Ransacking history

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Ever since the assaults of September 11th, writers and journalists, pundits and columnists, military strategists as well as former generals have been ransacking history for comparisons, lessons, analogies, explanations that might apply to or put a frame around our moment. September 11th had the unsettling shock of uniqueness. You had to reach back to the burning of Washington in the War of 1812, melded perhaps with Pearl Harbor, to find anything like an equivalent — and even then, those other moments of infamy had involved state against state violence. A single, coordinated stroke of terrorism at a level previously only seen in the most outlandish action-adventure movies — Osama Bin Laden was, in this sense, the director of his own global home movie — and against a country which had for the previous half-century waged war across the globe untouched at home was staggering. Little wonder that Americans found the moment unique, but so did much of the rest of the world.

The almost instantaneous renaming of the site where the World Trade Towers collapsed, and almost 3,000 people going about their business suddenly died, as “ground zero” tells us a great deal about that moment. “Ground Zero,” after all, was previously the term for the epicenter of an atomic blast. Though the September 11th attacks combined paper cutters, fanaticism, and well-fueled airliners — all rather ordinary artifacts of our “modern” world — what came almost instantly to mind were weapons of mass destruction. Nothing faintly like an atomic blast had occurred, but it was as if one had indeed happened. And so the attacks unleashed a virulent rash of urban atomic fears, seized upon by this administration right down to the 1950s-style nuclear-defense duct tape warnings, and bolstered by the apocalyptic fantasies of atomic (or chemical or germ) destruction that swept through the media. It was a moment, you might say, of fantastic fictional proliferation.

The September 11th attacks seemed to draw back a curtain on — to use what once was an image of human progress, the five-act play of life on earth — the last act in a human earthly drama. It opened a vista of horror and when you stared into it, as into that pit at Ground Zero and felt those fumes scouring your throat, you sensed a futureless world. This, of course, was a mindset that had been creeping up on us since August 1945.

I have no doubt that the fear of Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction could never have been stoked by this administration quite so violently had Americans not felt themselves peering into a futureless world, a world to which no analogies could be drawn. In this context, there is perhaps something strangely reassuring in the wielding of the historical analogy. (It happened before, it’s happening now, it will assumedly happen again in the future.) And counter-intuitively, the storm of analogies that’s pelted us since September 2001 may in itself support the thought that our moment is indeed appallingly unique.

Nonetheless, historical analogies are fascinating — and often most useful to consider. Only yesterday I was asking whether the junior-Stalin-lover in Baghdad might, with our help, be creating his own last stand version of Husseingrad. (By the way, for a dose of quite a different vision of the war’s progress, you might take a look at Edward Luttwak’s op-ed in the Los Angeles Times today The deadly cost of selective bombing. He’s a smart right-wing analyst who claims the war is actually going splendidly, but that we should cut the Mr. Nice Guy stuff and stop avoiding civilian casualties. His last line, “Meanwhile, it might be a good idea to revise the Baghdad target list” is a likely sign of things to come.)

So let me offer you some of the more provocative pieces on historical analogies I’ve seen recently that attempt to make sense of the American imperial urge in the Middle East. Revolutionary France was, as Professor David Applebaum reminds us in Do the French Know Something We Don’t? at the History News Network website, the first nation to take the promise of liberty and freedom abroad on the point of a bayonet. In the process, France ended up ruled by an emperor and defeated (in Spain) by (Catholic) fundamentalist guerrillas. Applebaum asks:

“Is George Bush a combination of Robespierre and Napoleon? Are Islamic zealots similar to militant European Catholics? Will the efforts to spread the secular Republican gospel be viewed as a deception designed to install American Imperial power? Will the human treasure of the United States, the young people called upon to kill in the name of freedom, face a future of debt and decline engendered by the policies and practices of our current leadership? Is it possible that contemporary French leaders, understanding their own history and decline, are trying to save us from making new mistakes that will lead us down a similar path?”

Over two violent centuries later, the most reactionary American administration in memory, if not history, threatens to bring its own versions of democracy and liberty to the world on the point of a cruise missile. We are all focused on Iraq — “the Nation at War” to quote my hometown paper — but the freestanding section we really need would be called “The Administration at War.” The fact is, this administration is at war with its own society, deeply believes that force solves all problems, and is bringing its version of “liberty” to the homeland as well.

But let’s stick to the Middle East. Below, Hugh Pope and Peter Waldman of the Wall Street Journal suggest a certain blood-chillingly repetitious version of imperial invasions, imperial promises, and imperial defeats in the Middle East. Then Professor Trevor Getz of the History News Network and author Lawrence James in the British paper the Independent each offer their versions of British imperial history and how it might apply to our moment. None of these pieces are exactly reassuring.

But let me end with an analogy or two out of another world. Here are edited bits of conversation from Robert Fisk’s latest (In the long hours of darkness, Baghdad shakes to the constant low rumble of B-52s) in the Independent. He’s about twenty miles out of Baghdad, without a regime “minder,” talking with Iraqis.

“Can you imagine the effect on the Arabs if Iraq gets out of this war intact?… It took just five days for all the Arabs to be defeated by Israel in the 1967 war. And already we Iraqis have been fighting the all-powerful Americans for five days and still we have held on to all of our cities and will not surrender.” This was no member of the Baath Party speaking. This was a man with degrees from universities in Manchester and Birmingham. A colleague had an even more cogent point to make. ” We may not like our regime. But we fight for our country. The Russians did not like Stalin but they fought under him against the German invaders. We have a long history of fighting the colonial powers, especially you British. … What is happening now is we are starting a war of liberation against the Americans and the British.”


Past Mideast Invasions Faced Unexpected Perils
By Hugh Pope and Peter Waldman
The Wall Street Journal
March 25, 2003

As President Bush steers the U.S. toward war, history offers a sobering lesson.

For two centuries, foreign powers have been conquering Mideast lands for their own purposes, promising to uplift Arab societies along the way. Sometimes they have modernized cities, taught new ideas and brought technologies.

But in nearly every incursion, both sides have endured a raft of unintended consequences. From Napoleon’s drive into Egypt through Britain’s rule of Iraq in the 1920s to Israel’s march into Lebanon in 1982, Middle East nations have tempted conquerors only to send them reeling.

To read more Pope and Waldman click here

An Empire, If You Can Keep It
By Trevor Getz
History News Network
March 17, 2003

Several historians have recently chimed in on the ‘American Empire’ debate. On HNN Paul Schroeder in particular has introduced an element of scholarly interpretation to the otherwise naive dialogue of the talk-show pundits and radical rags. America certainly is not an Empire. Yet that is not to say that it does not stand on the brink. Britain, too, in the late 1870s was anti-imperialist and anti-expansionist. Yet, through a roughly analogous set of events, that great democracy within a short span of years became the largest formal empire on the globe.

In August 1882, the British government of William Gladstone invaded Egypt, promising the general public a brief campaign with highly moral intentions. Instead, the invasion ushered in more than three-quarters of a century of formal empire in Africa and Asia, transforming Britain and undermining the legacy of the enlightenment and the promise of democracy and liberalism.
Mr. Getz is Assistant Professor, Department of History, San Francisco State University.

To read more Getz click here

The revival of benevolent imperialism
Dominant powers have often demonised their enemies and claimed to be
acting on behalf of the oppressed

By Lawrence James
The Independent
20 March 2003

The rhetoric of imperialism is back: its reality may soon follow. “To
stop is dangerous; to recede ruin”; President Bush justifying war
against Iraq? No; an Indian proconsul in 1805 defending the East India
Company’s policy of pre-emptive hammerblows against any native ruler who
showed signs of intransigence. “Britain has always been the one friend
of the oppressed. It has been our policy for generations, and we are
known the world over as a race who love freedom and hate the oppressor.”
Tony Blair outlining his vision of liberated Iraq? No, a fictional
officer in Somaliland 100 years ago, explaining the humanitarian mission
of empire in a novel for schoolboys.

Each statement suggests parallels between past and present and the
contradictions of imperialism. Can the miseries of war be outweighed by
the blessings of peace delivered by a benevolent victor?

The writer’s most recent book is ‘Warrior Race: A history of the British
at war’ (Abacus)

To read more James click here