Thursday, January 06, 2005

Blasts from the Past

The holidays are over and I'm back in the classroom. This quarter I continue to facilitate a graduate research seminar. I'm also teaching History 151, the first half of the American history survey.

Everyone in my department, even the stars with endowed professorships, is required to teach at least one "service course" each year. This year History 151 is mine, and it's the service course I teach most often, though I have sometimes taught History 152, the second half of the American history survey, or History 398, Introduction to Historical Thought. And in keeping with my interest in the global history of war, I've volunteered next year to teach History 181, the first half of the world civilization survey.

With the exception of History 398, which to my surprise was a course I discovered I intensely disliked, despite favorable reviews from my students, I enjoy teaching the service courses more than the upper-division courses in my specialty. That's because I get to deal with lots of non-history majors, which is to say a much broader spectrum of university students. It's also because I know less about every aspect of the material, so that the courses give me a chance to learn new things--if not new material then at least new ways to think about the material. By contrast, when I teach, say, the Civil War and Reconstruction the experience is less satisfying. I know so much more about the period than I can convey even in a ten-week course. Consequently I feel as if I'm perpetually skimming the surface.

A challenge of teaching non-majors is that frequently they enter my classes thinking that history is just names and dates, or else a kind of pageant--colorful perhaps but remote. My job is at least partly to convince them--through example, not just special pleading--that history is relevant to their lives.

Certainly it's relevant to understanding current events. I never read a story on the current situation in Iraq without being forcibly reminded of the American experience with Reconstruction, 1865-1877. In this I'm hardly alone. In a previous entry I've noted that strategic analyst Anthony Cordesman drew parallels between Iraq and Reconstruction in a speech given last fall at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. So have several others, among them Bertram Wyatt-Brown in a newspaper op-ed piece, Mackubin Thomas Owens in a column for National Review Online, and Sanford V. Levinson in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Just run a Google search with the terms "Iraq" and "Reconstruction," along with something specific to the American Reconstruction era--"1877" or "Ku Klux Klan." You'll find these and more.

The one that is my favorite, at least in terms of something I could use in class, is an op-ed piece by novelist Cynthia Bass that appeared recently in the San Francisco Chronicle. Here's an excerpt:

It has a familiar ring: The war is won. The United States moves quickly to eliminate the old repressive regime, setting up new democratic institutions and holding elections. U.S. troops remain to ensure a smooth transition to democracy, but it's assumed that this transition will be both peaceful and swift, and that a prolonged military presence will not be necessary. Tragically, this is not to be.

Much of the population sees the United States as an occupier. A violent insurgency develops, undermining the new institutions. The United States is unable to win over the hearts and minds of the people, or crush the insurgency. Finally, after more than a decade, with both Washington and the nation losing interest, the effort is abandoned. Troops are withdrawn, the new institutions collapse, and an evil, repressive regime emerges in its place.

A vision of Iraq's future? No. Not yet.

It's a short history of a previous U.S. effort to introduce democracy to a defeated but restive population in the American South, after the Civil War. Optimists looking for hope in the Iraqi situation repeatedly point to the successful nation building performed with Japan and Germany after World War II.

But the situation in Iraq differs from that in post-war Germany and Japan in one vital respect: the view of the future. Once the war ended, Germany and Japan immediately realized they faced a severe threat from an expansionist Soviet Union. Embracing American-style democracy and accepting U.S. hegemony was an easy choice compared with the possibility of becoming a permanent Soviet satellite.

In today's sole-superpower world, no such outside threat faces Iraq. In fact, many Iraqis see America as the expansionist bully, with their country as possible victim.

Which returns us to the South after the Civil War. . . .

You'll find the complete column here.

A quick admin note before I go: Now that I'm back at work, I'll try to post as often as I can--if not every day then at least two or three times a week.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

History does seem to repeat, but in more ways than one.

In addition to the parallel to Reconstruction, I've read more than one person point to the similarities between Iraq and the Phillipine insurgency 100 years ago. By coincidence last year I read 'Theodore Rex' by Edmund Morris, and there was one paragraph (I don't remember if it was a quote of a news report of the time, or a government dispatch to Roosevelt from Manila), which could not be distinquished from news today in Iraq.

I've also thought that Iraq bears some of the hallmarks of revolutionary Russia. An unpopular autocratic government overthrown, a moderate faction (moderate Muslims filling in for the Kerensky government, trying to fulfill obligations to Western countries, all the while placating their local population) interested in reform but with radicals breathing down their necks, waiting to sweep them out of the way if the opportunity presents itself.