Jim O'Brien: Historians Target Iraq War

Roundup: Historians' Take

Note: This article was published in February and includes dated references.

Galvanized by a sense that the Iraq War represents a catastrophic policy based on an illegal set of political and military ends, historians and activists will convene in Austin, Texas, this weekend to explore what historical analysis and understanding can contribute to efforts to bring the war to an immediate end.

Advance registration indicates that activists so far outnumber academics at the conference, sponsored by Historians Against the War (HAW). The organization was formed at an emotional ad hoc meeting at the 2003 convention of the American Historical Association in Seattle. HAW's founders wanted to make their voices heard in opposition to the impending US invasion of Iraq.

"We felt that solid understanding of the history of the region, of the history of American foreign policy, even of the history of warfare and occupation itself, all suggested the folly of the course of action that the Bush Administration was taking," says Ben Alpers, who teaches in the Honors College at the University of Oklahoma and is currently a co-chair of HAW.

More than 1,800 historians have signed an HAW statement, issued in September 2003, calling for an end to the current occupation and "the restoration of cherished freedoms in the United States."

The Austin conference features keynotes by historian-activists like retired Boston University professor Howard Zinn and Andrea Smith of the University of Michigan. Four panels, followed by an evening plenary, will feature two Middle East experts, Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University and Irene Gendzier of Boston University. A roundtable discussion titled "What Can Historians and Activists Learn From Each Other?" concludes the program on Sunday.

As antiwar historians take their message public, two themes are in tension. One is the continuity that many historians see between George W. Bush's Iraq adventure and previous American foreign policy. But other historians see the Iraq War as a critical turning point in American history and culture.

"Bush Policies: Change or Continuity?" includes a presentation on war and profiteering from Vietnam to Iraq by James Carter, of the University of Houston, and an examination by Paul Atwood of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, of the way notions of war and empire have long permeated the American experience.

In response, Peter Dimock, who edits history books for Columbia University Press, argues that the Iraq War constitutes a "point of no return" in American history and culture. He suggests that mainstream historians have "tried to reconcile empire and democracy through narratives of progress, but that the Iraq War poses "a crucial moment of crisis--a point of American historical 'no return' for democratic possibility at home linked to the militarized pursuit of 'full-spectrum dominance' abroad."

However the war is viewed by activist historians, there is consensus on the need to speak up. Margaret Power, an HAW co-chair and Latin America specialist at the Illinois Institute of Technology, calls "absurd" the idea that historians can "stay removed from the political currents that swirl around us, ensconced in some ivory tower.... As people who have the time and opportunity to study and learn," she says, "we also have the responsibility and the ability to speak out. Our voice matters, and we have been far too silent."

Reprinted with permission from the Nation. For subscription information call 1-800-333-8536. Portions of each week's Nation magazine can be accessed at http://www.thenation.com.

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