Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"The Father of Us All": An exchange

The following letters regarding my review of The Father of Us All appear in the Autumn 2010 issue of MHQ.

I would not expect Stephen Budiansky to agree with much of anything in The Father of Us All, but I would hope him to be intellectually honest in his critique. That was not the case with his recent review in MHQ.

I did not, as Budiansky states, "minimize(s) American casualties in Iraq by comparing them to numbers killed in past wars—and in car accidents and earthquakes". My reference in the book to natural and human disasters was not in association in particular with Iraq, but to the larger truth that "wars are not necessarily the most costly of human calamities." And then I explain why nonetheless they rightfully bother us so:  "What bothers us about wars, though, is not just their occasionally horrific lethality; it’s that people like ourselves choose to wage them. Such free will makes conflict seems avoidable—unlike a flu virus, a landslide, or a car wreck—and its toll unduly grievous."

I also do not "invoke the  authority of history to absolve the recent blunders in the war on terror or in Iraq." Again, I wrote just the opposite in discussing military error over a 2,500 year span to remind our generation in its current conflicts that error and lapse are innate to all wars—and thus "American statesmen need to provide constant explanations to a public not well versed in history—not mere assertions—of what misfortunes to expect when and if they take the nation to war, and of both the costs and benefits of not striking at a known enemy." One can also thus see that, in addition to that admonishment to our political leadership, I did not write that "our leaders cannot be expected to learn the lessons of military history, so we should not be terribly troubled—or hold them accountable, apparently." Again, I wrote the exact opposite of what Budiansky alleges, in urging leaders to use military history to inform the public; he seems to sense his own disingenuousness, and so tacks on a gratuitous reference of his own, "As Donald Rumsfeld said, "stuff happens."
Mr. Budiansky is simply wrong to state that I support "the use of torture in interrogations." I have written in the past precisely against using torture in general, and waterboarding in particular (e.g., Chicago Tribune, November 5, 2005: where I conclude an essay on torture with “The United States can win this global war without employing torture. That we will not resort to what comes so naturally to Islamic terrorists also defines the nobility of our cause, reminding us that we need not and will not become anything like our enemies.”). The index in The Father of Us All shows two references to "torture"; one is simply a factual recitation of the horrific Ottoman torture of Marcantonio Bragadin who surrendered Famagusta to a Turkish invasion force. The other is in a quote arguing against torture,  "Only our moral response—not our status as belligerents per se—determines whether contemporary war is just. If we butcher a weaker opponent for no good cause, as the Athenians did neutral Melians, or if we gratuitously torture our captives, then our battle against the enemy becomes tainted, and we may well not win it." Again, I do not "support," but oppose torture and that is clear from any fair reading of my writing past and present.

Most regrettably, Budiansky ends with the charge that I give credence to those critics who allege that "military history is a smokescreen for the uncritical glorification and justification of war." That is also about the opposite of what I wrote in the epilogue:  "Study of the past provides both instruction  and comfort about preventing  lethal wars...Our great hope is not just that we will fight as well as did the Athenians who saved their civilization at Salamis, or the Marines who stormed Okinawa's Shuri Line, but also that we will have learned what prevents such bloodletting in the first place.”

Budiansky apparently wished to make the case that I had a natural tendency to use military history to glorify war. To do that, he often had to invert what I wrote and, ironically, in the process constructed his own preconceived conclusions.
Victor Davis Hanson
Selma, California

Stephen Budiansky replies:

Actually, there is a great deal in Professor Hanson’s book that I thoroughly agree with, but that’s neither here nor there. The task of a reviewer is to evaluate a book on its own merits. As I noted in my review, there was much that I found meritorious in his book. It is frequently thoughtful, deeply informed, and gracefully written.

I also offered a few criticisms—for which Professor Hanson can conceive no other explanation than that I am disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. But I think even the most sincere and intellectually honest reader will find, as I did, that his attempts to invoke the authority of military history to excuse and apologize for even the most egregious mistakes made in Iraq are tendentious, one-sided, and slipshod in their reasoning, and undermine his case with partisan special pleading.

In his reply above, Professor Hanson takes out of context both my comments and, more remarkably, his own words in an effort to deflect this criticism. He cites a few passages in his book where he offers lip service to the general proposition that our leaders should learn from history. Yet when it comes to details, it is always the critics of the mistakes made in Iraq whom Professor Hanson chastises in The Father of Us All, page after page, for naïveté and “historical amnesia”; it is never the leaders who actually made the mistakes who are to blame: Again and again, their mistakes are excused as just part of the inevitable unpredictability of war. “Stuff happens” is indeed a perfectly fair summary of the argument Hanson offers.

He shrugs off the fabrication of intelligence relating to weapons of mass destruction, for example, as simply par for the course: “almost every American war involved some sort of honest intelligence failure or misinterpretation of an enemy’s motive.” He briefly allows that some strategic blunders were made in the prosecution of the war, but once again it is the “armchair critics” who come in for all of the criticism (they forget, Hanson asserts with magnificent irrelevance, that Lincoln’s generals made a lot of blunders too). He is likewise dismissive of the “strange logic” of comparing the length of America’s involvement in Iraq to the four years it took to defeat Germany and Japan; a better-informed public would not be so impatient for results, he says, if it recalled the fourteen years the United States fought Philippine insurgents at the start of the 20th century. He is silent, however, about the far more willful disdain of history displayed by senior administration officials who repeatedly insisted that the war would be a quick walkover.

Similarly, the three places in his book where he mentions the abuses at Abu Ghraib, it is only to disparage those who have spoken up to criticize the practices of the Bush administration. He suggests that those who opposed torture are morally hypocritical; he asserts that they have provided “talking points” for Osama bin Laden; he portrays as naive and idealistic their concern for what he sarcastically refers to as “the vaunted values of Western bourgeois society” and describes this as a weakness that threatens to undermine American military resolve. (He also sarcastically places the words “war crimes” in quotation marks in referring to what took place at Abu Ghraib.)

I don’t think I am the only reader of The Father of Us All who might come away with a mistaken impression of Hanson’s views on the morality of torture. And it is not just a matter of a failure to express himself clearly: it is precisely his deliberate style of rhetorical and moral evasion that I found to be the most frustrating aspect of the book.