On How Americans Remember War

After posting yesterday on a certain New York Times columnist (who also inspired posts here and here and here) frequent T/S commenter David of L.A. wrote a fascinating comment that I wanted to highlight in a separate post. Particularly this graf:

Contrast that with Spanish-American War. This war is very similar to the Iraq War. It was “based on a false story” (I am waiting for a movie about the Iraq War with that tag line), the Spanish military had attacked and destroyed The Maine, a US battleship at anchor in Havana’s Harbor resulting in the deaths of 266 sailors. The popular press, lead by W.R. Hearst, jumped on the band wagon, and lead the charge to war (”Remember the Maine!”). The decrepit Spanish colonial military of course crumbled before the might of the US forces. “Freedom and Democracy” were brought to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. A man became a future president through his military exploits leading the charge up San Juan Hill. A great victory was proclaimed and rejoicing was heard across the land. It was the source of much popular entertainment for a few decade afterward (in the original short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Benjamin Button” was a Spanish-American War hero).

Read the whole thing after the jump.

My guess is that history will not judge the Iraq War at all, if it can help it. By history I mean books, movies, and the popular imagination / memory. Consider the Civil War. Historians cannot write enough books and journal articles about these two wars. An number of scholars wrote their theses or dissertations on some aspect of this war. Schools offer not just classes, but series of classes on the Civil War. In fact, the most biographied man in history, after Jesus of Nazareth, is Abraham Lincoln. Ken Burns truly amazing series of TV species on the Civil War was quite unprecedented in its popularity. People, men mainly, make pilgrimages to the sites of battles where they often find cemeteries, memorials, and other outward signs of remembrance. Of course references to these two conflicts are popular subjects for movies, tv shows, and other forms of popular entertainment. Some people, mostly men, even feel compelled to dress up in the clothing of the time and “re-enact” various battles. History has “judged” both of these wars in innumerable ways, innumerable times and new and different ways are yet come.

Contrast that with Spanish-American War. This war is very similar to the Iraq War. It was “based on a false story” (I am waiting for a movie about the Iraq War with that tag line), the Spanish military had attacked and destroyed The Maine, a US battleship at anchor in Havana’s Harbor resulting in the deaths of 266 sailors. The popular press, lead by W.R. Hearst, jumped on the band wagon, and lead the charge to war (”Remember the Maine!”). The decrepit Spanish colonial military of course crumbled before the might of the US forces. “Freedom and Democracy” were brought to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. A man became a future president through his military exploits leading the charge up San Juan Hill. A great victory was proclaimed and rejoicing was heard across the land. It was the source of much popular entertainment for a few decade afterward (in the original short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Benjamin Button” was a Spanish-American War hero).

Of course it turned out that the whole thing was colonial land grab. Freedom and democracy were not delivered to Cuba or the Philippines. In fact a long a bloody guerrilla war erupted in the Philippines resulting in hundreds of dead US soldiers and hundreds of thousands dead Filipinos. Cuba remained a backwards, undemocratic, and political unstable client state of the US for decades after.

Today, hardly anyone remembers that there even was a war between the US and Spain, that some foreign lands had been obtained as US colonies as a result, or that untold thousands of people died. Few books are written on topic and fewer still doctorates awarded for study in the field. Colleges offer few, if any, classes on the topic. There are certainly no movies, TV shows, or even popular references to this war. Bob Dylan includes it in his song “With God on Our Side” but uses as a image of war of unclear meaning or importance. This war is not so much judged poorly, which if anyone bothers to judge it they do, and as not judged at all.

I suspect that 100 years from now, American historians and history teachers will likewise want to hurry past the Iraq War, focus their careers on more promising and popular topics. People, mostly men, will feel little desire to visit the battle sites or re-enact the “Battle of Ramadi”. There will not be much in the popular culture to draw on a common memory of the Iraq. Maybe, like WW I, it might have a role as a cautionary tale, of the dangers and tragedy of war. Judging history is a business and it seems to me there is little profit in judging a war no one wants to remember. Things might be different for Iraqi historians.

On the other hand, I am willing to be the cottage industry of writing about Abraham Lincoln will have grown even larger.

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About michaelhastings

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8 Responses to On How Americans Remember War

  1. Pingback: On How Americans Remember War – Michael Hastings – The Hastings … | the world cares.com

  2. rbrander says:

    Are you referring to all history, or just American history? I suspect that historians in Cuba and the Philippines have perhaps given that war some more attention. (Spain, not so much. They lost.)

    And on an optimistic note, is it possible that America is now more capable of self-criticism than in Hearst’s day? Literacy is much higher, and far, larger percentage of the population has university degrees.

    I’d say there have been many times more movies made about the second world war than the first. It was possible for a much larger percentage of the soldiers in the second to return and look back upon it as an exciting adventure and noble cause. Although many lives were spent, fewer were stupidly wasted, and far fewer died ignobly of disease, cold, and hunger. So most WW2 movies are positive about the fact that we went at all.

    But WW1? I just googled “world war one movies” and two of the top three links were “Paths of Glory” and “All Quiet on the Western Front”, about as negative as you can get. (The top link, of course, was “Lawrence of Arabia” about a British officer teaching guerrilla warfare and the use of IEDs to Arabs. Ahem.)

    The next link down, “The Blue Max” mentions that it’s an unusual movie for covering the “generally overlooked” WW1 at all, much less from the German point of view.

    I think that although the war is less well-covered and well-known in popular culture, the verdict of history was arrived at nonetheless, and was negative.

    You also skipped over Vietnam. That can hardly be said to be ignored by either history or pop culture, and both “The Green Berets” and “Rambo” to the contrary, few people think that it was either a great idea now, nor that “we could have won if only the troops had been allowed to”. No politician would think of saying, “We have to attack just as we had to go to war in Vietnam, and it will work out as well.” So I’m calling that a verdict of history against Vietnam pretty settled in the popular mindset.

    Korea, on the other hand, for all of it being a draw of sorts, North Korea still there, and for all of M*A*S*H, seems to me to not be forgotten, and be generally positively regarded. Maybe it was getting an OK from the UN as a lawful action, and dozens of meaningful allied nations lined up.

    So I think Iraq is going to hang around in memory, and there will be a verdict, and it’s going to be “worse than Vietnam” in terms of stupidity, expense, and lack of cause, even if only 1/10th as bad a casualty rate.

    • Hello rbrander,

      You wrote:”Are you referring to all history, or just American history? I suspect that historians in Cuba and the Philippines have perhaps given that war some more attention.”

      I was very definitely talking about U.S. history. I noted toward the end “Things might be different for Iraqi historians.”

      You wrote:”[I]s it possible that America is now more capable of self-criticism than in Hearst’s day? Literacy is much higher, and far, larger percentage of the population has university degrees.”

      This is precisely the problem, literate and open people do not want to reminded of embarrassing historical events. If we lived in less literate and open society, we could live happily on the lies and half-truths we are told about the past. There is a very funny cartoon by Jules Feiffer. A middle aged man tells how when he was young he was taught how cowboys were heroic pioneers but his son was taught that they stole the land from the Indians. All of the great stories of US history he had been taught, his son was being taught the opposite. He concludes, “No wonder he is unamerican, he is being taught someone else’s history!”.

      You make perfectly valid observations about WW I, WW II, Korea, and Vietnam but I had posed by observation on the view from 100 years in the future and so the Civil War and the Spainish-American War seemed to fit the bill. I would certainly not argue that Iraq will be forgotten any time soon. The Spanish-American War was not forgotten for some decades after-wards (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Benjamin Button” was written a quarter of century after the Spanish-American War) when imperial conquest was no longer in fashion.

      My argument was that no one likes to look back on embarrassing history, especially when it is no longer associated with living memory. This is one reason no one wants to examine war crimes against the Bush Administration. There is no point in “looking back”, we have to “move on”. Read a German high school history book. They sort of lose a lot of detail after 1939. Japanese history books do the same (The Rape of Nanking? What was that?). They too have moved on.

      There are lots of movies about the WW I but hardly any since 1960. There were lots of movies about the Korean War but not too many after 1980. There are no movies about the Spanish American War.

      Yes, history will judge the Iraq war harshly over the short term but a 100 years from now, in the US (and UK) it will be as popular a topic of historical investigation as the Spanish American War is today. They will still be making movies and writing history books about WW II. Again, Iraqi historians may view it differently.

      There has to be a caveat to this however, the Iraq War may set off a historical chain of events that cannot be ignored. For example, WW I by itself is not a popular war to study or as source of popular entertainment (any more). However since WW II is fantastically popular topic, WW I as a topic of historical investigation continues enjoy some support by riding on WW II’s coat tails. It is universally recognized that there was but one war, with two parts. The UK and France “won” the war but lost the peace and had to fight WW II as a result their terrible failure. The same may apply to the Iraq War. The consequences of the Iraq War maybe so consequential and long lasting that it would be impossible to ignore it, no matter how much one might wish to.

      • rbrander says:

        Damn. Right on all counts. I wasn’t thinking as far ahead.

        Entire wars, forgotten.

        People love to remember something forever to maintain a grievance; think of those Serbs who can’t forget some battle in the 1300’s.

        It’s exactly your mistakes that you should remember forever, and your grievances that you should let go.

        Well, off to the garden to eat worms; perhaps some clinical depression to round out the afternoon.

  3. rbrander says:

    As long as the comments section is so quiet today, Mr. Hastings, could I request a little first-person reporting you can do without legwork?

    How’s the Baghdad (and other cities, if you know) power, water, sewage, and light situation doing? I’m a civil engineer, and I look to those as primary indicators of civilization’s health – and far more reliable than casualty counts. The return of them, 7×24, would be to me a much more clear proof of some “victory” than any election. (Not so much “American victory in the war” as victory of Americans and Iraqis both, OVER the war itself.)

    I bring it up because I was just trying to find out how Mr. Chalabi is doing lately, and whether Mr. Hitchens is still his friend. I came across news from 2007 that Chalabi had been put in charge of getting the lights back on. How’d that work out?

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Sorry for the delay in response. Baghdad is still struggling in all those areas. Power outages are still a regular occurence, very little clean drinking water, trash everywhere. I would need to check the numbers. Just an impression:it does resemble more of your typical developing world city now than a city that is being torn apart by conflitc. So it’s better than 2005-2008.

  4. Mr. Hastings,

    Wow, thanks for the shout out.

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