Blogs > Cliopatria > Post 9/11 America: The Best of Times

Dec 10, 2005 1:34 pm

Post 9/11 America: The Best of Times

The September 11 attacks and the Global War on Terror they triggered are, on the greater scale of things, no big deal.

That's the conclusion of a survey of 354 American history professors undertaken by the Siena College Research Institute (SRI). Asked to rank eight"trying times" in American history-- The Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I, Great Depression, World War II, Cold War, Vietnam/Cultural Revolution, and the current War on Terror, the War on Terror came in dead last.

The Civil War, my own area of specialization, topped the list. For the other rankings, see the complete story.
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Robert KC Johnson - 12/11/2005

I did like the headline the AP wire story used for the survey: "Historians: Past Eras Were Worse Than Now."

Alan Allport - 12/10/2005

Surely the most glaring methodological problem here is that the pollees are comparing an ongoing event with events that are safely in the past, and definitely over. To use the analogy of the Civil War, we have no idea what year we are currently in - 1856? 1858? 1860? 1862? 1864? Surely contemporaries of Lincoln would have judged the 'tryingness' of their own times differently depending on the date they were asked.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/10/2005

I suppose most historians surveyed thought of "trying times" in the Thomas Paine sense of the need for sustained struggle in an important cause whose victory was far from certain. Certainly that's a reasonable definition.

If so, then what the judgment is based on was not simply the difficulty of the challenge but the extent to which the American public was engaged in the challenge. To paraphrase: the extent to which a significant portion of the population thought about the challenge with a pang in their heart before breakfast.

At one level that makes a kind of sense. Most Americans spent significant portions of the Cold War not thinking about it a lot, relegating to background noise the possibility of nuclear war. Yet a majority always believed that it mattered. The "War on Terror" likewise has a background noise of the possibility of domestic attack that we necessarily stick in the background.

So the "pangs before breakfast" are limited to the reminders that the war goes on on the TV, in the paper, or online.

And yet, we are in trying times. Supporters of this War as defined by President Bush are frustrated by the lack of competence that is shown at so many level of the conflict. An odd coalition of supporters and opponents have found the Administration's embrace of torture to be corrosive to our values, but must fight the administration's firm insistence that it is necessary for our safety.

Most opponents are focused on what they considered the wrongness of the Iraq invasion and yet, few have articulated a potential post Iraq policy if and when a withdrawal occurred.

And of course the frightening thing is that underneath all this there is a true conflict. The spread of terrorist tactics combined with increased population densities and modern technology does pose a terrible challenge. 9/11 was only the most vivid example of that.

Of course, maybe these historians are actually reflecting their own disaffection and not the public's. Part of me hopes not; I would hate to think of my profession as that isolated.

But I cannot find it in my heart to hope that they are right, that a majority goes largely untroubled through these trying times of IMD's and waterboards and the honor of our nation at stake.

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