Tuesday, October 31, 2006

O, the Irony!

This is what a Republican congressman had to say about the war:

"Recognizing the difficulties, the fact remains that lacking success in meeting the economic, social, and political problems, the US effort, with thousands dead and billions spent and precious time lost, could be completely wasted.

"If there is a single lesson to be drawn thus far from our experience in Iraq, it is that the United States, and, indeed, the free world, have failed thus far to develop strategies, programs, and techniques to meet the fundamentalist pressures which exist in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, point to point, early.

"We have failed to develop the capability to assist a nation requesting our aid in developing political, economic, and social stability. We have found that the today crude, World War II type responses to these new and more subtle pressures are inadequate, often ineffective, and frequently inapplicable. Without political and economic stability, without a sense of nationhood, without the forms of citizen action and responsibility, which we in this country take for granted and which have been the source of our progress, the Iraqi people will be unable to retain any measure of freedom which the United States might be able to help them achieve.

"While the committee report points out specific shortcomings in the administration and audit of current programs, it fails to point out that a complete review of US policies and programs with respect to the nonmilitary side of the effort must be undertaken if we are to reverse this trend.

"It is essential, therefore, that the United States establish policies and priorities which will meet the political, social, and economic situation as it exists. It is also essential that the United States develop the necessary management tools and administrative skills to carry out such policies and programs effectively.

"The committee investigation pointed up serious problems relating to the administration of programs of the United States in Iraq. The administration has demonstrated a willingness, although belatedly, to undertake many changes to implement many of the recommendations in this report. But this is not enough. The administration has failed thus far to undertake a broader reevaluation of our policies and approaches. No matter how efficiently the present policies are administered, the real problem is the development by the United States, preferably working in cooperation with other free nations rather than alone or almost alone at present, of programs and techniques and approaches more suitable to meeting the pressures as they exist in Iraq."

Just replace "Iraq" with "South Vietnam," "the Middle East" with "Southeast Asia," and "fundamentalist" with "Communist," and you have the words of Representative Donald Rumsfeld, October 12, 1966.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The "Greatest Generation" Reconsidered

"It is, I believe, the greatest generation this country has ever produced." -Tom Brokaw

With the upcoming release of the film Flags of Our Fathers, I am bracing for an encore of Ambrosian-Brokawian-Spielbergian nostalgia for Dubya-Dubya-Two and the Greatest Generation. I know my students will be interested in the movie since we are covering World War II next week in World Civilization II. They also will be interested in my take on the film because I told them at the beginning of the semester that the media bombards them with flawed historical arguments all the time and they should get a command of history as self-defense against misinformation. It reminds me of a book written a few years ago that helped revive interest in the Greatest Generation.

Former NBC newsreader and amateur historian Tom Brokaw coined the term to describe an age cohort of Americans born between 1900 and 1920. In a book of the same name, Brokaw argues that this generation won World War II and returned from the battlefield to build a progressive, stable, and prosperous postwar America. While the celebratory, feel-good thesis propelled The Greatest Generation to the top of the best-seller lists and spawned a sequel, it is an astonishingly simplistic and ahistorical argument.

Brokaw gives credit to the wrong generation for "winning" World War II. The GIs of World War II had no superior intellectual, moral, or physical traits that elevated them above the Minutemen, Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks, Doughboys, Vietnam-era Grunts, or Gulf Warriors; the difference, to my mind, is in the quality of senior leadership. I would argue that a group representing an age cohort born between 1880 and 1900 were far more influential in contributing to the defeat of the Axis powers, like FDR, Ike, Bradley, Patton, Marshall, Truman, Halsey, Arnold, and Nimitz. They conceived the strategy, provided the logistics, and formed the military and diplomatic alliances that helped end the war.

Some members of Brokaw's Greatest Generation did go on to inherit senior political and military leadership positions in the 1960s and 1970s; a more thoughtful journalist than Brokaw, David Halberstam, captured many of them in his ironically-titled book, The Best and the Brightest. There is a long roll call of Greatest Generation members who held the highest positions of responsibility in American government: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Robert McNamara, William Westmoreland, Creighton Abrams, and Curtis LeMay. Even the most sympathetic historians would concede that, on balance, the representatives of the Greatest Generation compiled a mixed record of successes and failures.

Brokaw also makes a sweeping generalization with respect to the entire age cohort. It is foolish to argue that the Greatest Generation secured civil rights for African-Americans when members of that generation, like George C. Wallace and Strom Thurmond, opposed racial equality at the height of their political careers. In addition, many of the leaders of the civil rights movement were members of a later age cohort, Betweeners born between 1920 and 1940---Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Hosea Williams, and Ralph David Abernathy.

History is not as neat or triumphant as Tom Brokaw portrays it.