Historians Against the War: Highlights from their Weekend Conference


Ms. Atkins is a member of Historians against the War (HAW).

Historians Against the War (HAW) held a conference called "Empire, Resistance, and the War in Iraq" this past weekend at the University of Texas, Austin. Living up to its subtitle, "A Conference for Historians and Activists," this conference brought together historians from many U.S. campuses and local activists, but it was also about historians as activists which was what I thought made it unique. I know it is dangerous to call anything unique among a group of historians, but if anyone wants to prove that this wrong, the correction would be welcomed.

In addition to the many fine papers summarized by their presenters in five panels, these scholars also gave their personal views on the present moment, and the organization proposed some practical steps that it could take in the future.

The attack on progressive scholars by David Horowitz was mentioned several times as some of the "101 Most Dangerous Academics" were in attendance. Most notable was Howard Zinn, who along with Andrea Smith, filled auditorium of 1500 in the LBJ auditorium for their keynotes. The audience was swelled by university and local peace activists and progressives as well as many local high school and middle school teachers.

In their talks, Smith and Zinn introduced themes that would continue throughout the conference. Smith's talk was comprehensive in its reframing of the issues of race, class and gender. She criticized the errors of certain parts of the feminist movement which applauded the attack on Afghanistan after 9/11 as if bombing could ever liberate women. She spoke about gender hierarchy and the culture of sexual violence as a strategy of the state. She spoke of new models of coalition building based not on common victimization but on three inter-related models of oppression, Slavery, Genocide and Orientalism. She talked about new forms of organizing and the Latin American and indigenous models of "making power" outside the system based on mutual respect and responsibility. She called into question the future of the nation state.

Howard Zinn's speech started with the challenge of how to go about "making history useful" to everyday people. He asked "Why do people believe the media?" He attributed this naivete to a lack of historical perspective or "historical amnesia." For example, U.S. Presidents have historically lied about the reasons for going to war, so of course we should be skeptical about this President's rationalizations - unless we act as though we were born yesterday. The biggest lie that many people fall for is that there is a common national interest between the common people and the government.

A study of history shows that there is no common national interest between them and us. But rather a "clash of classes." And it's our lack of historical knowledge that sets us up again and again to swallow the government's lies. Our job, he said, is to take our history and our country back, that the war in Iraq is not the only problem but the problem is war itself which poisons and corrupts and threatens our democratic rights.

Time constraints made it necessary for many of the panelists to shorten their presentations. And space constraints force me to give just a few highlights of a conference in which so many of the papers should be given much more attention. This is frustrating, however, Historians against the War promises to put many of the papers up on their website - www.historianagainstwar.org - as soon as possible. And "portside" invited the presenters to submit their papers and remarks to us for possible distribution.

The panel, "The U.S. in the Middle East," was particularly varied and meaningful. Magnus Bernhardson from Williams College posed the question "What is Iraq?" He described the different views of Iraq - media Iraq; partisan Iraq; wishful Iraq; and the actual Iraq. What is overlooked most, he said, is the actual Iraq. The people are not just suffering from the current occupation, but rather they have undergone one long period of war - from the Iran/Iraq war through the first Persian Gulf War, through the sanctions and now with the current war on Iraq. He described a conference he attended in Jordan between U.S. and Iraq scholars in which the Iraqis told them that what is important to them is the restoration of normal daily life. There is no way to discuss new forms of democracy when the country is at war and normal life is impossible. The conditions of war must be ended before a new democratic government can be formed.

In this same panel, Rahul Mahajan from NYU, described the different views of U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East. There are three schools of thought in regard to democracy in the Middle East. First, the mainstream view of "promoting democracy" while at the same time questioning whether Arabs are "fit for democracy." Second, the Chomsky school which says the U.S. is indifferent to democracy and just wants a favorable investment climate similar to all its previous interventions. Third, the view of William Robinson who says the U.S. is promoting a polyarchy form of government in which there are a couple of rival elites competing with each other for power. He says that promoting polyarchy serves U.S. interests better in this age of globalization. Mahajan reported that all three views have flaws, and that it may actually be impossible to discern a rationality to the current administration's foreign policy.

I have to mention one more speaker on this panel - Nada Shabout. Her talk was about the attack on cultural Iraq and destruction of the last 25 years of Iraqi art. The works in the Museum of Modern Art have been destroyed, and public monuments torn down and rebuilt in a "New Iraq" image. While conceding that much of it was monumental art that celebrated the regime of Saddam Hussein, some of it was actually good art. She questioned the effect that conscious destruction of 25 years of art would have on a country. She also pointed out the U.S. promotion of a "new" Iraqi artist named Pashi who many Iraqis believe is a fraud. He is being promoted by the U.S. government and his art is now being shown in New York and was featured in an AP story.

Another panel pointed out the threats to academic freedom and civil liberties that arise during wartime. Colleen Woods' presentation on a N.Y. City public school teacher who was put on trial for not being patriotic enough during World War I provided insight into the beginning of the accusations of disloyalty against teachers and the rise of the loyalty oath for school teachers.

Peter Kirstein, whose personal email answer to a spam invitation to celebrate military values, was misquoted and blasted all over the internet by the right wing, and which resulted in his suspension from Xavier University, gave a spirited description of the attacks on him and his successful defense against these attacks. Other examples of violations of academic freedom were discussed. Other speakers on this panel were Amee Chew from Harvard and Jeffrey Kerr-Ritchie from the University of North Carolina.

On Saturday night we heard from Irene Gendzier from B.U. and Rashid Khalidi from Columbia. Irene talked about the roots of U.S. policy toward Iraq and the long encouragement of Saddam Hussein by all sectors of the U.S. government. She said that academics should have been paying more attention - especially to the Henry Gonzalez hearings in 1991-2 when these connections were revealed.

Rasid Khalidi gave an excellent speech on the U.S. goals in Iraq and the almost certain outcome of failure. He warned of the U.S. addiction to power and to war, and quoted James Madison that war is the poisoner, corrupter and destroyer of democratic rights. The Bush administration is openly contemptuous of the rule of law both international and domestic. He noted that while U.S. public opinion opposes the war and believes it is a mistake but that this shift has not yet affected the media or the political structure. It is time to hold the both to account. We must oppose the war, and fight the domestic implications of an imperial presidency, a national security state and the curtailment of civil liberties.

The last panel on Sunday morning was "What Activists and Historians can learn from Each Other." Dan Berger talked about his book on the Weather Underground and his view that they were important for their anti-imperialism and their recognition of white supremacy and their emphasis on action. The legacy of the Weather Underground was questioned by another panelist, Carolyn Eisenberg, who disagreed and argued that the anti-Vietnam war movement needs more study if we are to learn from our mistakes and create a stronger anti-war movement today. The title of her presentation was "Nixon's and Kissinger's Tips for the Peace Movement." Many speakers spoke of the crucial importance to the anti-war movement of the returning vets who are speaking out and noted the courage of the military families and in particular Cindy Sheehan.

At the close of the conference, Historians against the War co-chair, Margaret Power, called for discussion on tactics and laid out some proposed plans for the future. Their specific ideas are to call for National Days of Teach-Ins on the war probably in the Fall; to begin to put pressure on Congress to bring the troops home and cut off funding; to gather oral histories of returning veterans and their families; to develop short pamphlets on different topics for distribution, and to work with High School and Middle School social science teachers.

As I left the conference it was hard to ignore the huge LBJ museum and library so I ducked into the museum not expecting much. I wandered past LBJ's presidential limosine and other memorabilia. My attention was drawn to a soundless videotape. It was a tape of the 1967 March on the Pentagon. I watched students and nuns and priests and veterans and Abraham Lincoln Brigaders and union members and ordinary people file silently by and by and by. It did my heart good to remember how broad the opposition to the Vietnam war was and to see some familiar faces looking again as young as the students of today.

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More Comments:

Lorraine Paul - 3/15/2006

"What has happened, however, is that people are taking “these voices of dissent’ less and less seriously..."

Have you read the approval ratings for Mr Bush lately?

Lorraine Paul - 3/15/2006

'...puts in power a tiny minority of cranks'. Are you speaking about the current US administration?

Steve Broce - 2/27/2006

Actually, Gonzalo, I do understand sarcasm. Even practice it myself from time to time. Didn't recognize it, this time.

You could be right. We might actually agree on quite alot.

With my apologies

Gonzalo Rodriguez - 2/26/2006


It's a shame you don't understand sarcasm. I have a feeling you and I might agree on quite a lot.


Steve Broce - 2/25/2006

Oh, brother. NOBODY has “suppressed these voices of dissent” or “prevented them from free assembly and freedom of speech.” Are you serious?

What has happened, however, is that people are taking “these voices of dissent’ less and less seriously because it is becoming more and more obvious that these “voices of dissent” are motivated by opposition politics, rather than clear logic or consistency.

Of course, complaining about not being taken seriously sounds sooo much less heroic than claiming that “repressive” forces are somehow silencing principled debate.

A little less melodrama, please, Gonzalo.

Gonzalo Rodriguez - 2/23/2006

Academics like to get together and praise themselves for their sophistication, achievements, and intelligence almost as much as Hollywood does.

All I'll say is that it's a shame that the repressive national culture created by the Bush administration has suppressed these voices of dissent from having their opinions heard, and prevented them from free assembly and freedom of speech.

mark safranski - 2/21/2006

I'm not seeing the unique perspective here - simply a self-congratulatory reiteration of the themes the academic far-left has occupied itself with since at least the late 1980's.

If there was a single new idea at this conference, I'd like to know what it was.

Jason KEuter - 2/21/2006

Pidgen Marxism at its best! Since when is Howard Zinn an "historian"?

Developing short pamphlets for high school and middle school teachers? Will you be dropping them from airplanes? Will you use the eptithet running dog to characterize those who commisserate with evil by failing to point out that America is first and foremost a brainwashed sociey in the hands of the capitalist string pullers? Did you discuss the lack of necessity to lay out a blueprint for assuring that the affluent university crowd will continue to evade military service while enjoying subsidies for their anti-war activities from those who don't?

Did everyone nod thier head catanoically as speaker after speaker reiterate the absurdity that somehow war bears no relation to meaningful social, cultural and political change? This was a conference of HISTORIANS? Aren't there credentialing agencies that can strip people who say such things of their PhD's and give them a crate from which to lecture in Central Park? Oh...I forgot..."meaningful" change...which means armed socialist revolution which puts in power a tiny minority of cranks...I'm sorry, I take it back.