The Uses and Abuses of History - Margaret MacMillan This book is especially timely given the proposed changes to history textbooks by the Texas Commission on Education that would increase the visibility of Newt Gingrinch and Phyllis Schlafly at the expense of Thurgood Marshall. (This problem is not new. Frances Fitzgerald wrote a terrific book several years ago about the problem of textbooks in America Revised.)

Nations use history as a way to inspire nationalistic feeling. They do so by selectively inculcating "lessons" gleaned from the past to illustrate some political agenda. No one was better at this than George (I wanna be King) W Bush and Dick (I really am one) Cheney. Both often cited the experience of WW II as justification for their actions in Iraq. They confused the experience of defeated peoples, e.g. Germany and Japan whose societies were rebuilt from the bottom up whether they liked it or not (they could be "treated with arbitrary ruthlessness,") with that of liberated nations (Greece, Yugoslavia, Belgium and Italy which were allowed, with mixed success and often considerable violence and conflict, to rebuild their own societies the way they thought they wanted.) "George W. Bush liked to compare the challenge he faced from America's foes with that which Winston Churchill confronted seventy years ago. Vice President Dick Cheney once said that global terrorism represents the gravest threat Western civilization has ever faced. Such assertions exposed the awesome magnitude of both men's ignorance." But it's all nations who engage in such dis-ingenuousness. She cites examples from Israel, Hindus in India, China, Ireland, Britain, and even Canada.

Americans (see History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past) are not the only ones who suffer from an overdeveloped sense of righteousness when it comes to their actions in wartime. Apparently, a firestorm of protest broke out in Canada in 1992 following the CBC documentary The Valour and the Horror which discussed the effectiveness and morality of strategic bombing. Some 20,000 Canadian airmen had participated and about 50% died. Veterans organizations were outraged that the issue could be framed in anything other than "black and white, good and evil." MacMillan was asked to testify and said, "History should not be written to make the present generation feel good but to remind us that human affairs are complicated." "The idea that those who actually took part in great events or lived through particular times have a superior understanding to those who come later is a deeply held yet wrong-headed one," as Charles Pellegrino is learning to his chagrin. National myths are too cherished to be troubled by facts. I doubt if southerners will ever discontinue viewing the Civil War as anything other than the War of Northern Aggression.

China, Japan, Israel, Russia, all have whitewashed views of their more sordid actions. Macmillan describes Hindu disregard for Muslim contributions to Indian history. And we are all familiar with Mormon attempts to rewrite their forbearer's actions in a more favorable light. MacMillan rightly notes that those present at an event do not necessarily have an accurate view of what happened and the recent travails of author Charles Pelligrino who is being pilloried for relying too much on the fictitious memory of an airman who apparently wasn't even where he said he was should make all of us a little wary of anecdotal accounts. (The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back tells the story of visiting a bar in New York the evening of 9/11. One fellow says to another that the WTC attack was like Pearl Harbor. "What was Pearl Harbor?" the other asked. "It was when the Vietnamese dropped some bombs in a harbor and started the Vietnam War," was the reply. MacMillan argues that such woeful ignorance has much more serious repercussions than just a display of stupidity. The Bush administration was using an attack by a few idealists and fundamentalists to justify a war against a state and a continuing -- some might argue infinite --war against a tactic and idea.

Sometimes, institutional memory fails us and the example she cites was totally unfamiliar to me. In 1979, rumors circulated that the Soviets had begun stationing troops in Cuba. Tensions increased and people recalled the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Kennedy had secretly agreed not to invade Cuba if the missiles were withdrawn and now it appeared the Soviets were violently an agreement not to station troops there again. The intelligence services were asked to investigate and sure enough, there were Russkies in Cuba. What the intelligence services had forgotten was that Kennedy had backed down on his initial demand that the Soviets remove all Russian troops from the island. Tensions and rhetoric increased in volume and disaster was averted on by Dobrynin's shuttle diplomacy between the two countries assuring the Russians that it was an honest mistake and that the U.S. had simply forgotten the earlier agreement. Cyrus Vance wrote that the incident as "Appalling. Awareness of the Soviet ground force units had faded from the institutional memories of the intelligence agencies."

In another example of institutional myopia, T.X. Hames, a Marine colonel wrote a book analyzing counter-insurgency tactics learned from the Vietnam War, an episode the military preferred to leave forgotten. Unable to find a publisher, because no one was interested, his book [b:The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century|6323017|The Sling and the Stone On War in the 21st Century|USMC, Colonel Thomas X. Hammes||6508481] was finally released in 2004 when the United States was having to relearn the difficult lessons of insurgency in Iraq.

The last few decades have seen a rise in the need of nations to apologize for actions committed by governments during wartime that, in retrospect, appear to be unfeeling and/or discriminatory. Should we pay reparations to the ancestors of slaves or Native American tribes. Is it necessary to review decisions made in the context of the time? Japanese and Germans were interned or had property confiscated even they they might have been generations removed from their "homeland." Given that people at the time did not know that the Axis Powers would lose, was the paranoia justified? If we don't have accurate historical review, can we avoid making the same mistakes in the future?

For several of my comments I am indebted to an excellent review of Macmillan's fascinating book written by Max Hastings, ironically one of those "amateur" historians, in the March 11, 2010 New York Review of Books. (It's worth the $3 and can be read here