By Thane Peterson Americans seem to have a great appetite for history. Serious books on the subject regularly make the best-seller lists, and cable TV's History Channel is now beamed into some 87 million homes. Interest in military history has become so huge -- spurred, no doubt, by the war in Iraq -- that it's the theme of two new cable channels being launched this month: The Military Channel, by Discovery Communications, and A&E Television Networks' Military History, a spin-off of the History Channel. From what I've seen and read, much of what's published and shown on TV is solid stuff, not a romanticized look at the past.
So, why is it that so many Americans -- both leaders and average citizens -- are so out of touch with reality when it comes to war and military-related matters? For example, when I opposed the invasion of Iraq, many readers castigated me in e-mails for supporting "appeasement" of Saddam Hussein, a la Neville Chamberlain's approach to Adolf Hitler.
UNWELCOME PRESENCE. Never mind that Germany circa 1939 was very different from modern-day Iraq. For starters, Hitler was building up a heavily armed industrial powerhouse in the 1930s, while Iraq circa 2002 was economically devastated -- and turned out to have no weapons of mass destruction. I have yet to hear anyone say, "Oh, gee, sorry. That was a faulty analogy."
Just as faulty was likening the occupation of Iraq with the liberation of Paris or the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. We've seen precious few images of grateful Iraqis pouring into the streets of Baghdad welcoming American troops. Instead, we're reminded daily of just how unwelcome our presence is. Sure, it looks like they're going to hold elections in Iraq on Jan. 30 -- but maybe not in Fallujah and other areas where insurrection makes it too unsafe.
The truth is that Baghdad is pretty distant from Paris 1944, or Berlin 1989. And even those events, as triumphant as they may seem, are messier and more brutal than the Hollywood/happy-ending versions captured by the cameras. We Americans have to start holding ourselves and our government accountable when we misinterpret, misremember, or misuse history.
MORALLY REPUGNANT. To my mind, the recent confirmation hearings for Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales were a step in the right direction. Both Democratic and Republican critics, as well as a dozen retired generals and admirals who publicly opposed Gonzales, forced the Administration to accept a more realistic view of history than was evident in Gonzales' notorious Jan. 25, 2002, memorandum to President Bush about torture.
The war on terrorism, Gonzales wrote, constitutes a "new paradigm" that "renders obsolete" the Geneva Convention's strict limitation on questioning of enemy prisoners. He described as "quaint" many of the Convention's provisions spelling out the minimum requirements for humane treatment of prisoners.
In addition to being morally repugnant, Gonzales' argument is based on historical inaccuracies. He argued that the war on terrorism is new and different from previous wars because the main enemy, al Qaeda, doesn't wear uniforms, isn't a signatory to the Geneva Convention, and isn't aligned to any particular state.
AN EYE TO THE FUTURE. But what about the Greek insurgents in World War II and the French Resistance fighters? Using Gonzales' logic, the Germans would have had the legal right to torture large numbers of Greek and French citizens, notes retired Brigadier General James Cullen. He's the former chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals and one of the generals who opposed Gonzales.
Cullen and other retired military leaders believe the U.S. should be a role model for other nations. They also believe the Geneva Convention protects American prisoners of war. "There are soldiers yet unborn who could be affected by this 25 years from now," Cullen told me in explaining why he opposed Gonzales. He says during World War II Russian troops were far more harshly treated by the Germans than Americans were because the Russians hadn't signed the Geneva Convention and didn't follow its rules.
"Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both [supported] the Geneva Convention because it protects our troops," says John D. Hutson, a former Navy Judge Advocate General who's now president of the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H. He also testified against Gonzales in congressional hearings.
"LEGAL WARFARE." Is it naïve to suppose al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents would follow the rules? Perhaps, but Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was tortured during his five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, has passionately defended the Geneva Convention, in part because he thinks even the often terrible treatment of American prisoners in the Vietnam War might have been worse without it.
Moreover, in an age where the conscription of child soldiers and the wholesale rape and maiming of civilians are becoming common tactics, it's important to maintain legal limits on what can be done during war. "It's sort of the ultimate oxymoron, but 'legal warfare' [avoids] what otherwise would be unlimited warfare," Hutson says. "That's the answer to people who say, 'They're beheading civilians, so they're terrible people.' You can't just look at the momentary situation. You have to look at what might happen in the future."
But a look at the past might have prevented the Iraq war altogether. It's hard to imagine that anyone familiar with that country's history would have advocated the occupation. "It took two years, give or take, for the British to have an armed insurgency on their hands [after taking control of Baghdad in 1917]," notes Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University. "We had one within six months -- which is an indication of how badly this [occupation] has been done."
The British faced nationalist opposition and insurrection throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and had to put down a coup in 1941. Are the American people ready for that kind of commitment?
SLIPPING SUPPORT. Paying attention to history would make one ask why Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld repudiated the so-called Powell Doctrine. Departing Secretary of State Colin Powell (a former general) distilled the lessons of the Vietnam War into a few simple maxims: Don't go to war without the full backing of the American people, go in only with maximum force, and have an exit plan. Rumsfeld and his advisers certainly ignored the last two.
And now polls show popular support for the war has badly eroded. Given how the Iraq situation is playing out, the Powell Doctrine -- based on a realistic look at history -- seems sound and sane.
Cullen notes that military officers are continually sent back to school as they rise in rank. At the Army and Navy War Colleges and the National War College they get a heavy dose of history, along with training in strategy and tactics. Perhaps we should start requiring the same thing of senators, Cabinet officers, and Presidents. Because the next time our country is faced with a decision of such magnitude, one can only hope that the real history of this war is told and remembered. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his State of the Arts column, only on BusinessWeek Online