Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Vietnam/Iraq analogy and the historical profession

Bush operatives are announcing that the President plans to make a major foreign policy speech next week in which he will, like Giuliani in last month's Foreign Affairs, claim that the lesson of the Vietnam War for today's war in Iraq is that we must stay the course:

"Here at home, some can argue our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price to American credibility -- but the terrorists see things differently," Bush plans to tell a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, according to speech excerpts released late Tuesday by the White House.

Bush will argue that the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam had dire consequences for the people in that region and so would a withdrawal from Iraq.

"Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left," Bush will say. "Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps,' and 'killing fields.'"

Where does Bush get this stuff from, you might well ask. Certainly, the vast majority of mainstream professional historians scoff at these views of Vietnam. The LA Times article, for example, cites Bob Dallek's sputtering reaction:

Historian Robert Dallek, who has written about the comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam, accused Bush of twisting history. "It just boggles my mind, the distortions I feel are perpetrated here by the president," he said in a telephone interview.

"We were in Vietnam for 10 years. We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II in every theater. We lost 58,700 American lives, the second-greatest loss of lives in a foreign conflict. And we couldn't work our will," he said.

"What is Bush suggesting? That we didn't fight hard enough, stay long enough? That's nonsense. It's a distortion," he continued.

Dallek of course is right that what Bush is saying is arrant historical nonsense, motivated by a desire to lay political blame for the disaster on his opponents. Dallek is also right that "the disaster is the consequence of going in, not getting out." But I am afraid that these points are largely irrelevant.

What's critical here is that Bush is drawing his history not from the professional historians, but from an alternative, parallel universe of historical knowledge. Specifically, the two works that lie in the background to Bush's "lessons of Vietnam" are A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam by Lewis Sorley, whose job is as a Member of Board of Governors at the Reagan Ranch; and Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 by Mark Moyar, who currently serves as an adjunct instructor at the Marine Corps college in Quantico, having been unable to secure regular academic appointment.

The epistemic community of professional academic historians tends to dismiss the knowledges expressed in these works with words like "amateur," "unrigorous," "journalistic," "hack" and so on. In fact, what Dallek's fulminating animadversions suggest is that the scholarly community does not really understand that works such as these are best understood as (asymmetric) competitors for the hearts and minds of the American public. Dalek's comments reminded me of the helpless hand-wringing at the dinner I attended at the Society for History of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) last year. "How could we [professional diplomatic historians] have let the Iraq war happen?" one historian asked, in all seriousness. Embedded in her rhetorical question was the assumption that it was the historians assembled in that hall that were the actual arbiters of the nation's understanding of its own historical past. What she misunderstood (or perhaps did not know) was that she and her professional peers are neither the only nor (arguably) the most influential producers of knowledge about this nation's past.

To dismiss writers like Sorley and Moyar as producers of somehow sub-legitimate forms of knowledge is thus to miss the point. In fact, they are members of an alternative history movement, one which produces knowledge that is at least as impactful on popular and policy-maker conceptions of the past as anything produced in the academy. This alternative history industry occupies a similar epistemic place relative to professional historians that the holistic medicine movement does to the doctors in the AMA: we professional historians may view the ideas expressed in these books as crackpot quackery, but this professional opinion doesn't stop millions of people from rejecting the professionals' diagnoses, and instead adopting the quacks' recommendations.

What's more, these counter-historians understand, perhaps at a deeper level than most professional historians, that defining popular conceptions of key historical events is crucial for enabling current policy-making. (In this case, winning the political battle to stay in Iraq all but requires redefining in the American popular imagination what it means to fight an endless land war in Asia -- an image currently defined by the "quagmire" image of the Vietnam War.) The American Right realized in the 1980s that they had lost control of academic producers of historical knowledge. Academic historians were no longer producing historical knowledge that was usable by the Right. What the Right needed to do, therefore, was to set up a parallel knowledge production industry. While rehearsing the history of right-wing think tanks and their wingnut funders would take a long time, suffice it to say that the historical knowledge which fuels the political agenda of the American Right is today only rarely produced by academic historians. Instead, most of the historical knowledge circulating on the Right has been produced by knowledge entrepreneurs from outside the academy, working in think tanks, for opinion journals, and "independently."

This "historical knowledge industry" understands that the battle to dominate popular conceptions of key historical events does not take place by getting articles published in peer-reviewed journals, but rather by producing knowledge in formats and venues that reach wide popular audiences as well as the political-appointee community inside the Beltway. It likely pains professional historians to hear this, but the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal (as well as relatively unwonky policy journals like Foreign Affairs and The Weekly Standard) are far more influential in defining popular understandings of key episodes in the nation's past than are the articles published in the American Historical Review, the Journal of Cold War Studies or Diplomatic History.

Denying Moyar a teaching spot at a research university may hurt his ego, but it scarcely limits his influence. Indeed, looking at Moyar's Amazon blog for Triumph Foresaken, what's striking is how the book has apparently received not a single positive review from a reputable academic journal, but has received raves from places like The Weekly Standard, New York Sun, The Wall Street Journal (op-ed pages), Marine Corps Gazette, ForeWord Magazine, the National Review, as well as from A-list conservative bloggers like Glenn Reynolds and Powerline. Moyar may by a Rodney Dangerfield in the academy, but he is also a far more effective public intellectual than practically anyone attending SHAFR.

At some point soon I'll try to find time to spell out in detail what all this means, institutionally and methodologically, for academic historians. But the basic point is simple. Professional historians need to wake up to the fact that the commanding historiographical heights are not to be found in our own professional academic journals, but rather are the op-ed pages of America's top newspapers, on talkshows, and in blogs. Maybe it's obvious, but it's worth saying explicitly: if you actually want to affect policy, you need to publish things that policy-makers will read.

2 comments:

zachawry said...

I haven't drunk the post-modernist relativistic Kool-Aid that says nothing is true, but I do think that one over-arching lesson of history is that given any historical event, people will find a way to interpret it such that it exactly supports their existing world-view.

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