Today’s Politicos Invent the Past

When references to history are totally wrong.

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

The Chicago Tribune originally ran this article with the title “The Past as today’s Politics: When references to history totally confuse the point.”

History is evoked more and more these days, even as fewer of us read it.

That apathy explains why when public figures turn to false historical analogies for political purposes, they’re often given a free pass to exaggerate or distort. Take, for example, filmmaker Michael Moore, who once compared terrorists in Iraq to our own Minutemen, or Yasser Arafat who implied that the taking of Jenin was as brutal as the battles for Leningrad and Stalingrad. Even Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) recently likened the conditions found in Guantanamo Bay to those in Nazi death camps.

So the next time someone quotes philosopher George Santayana for the umpteenth time that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” just assume that what follows will probably be wrong. Having a Rolodex of cocktail party quotes to beef up an argument is not the same as the hard work of learning about the past.

Thus, we are now warned that the war against terror is failing because it has lasted as long as World War II — as if the length of war, not the cost, determines success.

Yet the nearly 2,000 U.S. combat fatalities in Afghanistan and Iraq, while tragic, are a fraction of the 292,000 American battle deaths in World War II — about 0.6 percent, in fact.

The mantra “Bush lied; thousands died” charges that President Bush altered his reasons for the war from the original worry over weapons of mass destruction. But aside from the fact that the U.S. Senate voted for the war on 22 additional counts, wars, rightly or wrongly, have often had a variety of changing public explanations.

Lincoln led the North into the Civil War emphasizing that it was a struggle to preserve the Union, not outlaw slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was not passed until January of 1863, when enough Union progress allowed Lincoln to publicly redefine a practical struggle of restoration into one of sweeping idealism.

Woodrow Wilson (“He kept us out of war”) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (“Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars”) won re-election by promising non-involvement in Europe’s fighting. Yet, when voted back in, they both prepared for war, convinced that there was no living with either Prussian militarism or Axis fascism.

Since America entered World War I without first being attacked, should we conclude “Wilson lied, thousands died”?

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) intoned of the USA Patriot Act he voted for, “We are a nation of laws and liberties, not of a knock in the night.” Though, so far, that mild statute pales before exigencies of past liberal wartime presidents who really did jail innocents, night and day, without warning or sometimes even justification.

Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. During World War I, under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, Woodrow Wilson detained citizens without trial and made it a crime to slander the United States. Franklin Roosevelt convicted and executed saboteurs through military tribunals and sent thousands of Japanese Americans to relocation camps.

We’re constantly reminded of the regrettable intelligence lapses from Sept. 11, 2001, onward, but they seem almost minor in light of prior blunders in the fog of war.

Thousands of Americans perished at Shiloh, Pearl Harbor and during the Battle of the Bulge because commanders like Ulysses S. Grant, Adm. Husband Edward Kimmel and Dwight D. Eisenhower didn’t have a clue what the enemy was planning.

In our confusion during this war, why do we often ignore history or twist its details to fit our own particular needs?

First, in our schools, formal study of the past has given way to the more ideological agenda of the social sciences. Mastery of historical facts is seen as passe, while the less educated instead “do theory” to prove preconceived notions.

Second, good intentions don’t always equal good history. Being politically correct often makes us plain wrong, relegating history to melodrama and negating history’s power to put tragedy into context.

Third, we’re in thrall to the present affluent age, convinced that our own depressing experiences are unique, naturally dwarfing all prior calamities.

But history is not a parlor game used to prove a political point. Instead, at its best, history should offer us solace that we are never really alone.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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