Letter to a Future Historian
To whom this may concern:
Will an American president ever utter the phrase, “crimes committed in the name of the American people”? After an acrimonious election and faced with concluding a contentious war in Iraq, the public will need some idea, some formula, to move forward.
I doubt this exact phrase will be used, given that it is how Adenauer convinced Germans of their guilt in the postwar era. “In the name of” allowed enough ambiguity as to what role the German public played in Nazism and the atrocities it caused. It allowed them to sense that they were victims as well as perpetrators of the horrors of war. And given Germans reacted better post-WWII than post-WWI, it was a more effective means of dealing with the recent past.
Eventually, scholars turned their attention to the people, much as I expect will happen in American history. After political history has been exhausted, the public becomes a prime target for analysis. First the policy, then the people. You are the first historian to look at the ambitions and fears of Americans in the “aughts,” and your book will rankle those invested in a particular interpretation of the Iraq War, especially its origins. As much as I welcome the change in discourse on foreign policy, it seems that most Americans are running from defeat rather than embracing ethics and responsibility. Few talk of what we owe Iraqis in the longterm. Public complicity is on no one’s tongue.
Until your monograph is published, historians will have focussed on the deception, or in a few cases, uncertainty. They will have focused on President Bush and his administration. Lies are, however, told for war, but they always find an audience hungry to hear them. Who looked for the River Ebro on a map? Why was “remembering the Maine” such a belligerent act? The invasion of Iraq was sold to a public that feared the foreigner, feared the world, and resented so-called friends who would restrain our global initiatives. It was a public that distrusted the UN. It was a public that put Arabs, Muslims and Middle East countries in the same constellation as terrorism. It was a public convinced that behind every major action, there was a state. It was a public whose faith in the war was unshaken by scandals like Abu Ghraib when they were revealed.
You will receive accolades and harangues. Please, though, be kind to us. You are one generation looking back on another. The middle class is always slow to mobilize, and memory takes time to integrate painful images and experiences. Like the young Germans of the 1960s, you will have a perspective borne in distance that helps you see the war.
Good luck, and good sales,
Nathanael D. Robinson