Never forget the lessons of world history

Not surprisingly, the world described by George W. Bush in his State of the Union address appears quite different to many individuals outside the United States. This is particularly true of the people of Vietnam, where I’m presently conducting research.

When the president’s father, George Bush Sr., delivered his inaugural address in 1989, he remarkably implored Americans to forget one of the seminal historical episodes of the twentieth century: the American wars in Indochina. “The final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory,” the first President Bush proclaimed.

Apart from the offensiveness of designating Vietnam a war rather than a country, Bush’s plea – that the nation forget its history – was stunning in its implications. Ponder, for instance, the relationship between historical ignorance and last week’s State of the Union address: “History has called America to action, and it is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom’s fight,” the president pronounced before an international audience. But which “history” is that?

Is it the history in which the United States illegally invaded Panama, having grown tired of its long-time ally, Manuel Noriega – the CIA asset and notorious drug trafficker? Or was it perhaps the history in which the United States intentionally demolished the civilian infrastructure of Iraq, laying the groundwork for the slow deaths of hundreds of thousands of children?

Or perhaps Bush had in mind the history in which the United States – including the president’s father – supported the Suharto dictatorship of Indonesia for decades during its murderous onslaught against East Timor (not to mention its atrocities in Aceh, Irian Jaya or, indeed, the slaughter throughout the archipelago of over half a million alleged “subversives” in 1965).

Or was the president referring to the history his father asked Americans to forget? That is, did Bush have in mind the history of the United States in Indochina when he confidently intoned that Washington was being called upon by history “to fight freedom’s fight”?

Although most Americans learn shockingly little about it, the level of destruction and ruin visited on the peoples and environments of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during several decades of U.S. aggression was and remains staggering. And for the tens of thousands of Americans killed and wounded during the conflict, the war has often continued to haunt them and their families in the years since.

Yet remarkably amid this despair, there were a number of positive legacies. In the United States, according to the historian H. Bruce Franklin, two of these have been the antiwar movement and the vast literature spawned by the war, with its “foremost creators” being veterans themselves. Now, since the president has informed us that the misnamed “war on terror” or “war against terror” is only beginning, some of the lessons conveyed by these historically minded activists and writers would be worth remembering.

Both historians and journalists are fond of debating the “lessons of Vietnam.” Yet the lessons they often discuss are frequently quite different from those learned by millions of Americans. Probably one of the more obscene comments along these lines was by a writer in The New York Times, Jack Hitt, who recently remarked that “the ultimate lesson of Vietnam” – again a war, not a country – is “no body bags on TV.” In other words, the greatest lesson Americans should take from the war is that their government must employ comprehensive measures to conceal its casualties from the public.

But for countless Americans, the lessons of the war and the era were quite different. One legacy common to both of the great achievements identified by Franklin is Americans’ skepticism toward the truthfulness of politicians. Not trusting official pronouncements is a particularly well-founded and, in my view, abundantly healthy lesson.

From the wartime lies by numerous political and military leaders confirmed by the Pentagon Papers to Richard Nixon’s lies about the Watergate scandal to the Reagan administration’s lies about the Iran-Contra affair to Bill Clinton’s almost comical lies about Monica Lewinsky, Americans rightly learned politicians have a penchant for dishonesty. Unfortunately, the events of Sept. 11 appear to have negated this distrust. This is tragic and hopefully only temporary.

More than a decade after his father asked the nation to forget its quite revealing history, George W. Bush last week employed a potent combination of hypernationalism, simplistic moral ascription, myth and even outright lies to announce that the United States will do whatever it wants, wherever it wants, however it wants.

The successful delivery of Bush’s speech relied on Americans’ notoriously short historical memories. For instance, when the president erroneously claimed the Iraqi regime “kicked out” international arms inspectors, he was undoubtedly aware most Americans wouldn’t recall the inspectors were actually withdrawn by the United Nations, due to the looming threat – which quickly became a reality – of U.S. military action against Iraq.

And it was truly obscene for Bush to refer to the past employment of chemical agents by the Hussein government. He eloquently described that the Hussein government “has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens, leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children” – in his effort to prepare Americans for a potential new war in the Middle East.

The president was certainly right about the ruthless inhumanity of Hussein’s regime, which must be denounced in the strongest possible terms. But what Bush didn’t mention is that these horrible atrocities were perpetrated when Saddam Hussein was a favored U.S. client and that “widespread calls for immediate international sanctions,” as foreign policy analyst Stephen Zunes observed, “fell on deaf ears in Washington,” which continued to support his government. Of course, these facts might have complicated the simplistic portrait of good and evil the president sought to paint.

A particularly cynical lie told by Bush in his State of the Union address was that the United States “saved” the people of Afghanistan from starvation. It’s easy to get away with untruths such as this one since the bulk of the American press has devoted relatively little coverage to the relationship between the American war and the food insecurity of the Afghan people.

For instance, how many Americans saw, heard or read that about 100 civilians, mostly children, were dying every day of exposure and starvation in Maslakh refugee camps, 30 miles west of Heart? That’s about as many people perishing every month as died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Or how many Americans were aware, as The Associated Press reported Jan. 8, that Afghan villagers in Bonavash and elsewhere were forced to eat grass in a desperate attempt to stay alive? These are just some of the forgotten facts largely overlooked during the foolishly triumphal reportage of recent weeks.

So how important is historical consciousness to the health of American democracy? Consider this: Today many people describe the global exercise of power by the United States – most recently promised last week by George W. Bush – as the Americans’ “policing” the world. This might be an accurate description if one were referring to the epidemic of police brutality that has impacted the poor as well as people of color from New York to Minneapolis to Los Angeles.

But in referring to Washington as a global cop, that is apparently not what most people have in mind. Drawing on the lessons of history, which seems a critical endeavor from here in Vietnam, it could be remarked that if it is the job of the police to consistently uphold the law, and not to undermine it, the United States might more properly be considered one of the planet’s major outlaws – not its police officers.

Scott Laderman’s column appears alternate Tuesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].