Monday, March 24, 2008

The coming battle over how to remember the Iraq War

In the course of making a very interesting conservative case for Obama, Andrew Bacevich makes the following trenchant observation about the importance of the coming historiographical battle over the meaning of the Iraq War:

As an episode in modern military history, Iraq qualifies at best as a very small war. Yet the ripples from this small war will extend far into the future, with remembrance of the event likely to have greater significance than the event itself. How Americans choose to incorporate Iraq into the nation’s historical narrative will either affirm our post-Cold War trajectory toward empire or create opportunities to set a saner course.

The neoconservatives understand this. If history renders a negative verdict on Iraq, that judgment will discredit the doctrine of preventive war. The "freedom agenda" will command as much authority as the domino theory. Advocates of "World War IV" will be treated with the derision they deserve. The claim that open-ended "global war" offers the proper antidote to Islamic radicalism will become subject to long overdue reconsideration....

History's judgment of the Iraq War will affect matters well beyond the realm of foreign policy. As was true over 40 years ago when the issue was Vietnam, how we remember Iraq will have large political and even cultural implications.

As part of the larger global war on terrorism, Iraq has provided a pretext for expanding further the already bloated prerogatives of the presidency. To see the Iraq War as anything but misguided, unnecessary, and an abject failure is to play into the hands of the fear-mongers who insist that when it comes to national security all Americans (members of Congress included) should defer to the judgment of the executive branch. Only the president, we are told, can "keep us safe." Seeing the war as the debacle it has become refutes that notion and provides a first step toward restoring a semblance of balance among the three branches of government.

This underscores something Small Precautions has hammered on about for years, namely the fact that conservatives appear to understand better than liberals the importance of dominating the narrative about critical episodes in the past. Because liberals and liberal interpretations of the past dominate the historical profession, conservatives operate their own counter-knowledge industry that is explicitly designed to challenge liberal understandings of critical historical episodes that can be seen as precedents for policies that conservatives like or dislike. (For example, that the New Deal was "class warfare"; that liberals "lost China"; that what's wrong with our country's culture is a product of "the Sixties"; that the liberal welfare state was responsible for the economic malaise of the 1970s; that Reagan never raised taxes; that Bill Clinton was asleep at the switch in the 1990s, and thus responsible for 9/11; etc.) Already, as we've noted repeatedly, they are setting the stage to claim that the Iraq War was a great success until the Democrats came in and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The constantly prattling on about the "success" of the surge is meant exactly for that.

What's crucial to understand about the right-winger approach to the battle to dominate the public's historical memories of critical episodes is more informed by a marketing sensibility than by any scientific or objective sense about trying to represent the past accurately on fairly. These guys are vulgar postmodernists through and through, and believe that whatever the majority of the people believe about the past is in fact the effective truth about the past. Their marketing sensibility teaches them to develop short, accessible messages about the key "lessons" from the past, and then (crucial point) to keep repeating these simple messages over and over again. In practical terms, this means that conservatives have little interest in publishing monographs or articles in peer-reviewed journals; rather, their goal is to publish op-ed pieces or to provide talking points for conservative television pundits.

It's hard to overstate how alien this perspective is for most professional historians. For them, the point of the exercise is typically to develop subtle, nuanced position that encompasses the complexity and multiplicity of the past. There is also an abiding desire among professional historians to "get the past right" and to understand the past on its own terms, not simply as it applies to the present. For conservatives, the past is of little if any interest in its own right. Indeed, the questions that conservatives ask about the past in venues like the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, the Weekly Standard, or the National Review (all of which often publish articles on historical topics) are almost always explicitly in the service of an immediate policy objective.

Now, academic historians can lament that all day, and perhaps as a position of intellectual integrity, it's the best approach to take. However, if professional historians wish to challenge right-wing interpretations of the past, they will need to learn to challenge the wingers not so much on interpretive as on marketing grounds. They will need to learn the virtues of simplicity and repetition, and they will need to be willing to take on historiographical topics for no other reason than to create and constantly nurture a usable liberal past, and to challenge the dishonest, partial and immortal claims about the past that are routinely trotted out on TV and in the papers by the right-wing machinists.

1 comment:

emceekate said...

Good point, Nils. Lots for me to think on. Does remind me of what Gar tried to do with the Atomic Bomb story, but I'm not sure yet what lesson I can share about it. One thing I'm thinking about though is that the conservatives getting their messages out aren't historians so much as wonks and political writers. Maybe an answer is for liberal wonks and political writers to be more historically minded, and then to do as you suggests - simplify and repeat.