Friday, December 8

Those Who Refuse To Learn From History, Teach

Victor Davis Hanson, "Our Pearl Harbor" Townhall, December 7

Lemme say first of all that I resent this. Beyond the intellectual dishonesty of the Pearl Harbor metaphor industry, it's simply disgusting that Hanson uses Pearl Harbor on Pearl Harbor Day as an excuse to jump to Iraq by paragraph three and never look back. It's a pathetic War on Xmas skirmish over crappy consumer nicknacks in the Name of the Lord, except with charred and mangled corpses. Though it is the sort of thing one finds with some frequency among the celebrators of military posturing who come to it later in life, like, say, after they've avoided actually serving themselves.

The men who died that day, and in the days and weeks following, do not deserve to be someone else's GI Joe dolls in a diorama contest. Not on December 7.

Even in the days of shock that followed the WTC/Pentagon attacks, the whole "9/11 Is This Generation's Pearl Harbor" thing rang hollow. We knew, deep down, that 9/11 was the work of a murderous terrorist gang--a large portion of whom were now dead--and not the first blow in a titanic military struggle. Our reality is Hollywood F/X and teevee actioners. We think in scripts. We're connoisseurs of cheap melodrama. We knew the butler didn't do it. The Pearl Harbor business was always an just an opportunistic political argument disguised as history lesson.

[We did, however, tell phone interviewers we thought Saddam Hussein had booked all the flights, but I'd argue that this actually reinforces my point. How does 60% of the public "know" something that isn't true? Not because Dick Cheney told them to--60% of the public does not watch Tim Russert--but because a popular villain had been recast as the story's Mr. Big. It was like using a Gallup poll to cast the next Batman sequel.]

Which brings us back to Hanson, and the current state of Pearl Harbor Metaphor sales: once an excuse for, or a fantasy of, responding to 9/11 with our superpower military abilities, they now must account for why putting those fantasies into practice gave us the vaporous War on Terra and its sadly all-too-real attendant clashes without experiencing anything like the success of WWII. Or much of anything like success, period, for that matter. (This is actually a fairly easy thing to answer at Townhall: we haven't killed enough people.)

There's a weird sort of nostalgia that goes along with reading Hanson. It takes me back to the early days of teevee, when picture tubes would last on the order of two years or so, and then they'd begin doing weird stuff like going all fish-eyed or exhibiting central black holes or something. Hanson's pop scholarship always seems in danger of simply blinking out altogether:
It’s been five years since Sept. 11. After such a terrible provocation, why can’t we bring the ongoing “global war on terror” — whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere — to a close as our forefathers fighting World War II could?

Is our generation less competent?

Not really. The United States routed the Taliban from Afghanistan by early December 2001. America’s first clear-cut victory against the Japanese, at Midway, came six months after Pearl Harbor.

It's just breathtakingly stupid and twice as dishonest. What does a WWII carrier battle have to do with a superpower routing a bunch of mountain guerillas in the poorest nation in Asia, apart from the fact that Hanson now needs to compare timelines? If you made the argument in 2001 that we'd still be fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2006 you got your traitorous ass scoffed off the continent by the likes of Victor Davis Hanson. Now, somehow, it's simple historical perspective. We could have predicted this, except we were busy selling a different set of lies at the time.

Okay, small point of rebuttal anyway: having won the Battle of Midway in June of 1942, we did not have to refight the Battle of Midway on a weekly basis for the next five years and counting. We won at Midway--at a time when we were sending the bulk of our resources to Europe, and which represented the defeat of an enemy which was superior to us in quality and quantity of manpower, matériel, and experience--the way most battles are won: the enemy made more mistakes, and it still turned on luck. If the Japanese of the 40s had had a relative version of the technological advantages we have in Afghanistan today, June 1942 would be remembered for the Battle of St. Louis.
Do we lack the unity of the past?

Perhaps. But we should at least remember that after Pearl Harbor, a national furor immediately arose over the intelligence failure that had allowed an enormous Japanese fleet to approach the Hawaiian Islands undetected. Extremists went further — clamoring that the Roosevelt administration had deliberately lowered our guard as part of a conspiracy to pave the way for America’s entrance into the war.

Of the latter: there were certainly extremists who had been charging Roosevelt with all sorts of dastardly deeds from the moment he was elected. They called them "Republicans". So while I would certainly not deny they were charging FDR with inviting the attack on Pearl during the war, I've never read of it. That business came later, at the end of the war, after it was revealed that we had broken the Japanese code. Such speculation is, now, another conspiracy theory cottage industry, but it came about after the war. Dewey famously had that information (from George Marshall) in 1944 but refused to use it. An act of partriotism, they say, since that would have revealed we'd broken the code; but the fact is it would have been scandalous and self-defeating as well. It didn't win him the Election of '48, either.

As for the former, yes, indeed. Pearl Harbor was investigated twice during the war--the first time just a couple weeks after the attack--and more than a dozen times after. Compare the twelve months and mounting political pressure from the victims' families it too to get the Bush administration to sign off on a blue-ribbon 9/11 panel. Not to mention the attendant cries of "treason!"
But there are significant differences between the “global war on terror” and World War II that do explain why victory is taking so much longer this time.

Yeah, I thought there might be.
The most obvious is that, against Japan and Germany, we faced easily identifiable nation states with conventional militaries. Today’s terrorists blend in with civilians, and it’s hard to tie them to their patron governments or enablers in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Pakistan, who all deny any culpability. We also tread carefully in an age of ubiquitous frightening weapons, when any war at any time might without much warning bring in a nuclear, non-democratic belligerent.

It's impossible to choose just one answer to this. The most obvious, perhaps, is that we chose to invade actual nation states and fight conventional wars with what passed for their armies. So saying now that we aren't fighting conventional armies just sorta begs the question of what it is we think we've been doing. It's not as if this little difficulty isn't inherent in the very concept of a War on Terra--something you might expect a professional war buff to have picked up on--and, again, it isn't as if people weren't saying this in 2001, only to be shouted down.

On a positive note, though, we are winning the War of Excuses. Big, big lead on that one.

Excuses do not turn battlefield losses into victories, but excuses did work to mitigate our defeat in Vietnam in the glorious domestic public relations campaigns that followed, so we get "Today's terrorist blend[s] in with civilians" (yesterday's didn't?), a reenactment of the old VC argument with new costumes. And we remind the Professor, once again, that the people who prosecuted the war told the public three years ago that these amounted to a few Dead Enders.

As I've said before, Hanson's job now seems to be rewriting select moments in military history as Moral Tales for Young Children. There's no epistemological justification for acting as if guerilla warfare was invented four years ago, or acting as if it's dashed unsporting of the enemy not to show up in infantry squares like Friedrich the Great.

Not surprisingly, Hanson's frequently genocidal, but uniformly stateside and cozy commenters see in this sad little exercise in wish fulfillment and counting on one's fingers a second coming of Clausewitz. It is no doubt impossible to convince any of them there's a distinction between war and video gaming, for that matter, between war and commercials for video games. But we suspect that Professor Hanson himself is actually aware of the distinction between global war taking place in a half-dozen theatres of operation, and a five-year and counting slog which has fractured the most powerful army on earth and accomplished less than nothing. We know that he has no use for war coverage, unless it be uniformly positive, but let us at least acknowledge that the Homefront public of the 1940s knew its men were still at war in 1944, if not exactly where. So let's perform our own comparison: had WWII been a one-nation battlefield, like Iraq or Afghanistan today, how long do you suppose the public would have remained supportive of Mark Clark's dithering incompetence in Italy? Four years?


D. Sidhe said...

Remind me why this guy is regarded as a scholar? Is it because the wingnut think tanks needed someone who could read?

Anonymous said...

Brillant idea, Mr Riley: Chris Noth as the next Batman!

(Well it makes more sense as a synopsis of your posting than VDH's posting makes as a synopsis of the history of the last five years.)

Anonymous said...

Mr. Riley,

V.D. Hanson forgets (conveniently or dimwittedly?) that in WWII the U.S. very much did fear that the "enemy could easily blend in with civilians" -- hence the huge Japanese American internment camps in California of completely innocent American citizens.

V.D. Hanson ... V.D. Hands-on ... eh heh ... er ... eh heh.

The key here, as you ably illustrate, is the post facto conflation of "choices we made" into "things that just happened that were totally out of our control."

This has all the markings of the evasive psychology of a chronic drunk driver. Let's blame the bartender, the bar, the cops, the other driver, the liquor, the liquor maker, the car, the car maker, the Earth rotating on its axis, well ... everyone except me.