PresidentialRoundtable The Public Uses of History and the Global War on Terror

AHA Session 150
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room 207 (Hynes Convention Center)
Juan Cole, University of Michigan
Juan Cole, University of Michigan , Carolyn Eisenberg, Hofstra University , Greg Grandin, New York University , Peter Mansoor, U. S. Army (retired) and Ohio State University and Priya Satia, Stanford University

Session Abstract

The purpose of the panel is to discuss the multifarious ways in which history has been invoked by both policy-makers and commentators as the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has unfolded over the last decade. The panelists will focus on three themes: 1) the range of historical metaphors policymakers have drawn on in the framing of the GWOT, with mostly negative results; 2) the historical realities and metaphors policymakers have ignored, again with mostly negative results; and 3) the role of historians in producing these metaphors and blindspots. Here are the presentations in brief:

Greg Grandin’s presentation will illuminate the truly global dimensions of the historical conversation fueling the GWOT: he will discuss the ways in which policymakers and neoconservative intellectuals have drawn on U.S. war in Latin America in their objectives for the GWOT, particularly their faith in unilateral militarism as a mechanism for sparking democratic revolution across the Middle East. Juan Cole will examine the disconnect between American and Iraqi historical framings of the current war. Where the Bush administration saw a benevolent military intervention akin to the U.S. occupation of post-war Germany and Japan, Iraqis recalled the period of British imperial rule in their country. As a result, Washington persistently misunderstood Iraqi resistance, and the Iraqis’ historical metaphor—colonialism—became increasingly accurate as a description of events on the ground. Peter Mansoor will take up this theme of U.S. blindness by focusing on the Bush administration’s failure, until its last two years, to recognize the changing nature of the war and the historical framework in which insurgencies were unfolding. Instead, the administration clung to an ultra-technical warfare that, they thought, rendered such contextual factors irrelevant. Mansoor will also point out the historical parallels of this willful ignorance in the era of the Vietnam War. Priya Satia will attempt to further historicize this story of official ignorance by tracing its roots in the period of British rule in Iraq, when the British invented new forms of official secrecy to cope with the new political reality of mass democracy, later sharing these strategies with the U.S. during and after the Second World War. She will also describe the ways in which official myths about British success in Iraq have shaped the current American effort and will point to the place of historians in this discourse. Carolyn Eisenberg will explore more fully the role of historians in public conversation by focusing on their failure to shape debates about U.S. foreign policy. As professional historians became preoccupied with more revisionist modes of scholarship, they abandoned that conversation to more conservative media pundits and removed an important critical voice from the public sphere.

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