Tuesday, December 05, 2006

thinking about war & history

In September, the Journal of American History published a really fantastic roundtable discussion, featuring some of the most prominent historians of the U.S. war in Vietnam. There were several bits that i thought were just exceptionally interesting, and potentially useful to folks who think about how to teach history in a time of war. in one section, the group explicitly takes on the question of what we might learn from the history of the war in Vietnam that might relate to our understanding of contemporary events. here are some excerpts from that discussion, featuring the thoughts of Mark Philip Bradley and Christian Appy.

JAH: ...Why or why not is Vietnam an appropriate historical analogy for thinking about current U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Mark Philip Bradley:
I am most struck by how little we know as Americans and American historians about Afghanistan and Iraq as real places with complex and contingent histories, and how much this parallels American understandings of Vietnam. Maybe seven universities and colleges taught Vietnamese history and language during the war. A handful of scholars produced work on Vietnamese history, society, and culture informed by Vietnamese sources. And many of those who did had to look beyond American shores for employment and venues for publication during the war. When we consider the field of United States–Middle East relations in the academy, the parallels to the Vietnam situation during the war are distressingly similar. How many of us have a real sense of Afghan history and society? Or of Iraq's? Or of the complex interplay of relations—political, economic, and cultural—between the Middle East and the United States? For myself, my honest if embarrassed answer is very little. I suspect the same might be said for many American historians and the public at large.

There are also problematic parallels in what passes for "culturally informed" understandings of the Vietnamese and Afghan pasts, suggesting a little local "knowledge" can be a dangerous thing. Frances FitzGerald's 1972 Pulitzer Prize–winning Fire in the Lake quickly emerged as one of the leading popular interpretations of Vietnamese history and society. Whatever its virtues, FitzGerald's book was organized around a concept of Vietnam that obscured as much as it revealed. FitzGerald argued that the "traditional" notion of the mandate of heaven continued to shape Vietnamese political consciousness into the twentieth century and helped explain why Ho Chi Minh rather than the leadership of South Vietnam enjoyed Vietnamese popular support. In doing so, she borrowed from earlier French orientalist scholarship and its static notions of Vietnam as a smaller and reified China, a set of assumptions that ignored the heterodox character of premodern Vietnam (and China!) and the political, social, and cultural transformations that shaped urban and rural Vietnamese societies during the colonial and postcolonial periods…

One could simply decry all this. Or put it down to a more general American parochialism about the wider world. But as historians we can and should pledge ourselves to recognize that these are serious problems and work toward redressing them. Those of us who have learned Vietnamese and French may not be the right people to now take on Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi, or Pashto. But we can encourage our undergraduates and graduate students to do so. And to cast their reading and research in the capacious ways that have increasingly allowed us to explore the complexities of American engagement in Vietnam, ways that depart from exceptionalist notions of United States history. At the graduate level in particular, if we are to encourage such work, we need to give our students some space, time, and institutional support to learn languages and to master multiple local, national, and regional historiographies. These tools will enable a new generation of scholars to craft a richer, more sophisticated narrative of American relations with Iraq, Afghanistan, and other states and peoples in the Middle East.

Christian Appy:
There is a danger that any effort to compare current events with historical antecedents will badly distort both past and present. I agree that Iraq and Vietnam are vastly different, and as Mark rightly argues, comparing those histories in any depth is beyond most historians, never mind commentators and policy makers. But surely there are commonalities, at least in a general sense, in the way U.S. officials justified their policies in the two countries, and these analogies can serve public debate. After all, as David indicates, one important connection is that U.S. policy makers then, as now, believed detailed local knowledge was largely irrelevant except in narrowly tactical terms (that is, where are the "bad guys"?) because Washington clung to the hope (in spite of massive contrary evidence) that U.S. technology and military firepower could hold the line long enough for modernization (or nation building) to draw each country into a stable global system amenable to U.S. economic and political power.

At the risk of gross oversimplification, I'd like to list a few linkages. Then as now, the president claims:

—We face a global threat (Communism/terrorism).
—The enemy we fight is part of that global threat.
—We fight far away from home so we won't have to fight in our own streets.
—We want nothing for ourselves, only self-determination for them.
—We are doing everything possible to limit the loss of civilian lives.
—We are making great progress, but the media isn't reporting it.
—Ultimately, the war must be won by them with less and less U.S. "help."
—Immediate withdrawal would be an intolerable blow to U.S. credibility and would only embolden our enemy and produce a bloodbath.
—Antiwar activism must be allowed but demoralizes our troops and encourages our enemy.

Then, as now, the president does not say:
—The enemy in Vietnam/Iraq actually does not pose a threat to U.S. security, but we're fighting anyway.
—We do indeed have geopolitical and economic interests in the region and will never tolerate a Communist/radical Islamist government.
—We are using weapons and tactics that don't distinguish between civilians and combatants.
—We will stretch and break the law to spy on and sabotage antiwar critics.
—We won't ask the nation as a whole to make a major sacrifice but will continue to send the working class to do most of the fighting.
—The progress we report is contradicted by our own sources.
—Troop morale is going downhill.
—Most of the people over there don't want us in their country.

(from “Interchange: Legacies of the Vietnam War,” a roundtable discussion. Journal of American History, September 2006.)

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