces were permitted to kill "anything that moves"; the burning, napalming, and bombing of Vietnamese villages; the poisoning of wells and food supplies; and the torturing of prisoners with electric shocks from field radios.
Presidential candidate Kerry has downplayed his 1971 claims that US policies sanctioned war crimes. But even now, more than three decades later, evidence continues to surface indicating that the My Lai massacre was exceptional only in its scale of unjustified killing. Last month The Toledo Blade won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles documenting a seven-month long "rampage" in 1967 by an elite "Tiger Force" unit of the 101st Airborne Division that included rape, torture, mutilation, and murder. Perhaps the real surprise here is that such stories continue to be regarded as news. Historian Nicholas Turse, writing in The Village Voice earlier this month, reported that he has found hundreds of analogous war crimes in public US military records from the Vietnam War.