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MediaWatch:Magazines
The Bush Plan
Halberstam's Final Words on Bush
Late Historian Penned Vanity Fair Criticism of the "History Boys"
07/13/2007 2:31 PM ET
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

For a President who prides himself on thinking with his heart and moving decisively as his gut guides him, Bush also seeks justification for his choices in his own distinct reading of history, often telling audiences what "history teaches us" about his policy.

The late historian David Halberstam deeply disagreed with what the President thought about how historical lessons could be applied today, writing in a piece for Vanity Fair completed just prior to his death in April that he came to refer to Bush, Cheney, Rice, and Rumsfeld as the "history boys" for their professed love of lessons from the past.

But rather than students of history, Halberstam writes, "They are people groping for rationales for their failed policy, and as the criticism becomes ever harsher, they cling to the idea that a true judgment will come only in the future, and history will save them."

Halberstam asserts that Bush's description of the lessons of history, much like his rationale for war, is based on political necessity, blind arrogance, cherrypicking evidence, and a disdain for the facts.

President Bush lives in a world where in effect it is always the summer of 1945, the Allies have just defeated the Axis, and a world filled with darkness for some six years has been rescued by a new and optimistic democracy, on its way to becoming a superpower. His is a world where other nations admire America or damned well ought to, and America is always right, always on the side of good, in a world of evil, and it's just a matter of getting the rest of the world to understand this. One of Bush's favorite conceits, used repeatedly in his speeches, is that democracies are peaceful and don't go to war against one another. Most citizens of the West tend to accept this view without question, but that is not how most of Africa, Asia, South America, and the Middle East, having felt the burden of the white man's colonial rule for much of the past two centuries, see it. The non-Western world does not think of the West as a citadel of pacifism and generosity, and many people in the U.S. State Department and the different intelligence agencies (and even the military) understand the resentments and suspicions of our intentions that exist in those regions. We are, you might say, fighting the forces of history in Iraq—religious, cultural, social, and inevitably political—created over centuries of conflict and oppressive rule.

The president tends to drop off in his history lessons after World War II, especially when we get to Vietnam and things get a bit murkier. Had he made any serious study of our involvement there, he might have learned that the sheer ferocity of our firepower created enemies of people who were until then on the sidelines, thereby doing our enemies' recruiting for them. And still, today, our inability to concentrate such "shock and awe" on precisely whom we would like—causing what is now called collateral killing—creates a growing resentment among civilians, who may decide that whatever values we bring are not in the end worth it, because we have also brought too much killing and destruction to their country....

You don't hear other members of the current administration citing the lessons of Vietnam much, either, especially Cheney and Karl Rove, both of them gifted at working the bureaucracy for short-range political benefits, both highly partisan and manipulative, both unspeakably narrow and largely uninterested in understanding and learning about the larger world....

Still, it is hard for me to believe that anyone who knew anything about Vietnam, or for that matter the Algerian war, which directly followed Indochina for the French, couldn't see that going into Iraq was, in effect, punching our fist into the largest hornet's nest in the world. As in Vietnam, our military superiority is neutralized by political vulnerabilities. The borders are wide open. We operate quite predictably on marginal military intelligence. The adversary knows exactly where we are at all times, as we do not know where he is. Their weaponry fits an asymmetrical war, and they have the capacity to blend into the daily flow of Iraqi life, as we cannot. Our allies—the good Iraqi people the president likes to talk about—appear to be more and more ambivalent about the idea of a Christian, Caucasian liberation, and they do not seem to share many of our geopolitical goals.

I have my own sense that this is what went wrong in the current administration, not just in the immediate miscalculation of Iraq but in the larger sense of misreading the historical moment we now live in. It is that the president and the men around him—most particularly the vice president—simply misunderstood what the collapse of the Soviet empire meant for America in national-security terms. Rumsfeld and Cheney are genuine triumphalists. Steeped in the culture of the Cold War and the benefits it always presented to their side in domestic political terms, they genuinely believed that we were infinitely more powerful as a nation throughout the world once the Soviet empire collapsed....

After the Soviet Union fell, we were at once more powerful and, curiously, less so, because our military might was less applicable against the new, very different kind of threat that now existed in the world. Yet we stayed with the norms of the Cold War long after any genuine threat from it had receded, in no small part because our domestic politics were still keyed to it. At the same time, the checks and balances imposed on us by the Cold War were gone, the restraints fewer, and the temptations to misuse our power greater. What we neglected to consider was a warning from those who had gone before us—that there was, at moments like this, a historic temptation for nations to overreach.

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