• August 31, 2015

Historians Criticized as Often AWOL From Public Debate Over 'War on Terror'

Many historians say a key difference between the Vietnam War and today's U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq is that far fewer members of their profession are stepping forward to be public critics of policies associated with the "war on terror."

Participants in a panel discussion held here last weekend, at the annual conference of the American Historical Association, said historians' relative silence about today's policies stems not from agreement, but from trends in their field that have discouraged their scholarly peers from becoming actively involved in public debates.

They argued that historians in academe need to be doing much more to inform policy makers and sway public opinion on matters such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, by sharing their views with members of Congress, submitting op-eds to local newspapers, giving talks, and reaching out to local activists.

Carolyn Eisenberg, a professor of history at Hofstra University, said "a great number of historians are profoundly at odds with the thrust of 'the war on terror,'" but their opposition "has scarcely registered in the public debate—it is barely a peep."

"It is time, I think, for today's historians to reclaim both the role of policy expert and the role of truth teller to the state," said another panel member, Priya Satia, an assistant professor of modern British history at Stanford University, who gave a talk arguing that the U.S. government has sought to limit public debate over its actions in Iraq in much the same way that Britain tried to avoid public scrutiny of its own Iraq occupation, after World War I.

"Given how important historical interpretation, and misinterpretation, have been to decision making in the war on terror, it simply makes sense for professional historians to participate more actively in public debate about it," Ms. Satia said.

A retired U.S. Army colonel, Peter R. Mansoor, who is now a military historian at Ohio State University argued that the Bush administration had "managed to forget nearly every lesson" of the Vietnam conflict in its approach to Iraq and Afghanistan, and ended up making many of the same mistakes the United States made in Vietnam as a result.

"History may not repeat itself," said Colonel Mansoor, who formerly served as an adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, "but it does rhyme, and policy makers can either choose to recognize these rhythms, or suffer the adverse consequences of their lack of insight into humanity and its often violent past." He argued that if historians in academe do not get involved in debates over foreign policy, "we cede the ground to people in think tanks," specifically citing the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Verbal Volleys

The panel's remarks seemed well received by its audience in Boston's Hynes Convention Center, but others who were not in the room had markedly different views.

"These sorts of self-indulgent, back-patting exercises are an embarrassment to academia," Danielle Pletka, the American Enterprise Institute's vice president for foreign and defense policy studies, said in an interview on Tuesday. Rattling off a long list of people within her think tank who have doctorates in history, she said historians in academe "are not ceding any ground—that ground got taken away from them."

"The last time I checked, the op-ed papers of the newspapers were as open to historians as they were to anyone else," Ms. Pletka said. "If you want to be a senior public-policy decision maker, move to Washington and join the government."

Alan Charles Kors, a professor of European history at the University of Pennsylvania, said historians should be active as private citizens and "should speak out on matters on which they have strong—and ideally informed—opinions." But, he argued, historians in fact "spoke out a great deal" about the actions of George W. Bush's administration, and "they—along with the entire left with a handful of exceptions—have given Obama a pass on what they deemed Bush a war criminal for pursuing."

Certainly, a few historians in academe have consistently been vocal critics of some actions undertaken by the U.S. government since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. One who stands out was a member of last weekend's panel discussion, on "The Public Uses of History and the Global War on Terror": Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, who often has taken federal officials to task for historical analogies he regarded as way off the mark, such as former Vice President Richard B. Cheney's comparison of Al Qaeda to the Nazis.

Another prominent academic historian in debates over U.S. policy is Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of international relations and history at Boston University and the author, most recently, of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books, 2010).

But most historians' opposition to foreign and domestic policies adopted in response to the terrorist attacks has been fairly diffuse. More than 2,600 signed a 2003 petition by a group called Historians Against the War opposing the invasion of Iraq, and in 2007 that group persuaded the American Historical Association to adopt a resolution strongly attacking the Bush administration for "practices inimical to the values of the historical profession" in its conduct of "the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terror."

At the same time, however, Ms. Eisenberg of Hofstra said she had discovered "mostly a crashing silence" in her efforts, as a member of Historians Against the War, to collect essays critical of U.S. foreign policy submitted by historians to newspapers and magazines.

Rick Shenkman, an associate professor of history at George Mason University and the editor and founder of that university's History News Network, said "historians largely have liberal sympathies," but he too has noticed a dearth of public criticism of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars by scholars in his field. "The country itself has tended to ignore those wars, and so has the history profession," he said.

Discretion and Valor

While many historians agree that scholars in their field are much less vocal in their criticisms of the "war on terror" than had been the case during the Vietnam War era, they do not appear to have reached much of a consensus as to why.

In her panel presentation, Ms. Eisenberg blamed historians' failure to get more involved in public-policy debates partly on changes in the profession. Given the intense competition among historians for jobs in academe, she said, people in the field feel overwhelming pressure to produce books and peer-reviewed articles if they wish to land a new job on a college faculty or receive tenure or a promotion. They have little incentive to give talks, work with grass-roots organizations, correspond with members of Congress, or speak to local news outlets because colleges do not reward such behaviors as much in weighing scholars' value.

In an interview on Wednesday, however, Larry G. Gerber, a professor emeritus of history at Auburn University and chairman of the American Association of University Professor's committee on college and university governance, said the changes in tenure standards described by Ms. Eisenberg had been under way for decades, beginning around the Vietnam War.

Ms. Eisenberg also posited that the turmoil of the Vietnam War era had "fostered a certain disdain for the study of powerful white men" that, while paving the way for great advances in social and cultural history, has led fewer historians to focus on how decisions are made in Washington. Colonel Mansoor made a similar point, arguing that neglect of the study of military history had left fewer scholars equipped to call attention to mistakes the previous administration was making in Iraq.

Another participant in the panel discussion, Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, argued that scholars were more comfortable speaking out about American foreign policy during the Vietnam era because it was a period in which universities were expanding and they could be more secure in their jobs. A member of the audience went so far as to argue that we live in a period similar to the McCarthy era, in which scholars feel they will jeopardize their careers by taking stands on controversial subjects.

Mr. Cole of the University of Michigan rejected the idea that historians in academe risk dire professional consequences for weighing in on such policy matters. Colonel Mansoor said scholars who jumped into such battles should expect to take some hits, but tenure exists to embolden them in those situations. "It is the people with tenure, it is the senior people, who should speak out," he said.

Some historians interviewed after the meeting argued that the relative silence of today's historians, in comparison with those of the Vietnam War era, stems mainly from the absence of the draft and comparatively high casualty rates that fanned resistance to that earlier conflict.

"This is not the 1960s, and neither [the Afghanistan nor the Iraq] war has risen to the level of the Vietnam War in attracting public opposition in the universities or on the streets," said Mr. Shenkman of George Mason University and the History News Network.

Gordon S. Brown, a professor emeritus of history at Brown University, said "these wars are detached from our lives in a way that Vietnam was not" and "the historical profession is only reflecting that."


1. panzel1 - January 12, 2011 at 05:19 pm

I'd like to take exception to GMU Prof. Shenkman's comment, "This is not the 1960s, and neither [the Afghanistan nor the Iraq] war has risen to the level of the Vietnam War in attracting public opposition in the universities or on the streets,"about the Afghanistan and Iraq War. Of course, cybersapce has become the convenient vehicle of communication and protest as opposed to street theater and protest with a heavy layer of lack of a universal draft system in the USA.
I would also like to point out one book in particular, "The Politics of Escalation in VIETNAM" (publ 1966) by Prof Franz Schurmann and the late Prof Reginald Zelnik (my brother!) of Cal/Berkeley. This book served as the linchpin for further works by history faculty exposing the evil motives and deceipts by our public officials, the military, and the federal government. I might suggest that a careful reading of this small yet well documented and historically accurate paperback appears to expose the same roadmap that the Bush Adminsitration set forth for the public and elected officials to follow with respect to Iraq.
I think professors today are not so much "AWOL" but one might argue, absent a "W" that they are more "AOL!" And actually. let's appreciate the fact that we are absent a "W."

Martin Zelnik RA/AIA

2. 22221103 - January 12, 2011 at 06:43 pm

Is it the job of a historian to sway public opinion or to present history in the most objective manner possible. In addition to obtaining better information than we had in the past, isn't trying to sway public opinion the reason we have revisionist history?

3. 11272784 - January 12, 2011 at 06:43 pm

Any "War on Terror" is unwinnable by definition. terror exists as long as one nutball still exists with the will and opportunity to harm others. Quite obviously, it is impossible to stop or exterminate every such individual - therefore terror will continue. The best we can hope it so mitigate it and reduce it to a manageable and survivable level.

4. princeton67 - January 12, 2011 at 08:38 pm

Academia is irrelevant to foreign policy. Ignited by events, oratory, and catchphrases, the passions of the populace start and end wars.
Any parallels with earlier wars are denied, until accepted.
Those who do not know know history are doomed to repeat it;
Those who do, so damned.

5. rambo - January 13, 2011 at 12:02 am

Col. Peter R. Mansoor forgot there are historians working in the FFRDCs (RAND, CNA, IDA, etc) with top-secret security clearances writing reports and serving on the grounds overseas.

the best way for the More than 2,600 signees is to force their employer to disinvest from federally financial funding.
like Ms. Eisenberg of Hofstra for $775,094 of DOD contracts http://www.usaspending.gov/advanced-search

we need more historians who are pro-war and pro-military. Many are members of the Society for Military History.

6. rstock - January 13, 2011 at 01:43 am

Sometimes it is helpful for historians to be engage in such debates, but many are extremely well misinformed. For example, Prof. Cole's attack on Dick Cheney cited here is dead wrong: there is a direct link between Nazi ideology and the anti-Semitism not only of al-Qa'ida but also of many other Islamist groups. The seed for this was planted by the massive amount of Nazi propaganda diffused throughout the Middle East during World War II, which survives in numerous forms today. The ideological orientation of many in this field precludes objectivity and glorifies an academic equivalent of "advocacy journalism" in place of dispassionate scholarship.

7. jcisneros - January 13, 2011 at 07:33 am


Your argument is flawed. There is no such direct link between Nazi ideology and the ideology of Wahibists. The two groups may be anti-semitic, but that is not sufficient evidence to suggest direct linkage.

Jews, Bolsheviks and other groups were portrayed as sub-human and inferior, the Nazis did not engage in attacking religious ideology like the Wahabists do. The Wahibists (not Islamists) are chief among religious extremists who portray Americans, Jews, and more moderate Shia and Sunni as barbaric, evil, and religiously dead. Incapable of attaining paradise. The rhetoric is very different and the basis of the anti-semitism comes from a different argument.

Like many politicians; Mr. Cheney, Mr. Bush and other neo-conservatives commonly used appeals to emotion, limited choice, diversions (red herrings) and straw men to make their arguments. Much in the same manner as your hasty generalization in which you characterize historians (or scholars) of a certain ideological bent (liberal, if I divine your intent properly) as incapable of objective and dispassionate scholarship. This statement is patently false and belies the fact that your argument is emotional and not objective to any degree.

Scholars of all ideological beliefs have the capability to be objective. Your oversimplification of Nazi ideology and Wahabist ideology do you no credit.

8. quidditas - January 13, 2011 at 07:57 am

I agree that the adoption and promulgation of the "islamofascist" meme by ostensibly "'liberal' intellectuals" had an impact on the ability of historians and other academics to analyze and protest the aggressive actions of the United States.

It's easy to forget how vigorously opposition to the war was prosecuted at its commencement as much of the prosecution has since recanted, at least publicly, but there are still a few rabid liberal chicken hawks on the watch--Paul Berman, the entire New Republic--and the whole experience left a serious chill.

These are the kind of things to which academics pay (too much) heed.

On the upside, Grover Norquist is reportedly getting a little tired of paying for it:


9. quidditas - January 13, 2011 at 08:05 am

Also, let's note that some of the journalists who reamed liberal critics of the war are now journalism professors--Paul Berman at NYU, Peter Beinart at CUNY. So, this is the type of public discourse that Universities are rewarding.

10. quidditas - January 13, 2011 at 08:19 am

"Academia is irrelevant to foreign policy. Ignited by events, oratory, and catchphrases, the passions of the populace start and end wars."

I disagree that this set of wars was ignited primarily by the passions of the populace. The "war on terror," particularly as it spun off point in Iraq, was significantly driven by neoconservative policy intellectuals associated with Cheney and promoted in the press by a cadre of "public intellectuals," hailing from both the left and right.

This could get put over on the public due to 9/11 and a Republican base that is uncritical about violent solutions and too in love with George Bush, but the primary impetus lies almost entirely elsewhere. The "best and brightest" cannot divorce themselves from this one.

Maybe what historians should do is ensure that this chapter in American history is not written by the suspect memories of those who actively promoted the war on terror. Because one residual of the chilling effect seems to be that those who created the chill are still assert themselves as authorities, while most others have continued to keep quiet.

11. sandicooper - January 13, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I believe that the Peace History Society, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights and some other groups, endorsed a powerful statement last week at the Boston AHA meeting in favor of closing Guantanamo as Barack Obama had promised. I am not sure why this was not known to the panelists referred to in the article.

The engagement of professional discipline organizations in public pronouncements is ever a contested matter and as a result of the 1969 and subsequent AHA business meetings where anti war resolutions passed the business meetings, the organization changed its rules about voting on public issues. The regulations limit the voice of participants in business eetings to expressions of interest and then require a mail ballot for the organization to offer formal endorsement.

With regard to the idea that a new ethos has effectively silenced faculty protest, we might note that nearly two decades passed in public sector colleges where no substantial hiring occurred -- apart from adjuncts. When the current generation of younger scholars began their careers, there was a gap in continuity from the campus culture of the 60s and 70s. In the case of women, for instance, happily the younger generation has little direct experience with a hiring committee which would say, straight out, "we are sorry. Your credentials are superb but we just do not hire women in this department."

Sandi Cooper
Professor of History - CUNY at Staten Island and the Graduate School
Chair, University Faculty Senate - CUNY

12. 12025109 - January 13, 2011 at 01:01 pm

We are asking why the people, whose profession has been the subject of 3 decades or more of continual funding cuts, why they are not raising dissident voices to the people, who are doing the cutting? Tenure is no protection if you are the last few left in a department that has been penalized by administrators, who are themselves instruments of the kleptocracy. What good is tenure, when the writing is on the wall that the ruling elite no longer support education for all and will continue to cut until public higher education conveniently disappears? Politicians, by their very action of continual cutbacks, don't want historians or any other academics expressing contrary opinions in the public sphere. Let's not kid ourselves.

13. rambo - January 15, 2011 at 01:58 pm

so writing and research a pro-military, pro-war, pro-defense articles/reports/research is a nono?? only if one has tenure......

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.