Lori Byrd has an interesting follow up to her excellent column from last week in Townhall about why the war has proven to be so difficult to explain to the public. She posits the notion that this is due to a lack of a good education in history, specifically the almost total absence of learning any military history.
She identifies correctly the current emphasis on “social history” (stressing the role of various minorities who feel previous texts ignored their accomplishments) rather than a straight narrative of chronological events, highlighting major historical mileposts and the players involved. This has led to ludicrous “history” texts that devote several chapters to the women’s rights movement while including only a couple of paragraphs on Washington’s presidency.
This kind of idiocy is the result of textbook manufacturers needing to sell books to a wide variety of school districts. Wanting to sell textbooks to both Berkley, CA and Houston, TX has made a mish mash of textbook writing and has ended up pleasing no one while giving an extraordinarily skewed picture of our past.
There is something to be said for “social history” as both Page Smith and Howard Zinn could tell you. After all, it was people who made the United States. And learning about Carrie Nation and Margaret Sanger is important to teaching our national story. But when other, equally important (or vastly more important) people and events are given short shrift thanks to the limitations of what a student can learn in a semester, serious problems arise in how our national narrative is absorbed by students.
I doubt that too many students today are forced to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as I had to when I was in 6th Grade. By the same token, I hope that many of them are forced to learn long passages from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The point being, there is little effort on the part of textbook manufacturers or school district authorities to teach history in a coherent manner. In trying to please everyone by including minor or even irrelevant historical events and characters, they have muddied the American narrative and downplayed the significance and accomplishments of other, more worthy historical players.
But I disagree with Lori about the teaching of military history and why this may be a proximate cause for people’s lack of understanding of what’s going on in Iraq. There is no comparison, as Lori points out, between what is happening in Iraq and what occurred in previous American wars.
During World War II, American kids would wake up every morning to a newspaper that invariably had one or more maps on the front page. The kids (and parents who also poured over the maps looking for evidence of where their loved ones were in harms way) would hang on to those maps, listening to the radio and trying to follow the march of our armies through towns and cities with place names that were foreign and unfamiliar. They would use those maps in geography class in school. Mothers and wives would carefully cut the map out of the paper and carry it around so that she could show her friends where her son or husband was in combat. When talking over the back fence, neighbors would drop the names of towns and cities where our men were fighting knowing that the person they were talking to knew exactly what he was referencing.
The war was a truly national obsession where almost every waking moment, one was reminded of the conflict. Rationing, bond drives, scrap drives, tire drives, victory gardens, air raid drills, the USO - all were part of everyday life in America during World War II. And with so many young boys scattered to the four corners of the earth, everyone seemed to have a brother or a husband or a son far, far away. And this on a world that was much, much larger than the one we inhabit today. No jet aircraft and it was 5 days from New York to Liverpool by ocean liner.
As far as military news, the strategic goals of our armies were no secret and widely known; unconditional surrender of the Japanese and Germans. With the American people united and committed to both the goals of the war and to making the material sacrifices necessary to achieve victory, the outcome was truly never in doubt.
Americans back then knew the Generals, knew the battles, knew what taking Caan meant to the invasion, knew that Operation Market Garden could shorten the war - they knew all these things because they had a living, breathing, stake in ultimate success or failure of our troops.
And that’s the huge difference between then and now. Where George Bush has failed miserably as President is in not offering to make the American people full partners in this conflict, sharing the sacrifices and giving all of us a stake in the outcome. It doesn’t matter very much that most Americans know little of military history or how to read a map. What matters is that the burden of sacrifice has fallen on so few of us. Part of this is a consequence of having an all volunteer, highly professional army. But while most Americans “support” the troops, they have no personal stake in the success or failure of our war policy.
I’m not sure how he could have or should have done this. I know that after 9/11 he could have tried. Congress, the press, the people were all with him. If this is truly a war for our survival - and I am absolutely convinced that it is - then our Commander in Chief has done a piss poor job of making the war our number one national priority. He has, in fact, tried to do the exact opposite. He pushed his domestic agenda, hoping that the war would drift off the front pages, forgotten by all but the families of our military who bear the bitterest fruit from this strategy. It is they who wait anxiously for their loved ones to come home.
You can bet they know where Falluja or Ramadi, or Tikrit is even if the rest of us don’t.
I appreciate what Lori is saying. And she has a point of sorts that a good grounding in history would perhaps give a little context to the war and help the American people understand what we’re trying to accomplish in Iraq . But I think it’s time we face the fact that this is a war that suffers from a lack of shared sacrifice and that is why people seem so disconnected from the consequences of failure.