Fri, Sep 04, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Using history to distort rather than enlighten

Attempting to equate the war on terror with the great conflicts of the 20th century is a gross misuse of history

By Simon Jenkins  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

We are awash in history. This week the Poles climbed on stage, as they do each time anniversary journalism returns to World War II. It is 70 years since German ships bombarded the fort of Gdansk, then known as the city of Danzig, while Polish lancers turned their horses to face Adolf Hitler’s Panzers in the most romantic and idiotic act of suicide of modern war. Last month we heard the fell tones of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain announcing: “We are at war with Germany.” Next spring we shall be back in Dunkirk.

Meanwhile, we must also take time off to record the 40th anniversary of Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, the 30th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the fifth of the Beslan massacre. While gazing at the calendar we might recall the 40th anniversary of vasectomy, the 60th of the chairmanship of Mao Zedong (毛澤東), the 80th of the traffic light and the centenary of the force-feeding of British suffragette protesters demanding votes for women. There is no end to the trough of history at which hungry readers can feed.

History always arrives with its raucous child, lessons to be learned. Today the glib linking of any passing dictator with Hitler continues to pollute analysis of international relations. It is impossible to write against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the so-called war on terror without being accused of guilt by association with 1930s appeasement — usually by Americans, who were the most serious appeasers of all.

The idea that questioning any military adventure, however ill-advised, must be a re-enactment of Chamberlain at Munich is worse than an abuse of history. It is an offense against the millions who died in Europe and Asia in the terrible years before, during and after World War II. To put the war on terror in the same historical basket as the war against Nazism is like equating a single terrorist bomb to Hiroshima. Yet it is currently leading thousands of soldiers and civilians to their deaths, on the pretext that “Western civilization” is being threatened in the sense that it was in 1939.

History is like the law. It offers raw material for anyone who wants to plead a cause or make some money. It will lend its bias to any side of an argument. Earlier this year Russian President Dmitry Medvedev set up a historical truth commission on World War II to accept Soviet guilt over the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the Katyn massacre. But a member of the commission said on Tuesday that it would not shy from describing the roles of Polish, British and French participants in the Munich conspiracy. The trouble is, the former were facts and the latter a Soviet spin on a Western humiliation.

Parallels with the past are always dangerous, whether in the hands of experts or charlatans. Just as the pro-war party in Afghanistan cites appeasement, so the anti-war party trumpets Britain’s Afghan campaigns in the 19th century and the Russian fiasco in the 1980s. Enlisted against the war is also Vietnam — mesmerizing for students of former US president John F. Kennedy’s intervention in support of then-Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. Then, too, the US was sucked into an Asian imbroglio by assuming “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Then, too, one US general after another declared a war “doable,” if only more troops were sent and more attention paid to hearts and minds.

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