Friday, August 05, 2005

Howard Zinn and the Wages of Historical Amnesia

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which means it’s time for People’s History of America author Howard Zinn to elbow his way on to a small corner of the stage to argue that President Truman’s decision to bomb the Japanese with the fearsome new weapon was unwarranted, cruel, racist and an affront to civilization. The poor man's Noam Chomsky has been making that argument for years, and we most recently read it again in a pretty decent news article on the Hiroshima anniversary in the Asbury Park, N.J. Press.

Zinn maintains that the war in the Pacific was essentially over by August, 1945, that Japan was ready to throw in the towel but the United States’ intransigent demand for an unconditional surrender was delaying the imminent peace. Drawing on the work of fellow lefty historian Gar Alperovitz, Zinn claims Truman’s true but hidden agenda was to send a pre-Cold War shot across the bow of the Soviet Union. “A wanton act of gargantuan cruelty” is how he described the bombings in an essay a few years ago. That it was indeed cruelty on a gargantuan scale is undeniable, but whether it was “wanton” --- that is, unjustified --- is a whole other area of inquiry. The moral and strategic questions are certainly arguable, but Zinn’s not really interested: His unhidden agenda, as always, is to paint the United States as a strictly malevolent force in the world. He’s even suggested that the possibility of future commercial benefits figured in the decision to drop the A-bombs.

We had long ago made up our minds on this subject. Our father was in a rifle company of the Army’s 83rd Division, the “Thunderbolt Division,” and arrived in Europe just in time for combat in the Ardennes and Rhineland campaigns. Being one of the replacement troops in the 83rd, which had fought its way through the hedgerows starting a few days after the Allied landing at Normandy, it’s a pretty good bet that his survival, which apparently was not a sure bet at the time, would have meant a trip to the Japanese mainland. And that may have thrown our later existence into doubt. Not that our existence is worth so many Japanese lives, but bringing it down to a personal level always clears away the ambiguities in these hypothetical arguments.

Reading Victor Davis Hanson’s “Wages of Suicide” chapter on Okinawa in his fascinating Ripples of Battle: How the Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live and How We Think reinforced out belief. Hanson is a classics professor in California and contributor to the National Review. He bats right but isn’t especially ideological or knee-jerk. He’s written eloquently and perceptively on our war with Islamic terrorists post-9/11 (although we’d respectfully part company with his belief that our invasion of Iraq was a necessary extension of that war). Hanson has a personal interest in Okinawa: His uncle and namesake was a Marine who died on the island. His argument, stripped of most of its complexity, is that the horrific brutality of the fighting on Okinawa --- for U.S. troops, it was truly a meat grinder --- made it plain that there were thousands if not millions of Japanese who would be willing to literally set themselves on fire for the Empire in what was by then, yes, pretty much a lost cause. The battle for Okinawa marked the first full-scale use of kamikaze pilots --- what Hanson calls mass “state-organized suicide” --- and it’s startling to read, even in this day of almost routine suicide bombings, of the thousands of pilots the Japanese militarists had ready to steer their planes into U.S. ships. “No discussion of Hiroshima … is intellectually legitimate without careful consideration of the events that transpired on Okinawa,” writes Hanson, who goes on to quote author George Feifer:
"Okinawa’s caves, killing grounds and anguish ought to be remembered. It ought to be suggested …. that the first atomic bomb prevented the homicidal equivalent of over two hundred more of the same: the 20 million Japanese deaths if invasion had been necessary, in addition to all the other deaths, Western and Asian.”
Unfortunately, it’s Howard Zinn’s facile interpretations, and not those of Hanson or Feifer, that have carried the day, at least for today, when it comes to the teaching of U.S. history. A year or so ago the Washington Post’s Jay Matthews, the paper’s excellent education reporter, went into D.C.-area high schools to survey students on what they knew about World War II. He found that the one event of which a good two-thirds were aware was their country’s internment of Japanese-Americans. Far fewer could name a U.S. general or a major battle of the war in which so many Americans died. Yes, the internment of American citizens during wartime is an important event to know and discuss --- it was a sad chapter, but how easy it is to say that in hindsight --- yet it’s really nothing more than a very minor footnote to World War II, one of course that neatly buttresses Zinn’s reductive, formulaic approach (U.S.=bad). Not that we think Zinn is some important intellectual figure, but we wouldn’t underestimate his influence: His People’s History is a staple on history teachers’ bookshelves, and we’ve had it pushed on us by one well-meaning educator who believes it tells “the real story” of our country. Matthews writes:
Diane Ravitch, an educational historian at New York University, said the big emphasis in high schools today is on the internment camps, as well as women in the workforce on the home front and discrimination against African Americans at home and in the armed services.

"Then, too, there was a war in the Atlantic and Pacific," she said.
Ignorance of the U.S. role in World War II isn’t limited to high school students, though: A few months back the Houston Chronicle ran an op-ed piece by a local writer who recounted the story of a gloriously brave American soldier who during the fall of Berlin had clambered up the roof of the Reichstag to snatch a Nazi flag … Opps … (In a neat bit of Stalinst-style reworking of the public record, we find the paper has excised this fine work of fiction from its archives.)

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