John Keegan: Oregon Senator says Keegan's work on WW I changed his mind about Iraq

Historians in the News

At the close of the Senate’s lame-duck session, in between formulaic tributes to senators departing voluntarily or otherwise, a Republican backbencher suddenly rose to give one of the most passionate and surprising speeches about the war in Iraq yet delivered in Congress.

For a solid Republican who had originally voted for the war, the words spoken by the senator, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, on the evening of Dec. 7 were incendiary and marked a stunning break with the president....

He said he had previously refrained from publicly criticizing the war because he had been struck by the comment of a soldier from Oregon, who told him during a 2005 visit to Iraq that if he supported the troops, he also had to support their mission.

But Mr. Smith’s attitude began to change over the past year, particularly after he visited Iraq in May. In an interview, the senator recalled two occurrences in Baghdad during his visit, one in which a massive bomb killed about 70 people and a second in which some American troops were killed on patrol.

And a book on World War I he had been reading, by John Keegan, the British military historian, was beginning to haunt him.

Mr. Smith said that his use of the word “criminal” in his speech to describe the war in Iraq came from his reading of that book, which he said explained to him the “practice of British generals, sending a whole generation of British men running into machine guns, despite memos back to London saying, in effect, machine guns work.”

Much like the British in World War I, he added, “I have concluded that we are employing strategies that are needlessly getting kids killed.”

After returning to Washington from Baghdad, Mr. Smith said he listened with growing dismay to optimistic briefings given to senators by Donald H. Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense, and other administration officials. Even in closed-door briefings, he said, “the answers always seemed to be, It’s tough but we have to stay the course.

“And so I started thinking about the British generals,” he said.

Last summer, on a flight from Portland, Ore., to Washington, Mr. Smith said he read “Fiasco,” a history of the Iraq war by Thomas E. Ricks, “and by the time I landed I was heartsick.”

As the situation in Iraq worsened in the fall, Mr. Smith said it became increasingly obvious to him that “we were playing street cop in a civil war.”

“I started thinking about those British generals again,” he said.

He said he had decided not to speak out before the midterm elections, both out of political loyalty and a fear that his words would be drowned out by partisan attacks.

“Then we were back in Washington for the lame-duck session,” he said, “and I woke up one morning and turned on the news and another 10 soldiers had been killed. And I went from steaming to boiled. And then I went to the floor.”...
Read entire article at James Risen in the NYT

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Frank Richard Trombley - 1/3/2007

I hope Senator Gordon Smith realises that John Keegan published a book seeking to justify the Iraq war about year after George Bush's 'mission accomplished' speech of 1 May 2003. The pathos of the 'lost generation' of WWI fame is a topos of European thought that has seldom interfered with the decisions of politicians, particularly the New Labour (sic) government in Great Britain, whose ministers have no sense of history and appear not to be well grounded in international politics either. As for politics in the United States, the term 'grateful nation' has been repeated frequently in recent weeks. Do presidential speech writers really get their ideas from watching movies (in this case, 'Saving Private Ryan')? If this is as far as public figures' sense of history goes, it is unlikely that reading this or that book will result in clear and sensible policy judgements. The recent experience of the Iraq war suggests the truth of the folk adage that 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing'. But all this has come too late. The time for historical reflection was between September 2002 and March 2003. Better late than never, but too late is too late.