Historians Criticized as Often AWOL From Public Debate Over 'War on Terror'

January 12, 2011

Many historians say a key difference between the Vietnam War and today's U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq is that far fewer members of their profession are stepping forward to be public critics of policies associated with the "war on terror."

Participants in a panel discussion held here last weekend, at the annual conference of the American Historical Association, said historians' relative silence about today's policies stems not from agreement, but from trends in their field that have discouraged their scholarly peers from becoming actively involved in public debates.

They argued that historians in academe need to be doing much more to inform policy makers and sway public opinion on matters such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, by sharing their views with members of Congress, submitting op-eds to local newspapers, giving talks, and reaching out to local activists.

Carolyn Eisenberg, a professor of history at Hofstra University, said "a great number of historians are profoundly at odds with the thrust of 'the war on terror,'" but their opposition "has scarcely registered in the public debate—it is barely a peep."

"It is time, I think, for today's historians to reclaim both the role of policy expert and the role of truth teller to the state," said another panel member, Priya Satia, an assistant professor of modern British history at Stanford University, who gave a talk arguing that the U.S. government has sought to limit public debate over its actions in Iraq in much the same way that Britain tried to avoid public scrutiny of its own Iraq occupation, after World War I.

"Given how important historical interpretation, and misinterpretation, have been to decision making in the war on terror, it simply makes sense for professional historians to participate more actively in public debate about it," Ms. Satia said.

A retired U.S. Army colonel, Peter R. Mansoor, who is now a military historian at Ohio State University argued that the Bush administration had "managed to forget nearly every lesson" of the Vietnam conflict in its approach to Iraq and Afghanistan, and ended up making many of the same mistakes the United States made in Vietnam as a result.

"History may not repeat itself," said Colonel Mansoor, who formerly served as an adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, "but it does rhyme, and policy makers can either choose to recognize these rhythms, or suffer the adverse consequences of their lack of insight into humanity and its often violent past." He argued that if historians in academe do not get involved in debates over foreign policy, "we cede the ground to people in think tanks," specifically citing the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Verbal Volleys

The panel's remarks seemed well received by its audience in Boston's Hynes Convention Center, but others who were not in the room had markedly different views.

"These sorts of self-indulgent, back-patting exercises are an embarrassment to academia," Danielle Pletka, the American Enterprise Institute's vice president for foreign and defense policy studies, said in an interview on Tuesday. Rattling off a long list of people within her think tank who have doctorates in history, she said historians in academe "are not ceding any ground—that ground got taken away from them."

"The last time I checked, the op-ed papers of the newspapers were as open to historians as they were to anyone else," Ms. Pletka said. "If you want to be a senior public-policy decision maker, move to Washington and join the government."

Alan Charles Kors, a professor of European history at the University of Pennsylvania, said historians should be active as private citizens and "should speak out on matters on which they have strong—and ideally informed—opinions." But, he argued, historians in fact "spoke out a great deal" about the actions of George W. Bush's administration, and "they—along with the entire left with a handful of exceptions—have given Obama a pass on what they deemed Bush a war criminal for pursuing."

Certainly, a few historians in academe have consistently been vocal critics of some actions undertaken by the U.S. government since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. One who stands out was a member of last weekend's panel discussion, on "The Public Uses of History and the Global War on Terror": Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, who often has taken federal officials to task for historical analogies he regarded as way off the mark, such as former Vice President Richard B. Cheney's comparison of Al Qaeda to the Nazis.

Another prominent academic historian in debates over U.S. policy is Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of international relations and history at Boston University and the author, most recently, of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books, 2010).

But most historians' opposition to foreign and domestic policies adopted in response to the terrorist attacks has been fairly diffuse. More than 2,600 signed a 2003 petition by a group called Historians Against the War opposing the invasion of Iraq, and in 2007 that group persuaded the American Historical Association to adopt a resolution strongly attacking the Bush administration for "practices inimical to the values of the historical profession" in its conduct of "the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terror."

At the same time, however, Ms. Eisenberg of Hofstra said she had discovered "mostly a crashing silence" in her efforts, as a member of Historians Against the War, to collect essays critical of U.S. foreign policy submitted by historians to newspapers and magazines.

Rick Shenkman, an associate professor of history at George Mason University and the editor and founder of that university's History News Network, said "historians largely have liberal sympathies," but he too has noticed a dearth of public criticism of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars by scholars in his field. "The country itself has tended to ignore those wars, and so has the history profession," he said.

Discretion and Valor

While many historians agree that scholars in their field are much less vocal in their criticisms of the "war on terror" than had been the case during the Vietnam War era, they do not appear to have reached much of a consensus as to why.

In her panel presentation, Ms. Eisenberg blamed historians' failure to get more involved in public-policy debates partly on changes in the profession. Given the intense competition among historians for jobs in academe, she said, people in the field feel overwhelming pressure to produce books and peer-reviewed articles if they wish to land a new job on a college faculty or receive tenure or a promotion. They have little incentive to give talks, work with grass-roots organizations, correspond with members of Congress, or speak to local news outlets because colleges do not reward such behaviors as much in weighing scholars' value.

In an interview on Wednesday, however, Larry G. Gerber, a professor emeritus of history at Auburn University and chairman of the American Association of University Professor's committee on college and university governance, said the changes in tenure standards described by Ms. Eisenberg had been under way for decades, beginning around the Vietnam War.

Ms. Eisenberg also posited that the turmoil of the Vietnam War era had "fostered a certain disdain for the study of powerful white men" that, while paving the way for great advances in social and cultural history, has led fewer historians to focus on how decisions are made in Washington. Colonel Mansoor made a similar point, arguing that neglect of the study of military history had left fewer scholars equipped to call attention to mistakes the previous administration was making in Iraq.

Another participant in the panel discussion, Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, argued that scholars were more comfortable speaking out about American foreign policy during the Vietnam era because it was a period in which universities were expanding and they could be more secure in their jobs. A member of the audience went so far as to argue that we live in a period similar to the McCarthy era, in which scholars feel they will jeopardize their careers by taking stands on controversial subjects.

Mr. Cole of the University of Michigan rejected the idea that historians in academe risk dire professional consequences for weighing in on such policy matters. Colonel Mansoor said scholars who jumped into such battles should expect to take some hits, but tenure exists to embolden them in those situations. "It is the people with tenure, it is the senior people, who should speak out," he said.

Some historians interviewed after the meeting argued that the relative silence of today's historians, in comparison with those of the Vietnam War era, stems mainly from the absence of the draft and comparatively high casualty rates that fanned resistance to that earlier conflict.

"This is not the 1960s, and neither [the Afghanistan nor the Iraq] war has risen to the level of the Vietnam War in attracting public opposition in the universities or on the streets," said Mr. Shenkman of George Mason University and the History News Network.

Gordon S. Brown, a professor emeritus of history at Brown University, said "these wars are detached from our lives in a way that Vietnam was not" and "the historical profession is only reflecting that."