Essay: HISTORY: THE DISENCHANTING INSTRUMENT OF RECALL

by Alan Shapiro

 
 
"Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation; thus the progress of historical studies is often a danger for national identity….The essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things."
—Ernest Renan
 
"A nation has first to have remembered something before it can begin to forget it. Until the French understood Vichy as it was-and not as they had chosen to misremember it—they could not put it aside and move. The same is true of Poles in their convoluted recollection of the Jews who once lived in their midst….Only after Germans had appreciated and digested the enormity of their Nazi past—a sixty-year cycle of denial, education, debate, and consensus-could they begin to live with it: i.e., put it behind them."
—Tony Judt, "From the House of the Dead: On Modern European Memory," New York Review, 10/6/05
 

Most countries celebrate the best in their pasts. Germany unrelentingly examines its worst: Young Germans are required to study the Nazi era and the Holocaust intensively, and some say that the younger generation involves itself in such studies not "as a source of guilt, but of responsibility on the world stage for social justice and pacifism, including opposition to the war in Iraq." (Nicholas Kulish, "75 Years After Hitler's Ascent, A Germany That Won't Forget," New York Times, 1/29/08)
 
How have people in other nations, especially our own, responded to the worst in their pasts (even if that worst falls well short of the Holocaust)? Have we, our teachers and students, as in Germany, responded with an unrelenting examination of that worst? If we haven't, why not? And what are the costs of ignorance?
 
More than a half century passed before the Israeli Education Ministry approved a third grade text explaining that the Israeli army forced Arabs from their land and into becoming refugees in 1948 during Israel's War of Independence. (www.web.israelinsider.com, 7/22/07
 
But despite the passage of nearly 100 years, Turks still do not want to remember or conveniently misremember the World War I killings of as many as 1.5 million Armenians, a subject omitted in its schools. Their president reacted angrily and recalled the Turkish ambassador from Washington last year after a House of Representatives committee voted to condemn the killings as genocide.
 
"'Having been taught about its glorious and spotless past by the state rhetoric for decades, people feel that they could not have possibly done such a terrible thing,' said Ferhat Kentel , a sociologist at Bilgi University in Istanbul." (New York Times, 10/12/07)
 
The Chinese, too, choose not to remember. Despite the passage of a half century since Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward was inaugurated, Chinese textbooks have nothing to say about the 30 million Chinese who died as a result. And the Serbs dropped the career, even the name, of Slobodan Milosevic from their history books while he was on trial for war crimes despite the fact that Serb 14-year-olds had spent most of their life under his rule. (UK Independent, 9/12/01)
 
The Japanese choose to misremember the Chinese and Korean women who were forced by the Japanese army to provide sex to their soldiers during World War II. Government-approved textbooks refer to them euphemistically as "comfort women" or not at all. "Nobukatsu Fujioka, the founder of he nationalist Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, said that textbooks focusing on Japan's alleged wartime wrongs were unhealthy for the country's students….'This masochistic education is making the youth lose their pride and confidence in their own country,' said Mr. Fujioka." (New York Times, 4/17/08)
 
As much as any other people, we Americans have preferred ignorance, false pride and misplaced confidence. We determine not to know and to misremember. Decades after passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Americans continued to enjoy romantic stories about the courtly Southern male's respect for women, but not about the African women slaves forced into sexual submission by their masters. Children's textbooks glorified the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican War and the winning of the West with scant, if any reference, to the native peoples whose lands were overrun, occupied and stolen and who themselves were subject to genocidal attacks.
 
Later, Americans regarded Germans as barbaric for bombing towns and cities like Guernica, Rotterdam, and London, where civilians were the targets. Should our textbooks label as barbaric the Greatest Generation's firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden civilians and atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians?
 
More recently, and during his 2004 presidential campaign, Senator John Kerry was successfully vilified for, among other things, his April 22, 1971, testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Speaking for the "Winter Soldier Investigation," he reported that Vietnam veterans "told how they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off hands, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan...and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country." Candidate Kerry chose not to come to the defense of his younger self's accurate historical report, but one that many Americans still do not know anything about or do not want to remember if they do.
 
Nor anything about the contents of the Toledo Blade's 15 page, four-day exhaustively researched expose in October 2003 by reporters Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss on the "Tiger Force," which later became the title of their book on that subject. This unit's barbaric, murderous operation in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam included elements very similar to that described in Kerry's report and took place from May through November of 1967. A 1970s Army investigation "concluded that eighteen Tiger Force members had participated in as many as twenty war crimes….But no one was charged, and in 1975 the investigation was quietly shut down….The only soldier to be officially punished was a sergeant who had triggered the investigation by reporting that a member of the Tiger Force had decapitated an infant."(Seymour Hersh, "Uncovered," New Yorker, 11/10/03)
 
Knowledge of this behavior by their soldiers in the Vietnam War has no place in the perception many Americans have about the goodness and decency of their country. Assuming they ever hear of it, they conclude that their soldiers "could not have possibly done such a thing," and do not remember.
 
Americans learned to their horror of the abuse, sodomy and torture of U.S. prisoners at Abu Ghraib early in 2004, but President Bush encouraged them to forget such acts as those of a few rotten apples. The only soldiers who went to jail were below officer grade. No Bush administration officials were held accountable.
 
But just the other day an ABC News report (ignored by the other networks, as well as the cable channels and most newspapers, perhaps because four years after Abu Ghraib torture news is no news for so many) told of repeated meetings during 2002-2003 in the White House situation room chaired by then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice that included Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, and George Tenet. The subject was prisoner interrogation, and the group observed and discussed "enhanced interrogation techniques." Including such encouragements to talk as sleep deprivation and waterboarding, they were described in detail, demonstrated, and then endorsed by a compliant Justice Department. President Bush approved the meetings and stated without supporting evidence that the resulting interrogation program gave the US"information that has saved innocent lives by helping us stop new attacks here in the United States and across the world." (www.abcnews.go.com, 4/9 and 4/11/08)
 
The Taguba report of February 2004 on Abu Ghraib made it clear that, at the least, the Bush administration delivered to the military and CIA confusing, contradictory messages that resulted in what in uneuphemized English is called torture. But additional reports from the military, the FBI, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, such human rights groups as the ACLU and Amnesty International, and United Nations groups, including the Committee Against Torture, produced documentation that for the past six years and continuing today, President Bush, his cabinet officials, his Justice Department officials, and others in an administration sheltering bushels of rotten apples approved interrogation techniques that, despite the president's self-protective and repeated false statements, are torture and in violation of, among other laws and treaties, the War Crimes Act of 1996, the Third Geneva Convention, and the UN Convention on Torture.
 
"'History begins today' was a saying in the Bush White house on September 12, 2001—repeated with menace by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to the director of Pakistani intelligence, Mahmoud Ahmad—a statement that on its face exhibits a totalitarian presumption. Yet nothing so much as language supplies our memory of things which came before today; and, to an astounding degree, the Bush and Cheney administration has succeeded in persuading the most powerful and (at one time) the best-informed country in the world that history began on September 12, 2001. The effect has been to tranquilize our self-doubts and externalize all the evils we dare to think of." (David Bromwich, "Euphemism and American Violence," New York Review, 3/5/08)
 
The results: Unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and in prisons from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, from Bagram Air Force Base to the remote island of Diego Garcia, US torture of prisoners in multiple grisly forms as routine as air strikes that kill Iraqi and Afghan civilians. We Americans are like every other people who simply decline to remember unpleasant "things which came before today." In the process we debase our language to obscure savage realities with Orwellian words and phrases like "enhanced interrogation techniques," "collateral damage," and, as appears below, the freshly minted "message force multipliers."
 
Years ago, in "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell wrote: "Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification….Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them."
 
Judt reminds us that remembering must come before forgetting and that, as with the French, the Poles, the Germans, "The instrument of recall in all such cases was not memory itself. It was history, in both its meanings: as the passage of time and as the professional study of the past—the latter above all….Unlike memory, which confirms and reinforces itself, history contributes to the disenchantment of the world. Most of what it has to offer is discomforting, even disruptive…." (10/6/05)
 
Teachers of history must be well-versed in "the instrument of recall," and not only as we engage students in the study of the remote past, but also as we lead them in the study of and inquiry into post 9/11 events, including:
 
Extraordinary executive branch secrecy enabled by majorities of the feckless in the Senate and House, legislators who are at least as fearful of not being reelected as of terrorist attacks; cowardly, bottom-line mainstream media; and uninformed and misinformed what-used-to-be-called citizens, now-known-as consumers.
 
Mafia-style kidnappings and extraordinary renditions; illegal wiretapping of Americans.
 
Signing statements and a theory of a unitary executive, both compounds of absurdities out of Ionesco, Heller, and Gilbert & Sullivan and hilarious if these preposterous usurpations were not quietly eroding what history teachers hold up as glories of the Constitution—the separation of powers and checks and balances. 
 
The illegal use of retired military officers as part of "a Pentagon information apparatus," "a media Trojan horse." The ex-officers, most of whom also worked for military contractors, were provided with Pentagon briefings on what they should know and what opinions they should hold. They "made tens of thousands of appearances for television and radio networks, holding forth on Iraq, Afghanistan, detainee issues and terrorism as propagandists for Bush administration policies and performance." Referred to by Defense Department officials as "message force multipliers," they disclosed neither the Pentagon source "of their opinions" nor their ties to defense contractors. Media outlets did not inquire into them, and only now have we heard about them. Caught with its briefings down, the Pentagon quickly announced it was suspending them. (New York Times, 4/20/08, and 4/26/08) 
 
An executive branch mute for more than five years on its real reasons for warring on Iraq; a steady diet of misinformation about weapons of mass destruction, and the war in Iraq and on terror; the erection of a mega-embassy and four mega-bases in Iraq proclaiming wordlessly why our president has no exit strategy from Iraq, a subject crying out for inquiry it does not receive in the legislative branch and the mainstream media.
 
The despair of more than 4,000,000 Iraqi refugees who receive shamefully little help from the US, which played a major role in ruining their lives; a very conservatively estimated 20 to 25 times more Iraqi civilian deaths than the 4,000+ American soldier deaths; thousands of American veterans and uncounted Iraqis suffering from PTSD; the maiming of many tens of thousands of Iraqis and Americans; the devastation of no one knows how many American and Iraqi families.
 
Presidential obliviousness. "Nothing positive is coming from the war in Iraq, said Pope Benedict XVI." (Catholic Online, www.catholic.org, 4/8/07). His predecessor, Pope John Paul II declared the Iraq war "immoral." (Dallas Morning News, 3/18/03). Yet President Bush, who surely knows of both statements, told the pope on April 16 that Americans "need your message that all life is sacred."
Like all Americans, our students "need to learn again—or perhaps for the first time—how war brutalizes and degrades winners and losers alike and what happens to us when, having heedlessly waged war for no good reason, we are encouraged to inflate and demonize our enemies in order to justify that war's indefinite continuance."(Tony Judt, "What Have We Learned, If Anything?," New York Review, 5/1/08)
 
Taking Judt's words to heart means that we history teachers become disenchanters, discomforters, even disrupters. But it also means that we practice our profession with respect for our students and ourselves and as an expression of love for the country we yearn for.
 
 

This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org