I’ve been thinking recently about the many ways in which we conceal from ourselves the truths we know we know. At the Shocked, Shocked conference at NYU on Saturday — the subhead of which was the comical/exasperated “Just how many times can a country lose its innocence?” — the Yale historian David Blight gave a riveting talk about how over the second half of the 19th century the Civil War became memorialized as a conflict between “two right sides ” — Union and Confederate– and “reconciliation” came to mean focussing exclusively on the valor of the soldiers in both armies. Slavery? Black people? Neither fit the narrative of reuniting North and South. For that, the causes and purposes of the war had to be obscured, the past — the real past — forgotten. The slaveowner and the slave dropped out of the public story, the soldiers in blue and gray became the star players. In this way, the country could bind up its wounds and move on triumphantly without having to confront the reconstitution of white supremacy in the South, or Northern racism either. Napoleon quipped that the winners write history, but until the civil rights movement, the history of the Civil War was largely written by the South.
Blight gave an interesting example of how the wish for a heroic, positive history distorts “progressive”memory too. Ken Burns ended his PBS series on the Civil War with footage of the huge 1913 reunion at Gettysburg of veterans from both sides, closing on a conciliatory meeting between an old black union soldier and a white confederate one. According to Blight, this picture had to have come from a much later vets reunion. In 1913, all the vets were white. The only blacks permitted in the encampment were the ones who built and maintained the latrines, cooked and served food, and handed out blankets.
You can see the same process of historical mythmaking at work on the War in Vietnam. The war as well-intentioned tragedy (liberal version) versus the war as sabotaged glory, the stab in the back (conservative). The history of militant GI resistance, told in the powerful documentary “Sir! No Sir!”, has dropped out of public memory, replaced by feckless “draft dodgers” and the myth of the returning soldier spat upon in the airport by a hippie girl with flowers in her hair.
How will the War in Iraq be woven into the ongoing narrative of American goodness and progress? We brought them democracy, but they couldn’t handle freedom? We could have pacified the country with just a bit more time but the peaceniks stabbed us in the back, just like in Vietnam? Maybe both–in fact, both are in circulation already. You can be sure that, as with Vietnam, no matter how many Abu Ghraibs and Hadithas come to light, they will be blamed on bad-apple soldiers and the fog of war, not higher ups or official policy.
Imagine that in 30 years the Smithsonian tries to put on an exhibit exploring the the Iraq war: the cooked evidence of WMD, the “embedding” of the media, our bewildering and shifting alliances with assorted Iraqi would-be strongmen, the destruction of Iraqi infrastructure, the violence against civilians, the displacement of millions of Iraqis to Syria and Jordan, and so on. Today , these are all things we know well. But will we still know them in 30 years? If history is any guide, they’ll have been replaced by a soothing and hopeful popular narrative of patriotism , military valor and well-meaning blunders. In the furor over the planned exhibit, many rightwing politicians will raise tons of cash, the curator will lose her job, and in the end the more disturbing, ‘controversial” displays will be replaced with pictures of Osama bin Laden, 9/11, soldiers building schools and soulful-eyed Iraqi children being brought to America for medical treatment.
Blight closed with a wonderful remark from the Reverend Fred Shuttleworth, the great civil-rights leader: “If you don’t tell it like it really was, it can never be as it ought to be.” That goes for all of us.
Katha Pollitt’s collection of personal essays, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories, is just out from Random House. These are not Nation columns; in fact, most are previously unpublished. “Watching Pollitt level her incisive wit at targets as disparate as Marxism and motherhood makes “Learning to Drive” a rewarding and entertaining read.”–San Francisco Chronicle
For upcoming readings and appearances, click here.