Question Those Writing History

While addressing American troops in Qatar earlier this week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld placed the recent military action in Iraq into the following historical context: “It will certainly take its place alongside the Berlin Wall, the liberation of Paris. And each of you made that happen.” While I do not doubt for a minute a good number of George W. Bush administration officials really believe the removal of Saddam Hussein from office is on the scale of World War II and/or the Cold War, I’m not quite ready to edit the history books. I know a good number of Eastern Europeans who have seen the toppling of statues only to flee civil war and watch their cities destroyed.

Yet Rumsfeld’s strategy is straightforward and part of a much larger administration tactic regarding Iraq and Hussein. Even before the events on Sept. 11, 2001, measures were being taken to yank Iraq out of U.S. history and reposition it, as we all know now, in the “axis of evil.” Interesting note on the term “axis of evil”–former Bush speechwriter David Frum originally coined the “axis of hatred” but head Bush speechwriter Mike Gerson preferred the word “evil” because it sounded more biblical. Even before the war began, all 30-plus days of it, Iraq was no longer a former U.S. ally gone bad, nor did previous U.S. presidential administrations have any involvement in the region. It was a smart move on the part of the Bush administration for the following reason: More than any physical battle involving soldiers, the real war will be how the definitive history describing the U.S. liberation of Iraq is written.

The story of what’s taking place in Iraq proper and the entire Middle East region is a far from finished narrative with a great many things riding on the following items. Both Hussein and large quantities of biological/chemical weapons need to be located. In the case of Hussein, the Bush administration does not have the luxury of a bin Laden-esque specter lurking around caves in Afghanistan. To not find Hussein will only complicate an already unstable reconstruction process. As well, until chemical and biological weapons are located, not a barrel or two of something but the tons described by Bush in various speeches, the already debilitated U.S. credibility abroad will largely self-destruct. Finding antiquities from Iraqi museums and libraries would also be nice, but I imagine the oil ministry still needs guarding. In no way am I saying the shift in power is doomed to fail in Iraq. On the contrary, I really hope Bush administration officials understand what kind of project they have on their hands. When war becomes policy, it means following through until the end. Actually, I suggest all Iraqi-Americans keep transcripts of the speech Bush made in Dearborn, Mich., earlier this week about rebuilding Iraq because the promised partnership with Afghanis has not prospered as promised in the 2002 State of the Union address. Perhaps that’s just old history and I need to focus on the new history being written in Iraq.

So I return to the speech by Rumsfeld because in large part his placement of the events in Iraq may be written as a grand liberation. What the Bush administration has working for it is an American population unbelievably stupid when it comes to current events, geography and most importantly, history. Maybe stupid is too strong a word, but I do believe that more Americans could tell me whom the finalists are on “American Idol” (Nielsen ratings last week: more than 11 million viewers for both nights) versus where Kabul is and/or why it is important to U.S. foreign policy.

I also imagine most Americans still cannot find Iraq or any country in the Middle East on a map. It seems unfair to begin asking people why the Iraqi National Congress and Ahmad Chalabi are important since our man casual Friday Jay Garner, always wearing his Gap best, is equally unknown. To be clear, I am not playing favorites–the epidemic of stupidity cuts across all political agendas. And these problems will only compound as states such as Texas (the largest consumer of textbooks in America next to California) have difficulty finding money in the education budget to purchase history books for students. As goes Texas, so goes the rest of the country when textbook publishers do not have the largest markets to sell their books.

Still, I have a private hunch Rumsfeld’s writing of history will stick in the years to come. Last fall I began quizzing my students on various events in world history with a short answer test on the first day of class. Since I teach a course on the writing and reading of history it seemed fair to ask, for example, during what years the American Civil War was fought and what happened at Hiroshima. I also ask where the Berlin Wall was located, and it is surprising to learn that the Berlin Wall is/was in China, Israel and the former Yugoslavia to name a few locations. No kidding. It’s even more disheartening to contemplate the number of students who do not know what happened at Hiroshima and/or Nagasaki largely because their high school teachers never discussed the events. Rumsfeld’s assertion will succeed because vast numbers of Americans won’t have a clue to know the difference. So goes the writing of history.

Over the last year and a half, a number of Bush administration critics have lambasted what looks to be a new American empire growing by leaps and bounds. While I agree the current military occupation is largely colonialism by another name, I see an empire in decline, not ascension. The ability to sustain any kind of empire means having a population infrastructure capable of running the machinery of control. Both the infrastructure and the population are beginning to break down, making the decline only a matter of time. Not soon, but quicker than most people realize. The problem seems less about Americans not having the stomachs for foreign occupation; rather, we lack the brains to make it happen. In the event anybody thinks I am being cynical, I’m not. I am hopeful something good comes from the productive stupidity currently running the United States. Perhaps at some point in the writing of history a quiet historian will point out all the opportunities missed by a faux American empire reveling in mediocrity. I blame Sept. 11, 2001–it’s just easier that way.

JOHN TROYER is a columnist for the Daily Minnesotan He welcomes comments at