January 14, 2005

Comparative History Helps Put Iraq in Perspective

Marc Comtois
In one of my first Grad school history classes, my professor brought to my attention that there is a difference between "History" and "preferred remembrance." Victor Hanson, himself a historian, has written an essay that reminded me of this lesson. Hanson's essay, written to counter the contradictory charges of the Iraq War "presentist-revisionists," provides a historical comparison that calls upon the common American view of World War II as the "good war." While I try to eschew lengthy excerpts, I think this one is important as it illustrates that a little perspective is needed when evaluating the "quagmire" and "failures" of Iraq. Please keep two things in mind when reading this excerpt. First, Hanson is not trying to belittle the heroic efforts of our "greatest generation" in this essay, he is merely trying to point out that, despite all that went wrong in the course of fighting World War II, the United States persevered because it was the right thing to do. As such, Americans are, and should be, justifiably proud in the actions of the United States during World War II and the Cold War. Second, he provides historical context to amplify the differences between the historical "then" and remembered "now" of WWII and the same dynamic as it presently exists in the Iraq War discourse.
We now look back in awe at World War II, the model of military success, in which within four years an unprepared United States won two global wars, at sea, on the ground, and in the air, in three continents against Japan, Italy, and Germany, and supplied both England and the Soviet Union. But our forefathers experienced disaster after disaster in a tale of heartbreak, almost as inglorious as the Korean mess or Vietnam tragedy. And they did things to win we perhaps claim we would now not: Shoot German prisoners in the Bulge, firebomb Axis cities, drop the bomb — almost anything to stop fascists from slaughtering even more millions of innocents.

Our armored vehicles were deathtraps and only improved days before the surrender. American torpedoes were often duds. Unescorted daylight bombing proved a disaster, but continued. Amphibious assaults like Anzio and Tarawa were bloodbaths and emblematic of terrible planning and command. The recapture of Manila was clumsy and far too costly. Okinawa was the worst of all operations, and yet was begun just over fourth months before the surrender — without any planning for Kamikazes who were shortly to kill 5,000 American sailors. Patton, the one general that could have ended the western war in 1944, was relieved and then subordinated to an auxiliary position with near fatal results for the drive from Normandy; mediocrities like Mark Clark flourished and were promoted. Admiral King resisted the life-saving convoy system and unnecessarily sacrificed merchant ships; while Bull Halsey almost lost his unprepared fleet to a storm.

The war's aftermath seemed worse, to be overseen by an untried president who was considered an abject lightweight. Not-so-quite collateral damage had ruined entire cities. Europe nearly starved in winter 1945-6. Millions were on the road in mass exoduses. After spending billions to destroy Nazi Germany we had to spend billions more to rebuild it — and repair the devastation it had wrought on its neighbors. Our so-called partisan friends in Yugoslavia and Greece turned out to be hard-core Communist killers. Soon enough we learned that the guerrillas in the mountains of Europe whom we had idolized, in fact, fought as much for Communism as against fascism — but never for democracy.

But at least there was clear-cut strategic success? Oh? The war started to keep Eastern Europe free of Nazis and ended up ensuring that it was enslaved by Stalinists. Poland was neither free in 1940 nor in 1946. By early 1946 we were already considering putting former Luftwaffe pilots in American jets — improved with ample borrowing from Nazi technology — to protect Europe from the Red Army carried westward on GM trucks. We put Nazis on trials for war crimes even as we invited their scientists to our shores to match their counterparts in the Soviet Union who were building even more lethal weapons to destroy us. Our utopian idea of a global U.N. immediately deteriorated into a mess — decades of vetoes in the Security Council by Stalinists and Maoists, even as former colonial states turned thugocracies in the General Assembly ganged up on Israel and the survivors of the Holocaust.

After Americans had liberated France and restored his country, General de Gaulle created the myth of the French resistance and immediately triangulated with our enemies to reforge some pathetic sort of French grandeur. An exhausted England turned over to us a collapsing empire, with the warning that it might all turn Communist. Tired of the war and postbellum costs, Americans suddenly were asked to wage a new Cold War to keep a shrinking West and its allies free. The Department of War turned into the Department of Defense, along with weird new things like the U.S. Air Force, Strategic Air Command, Food for Peace, Alliance for Progress, Voice of America, and thousands of other costly entities never dreamed of just a few years earlier.

And yet our greatest generation thought by and large they had done pretty well. We in contrast would have given up in despair in 1942, New York Times columnists and NPR pundits pontificating "I told you so" as if we were better off sitting out the war all along.
Thus, despite all of the personal and more widespread tragedy and failure that occurred during World War II, Americans, both current and contemporary, have correctly viewed the efforts of the U.S. as admirable and good. Time and the passions of proximity provide perspective when looking at the truly "Big Things" accomplished. Would it be that more people could take off their ideological blinders and see history while it is being made in Iraq.
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Thank you for this contribution Marc. One thing I can't help but ponder whenever I see somebody decrying the number of military fatalities over the past 12 months in Iraq is that per capita-wise, it's just a little bit more dangerous over there than driving around in the U.S. of A.

Posted by: smmtheory at January 17, 2005 10:43 PM

Yes, I am constantly troubled by the lack of perspective that is perpetuated by the media's treatment of the War in Iraq. I believe that what has happened is that reporters are treating the attacks and resultant fatalities in Iraq as if they are "crimes" in the American sense and are thus doing "crime scene" style reporting, but on a national level. It is important to note that nearly every attack is in the same geographically limited area of Iraq. I just fear that the average American/news consumer will not notice this. Iraq is certainly NOT another Vietnam. Unfortunately, without proper perspective, it seems the media is trying its best to make it so.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at January 18, 2005 9:48 AM

Another unfortunate item is that the Viet Nam war was noble and winnable until the politicians (who lived and died via publicity) became too nervous about bad publicity and lost the will to do the right thing. That alone is the only reason the media is able to portray Iraq as 'another' Viet Nam.

Posted by: smmtheory at January 18, 2005 9:56 PM

Yes, it is sort of a self-generated, self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling prophecy as told to us by the media, isn't it?

Posted by: Marc Comtois at January 19, 2005 7:17 AM


Posted by: smmtheory at January 19, 2005 10:25 PM