James Pinkerton: President Bush's Historical Revisionism (The Shame of Memorial Day)

Roundup: Talking About History

James Pinkerton, in Newsday (5-26-05):

On Memorial Day, next Monday, many Americans will commemorate past war sacrifice. Sadly, more Americans will watch TV, oblivious to our sacred national history.

But what's new for Memorial Day 2005 is the recasting of America's past in such a way that "blasphemes" our civil religion of service and sacrifice. That's the view of historian Michael Vlahos of Johns Hopkins University - making a sharp thesis, using a cutting argument.

Vlahos starts by pointing to George W. Bush's speech to the International Republican Institute on May 18 in which the president attempted to contextualize the current violence in Iraq. "As we push the freedom agenda, we must remember the history of our own country," Bush declared. "The American Revolution was followed by years of chaos." He went on to assert that the Articles of Confederation, governing the U.S. from 1781 to 1788, "failed miserably."

Yes, Vlahos responds, we must remember our own history - but remember it correctly.

Young America, in the wake of George Washington's victory at Yorktown, was not "chaotic" in the way Iraq has been for the past two years. America in the 1780s was a place of vibrant debate - but peaceful debate. In that decade, Alexander Hamilton and others wrote The Federalist Papers, arguing for a robust constitution. Their eloquence and scholarship was so rich and detailed that the papers are still required reading for political scientists around the world.

So why is Bush making these comparisons? Why is he drawing a dubious parallel between America and Iraq? Vlahos answers that the president and his neoconservative advisers have two unconservative objectives. First, they must defend the current Iraq situation - rising body counts, falling poll ratings - by making the violence seem expectable and thus acceptable. Second, and more broadly, they seek to deconstruct American history, making way for constructing a newly fashioned vision of America's future.

Bush is not alone in seeking to soften the public's assessment of his Iraq policy by means of hardening its assessment of American history. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld waved away the lawlessness in Iraq with an airy "Freedom's untidy." But one might ask: Did Ethan Allen and Francis Marion fight Redcoats so Americans could loot and kill? The Founders would weep at Rumsfeld's conflation of liberty and anarchy.

First lady Laura Bush went on Al-Arabiya television last week and compared the struggle throughout the Middle East to another episode in American history, the decades leading up to the Civil War. Those words are another insult to the brave Americans who fought to free themselves and fellow Americans.

"It's an irony," Vlahos observes, "that a 'conservative' administration has launched a radical campaign of reshaping American historical thinking." The Bush Doctrine, he continues, aims to change the world - but the first step is that America must be diverted from its tradition of governmental prudence and realism in the setting of objectives, at home and abroad.

The immortals of American history were far from perfect. But the job of the nation's president is not to practice historical revisionism....

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