If you are of liberal political leanings you will probably not like this piece as I am going to proceed to attempt to demolish several sacred cows of contemporary liberal thought. I unreservedly admit that I am politically conservative and further admit that I am not trying to be unbiased in his piece. I am essentially venting my spleen at the half-truths and outright lies I so often find in books that purport to be histories but that are in reality only thinly disguised attacks on historical actors. I find it typically liberal that such attacks are often made on those that cannot defend themselves, such as historical figures long dead. I personally find the practice repulsive and try very hard to avoid doing the same thing in my own historical writing. Then again, if you are liberal and don’t like it, I do not particularly care either.
I am currently reading House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power by James Carroll. The level of moral relativism within this book is unreal. I figured it would be a leftist take on the Pentagon because there is a blurb of praise on the back cover from Howard Zinn, the ultimate leftist historian. What I did not count on was the sheer level of Western hatred disguised as objectivity that I would find within the cover. That being said, this is not a review of this book in particular but an examination of leftist historiography, particularly when it comes to military history, in General.
I have read many leftist histories over the years from Isabel Hull and Iris Chang to Thomas Fleming, Paul Fussell, Dave Grossman, and Howard Zinn. One thing they all have in common from my perspective is a formless hatred of all things Western and a lack of a solid grasp on reality. They don’t write history, so much as polemics designed to convince the reader that they know the big T truth and if you disagree with them then you are part of the problem. In short, Leftist history is activist history. It is the type of history that would have you believe that the best thing that could have ever happened to the world is if the population of Europe had been destroyed during the Black Death, if not even earlier, say perhaps before the Dorics moved into Greece during the second millennium B.C.
If you read leftist history everything not Western is great and everything that has the touch of the West on it is evil incarnate from the Greek settlement of southern Europe to the European colonization of the Americas and just about everything in between and since. They would have you believe that Westerners deliberately introduced disease to the New World to decimate and subjugate the natives to deliberately keeping the peoples of Africa down since de-colonialization to economically exploit them some more. That everything having to do with the Christian church is evil incarnate while Atheism is cool and Muslims are peaceful little sheepherders. Every group out there with a grievance against the West is justified in not only having it but in doing whatever they can to attack the West and they are willing participants as they seek to undermine Western culture itself from the inside.
It is as if liberals truly believe that contemporary morals have a place in describing the actions of people in the past who ascribed to a wholly different moral code and that they are unable to make the distinction that while they personally find an action immoral, at the time it was made, the action may have been considered fully justified. That is not moral relativism; that is reality. Today we don’t think exposing unwanted children to die on a mountainside is morally justified but the ancient Spartans did and it is stupid in the extreme to condemn ancient practice on the basis of contemporary morality.
Let’s take just a few examples from popular Western history that have gained the currency of Truth in leftist circles.
1. Western Genocide against Indians – This one is so laughable I don’t even understand how the idea got so much currency. Leftists would have us believe that Westerners deliberately introduced diseases such as smallpox into the New World during colonization to kill off the inhabitants and clam the land for themselves. Of course that presuppose that 15 Century Spanish, Portuguese, and English explorers understand how diseases were transmitted. That the Germ Theory of Disease did not gain wide scientific currency until the mid to late 19th century is conveniently ignored. The most common invective hurled is that of the US Cavalry giving out smallpox covered blankets during the Indian Wars. This claim was given credence by the now discredited Ward Churchill and has been pretty well destroyed by Thomas Brown in the Journal, Plagiary.1 Despite the subsequent disgrace of Churchill’s corpus of work the myth continues that the US Army deliberately triggered an epidemic of smallpox among native Americans to “get them out of the way.” That claim is made elsewhere about Indians throughout the Americas.
While epidemics did occur, as Jared Diamond so persuasively argues in Guns, Germs, and Steel, it did not take deliberation for European diseases to decimate native populations. All it took was one sick European infecting unknowing natives. Widespread epidemics and subsequent population loss did occur in the Americas after the arrival of Europeans, that was the natural result of American populations being exposed to diseases for which they had absolutely no resistance, because heretofore these disease did not occur in the Americas.
The narrative that Europeans deliberately killed off huge populations of Indians suits the left though, so they will keep it alive and it is easy to do because so many people take the claim at face value and never bother to research it for themselves.
2. The sanctity of civilians in wartime – There is a persistent assertion among both leftist historians and the media that throughout history the lives, property, and persons of civilians has been sacrosanct in war and the large scale killing of non-combatants is a new phenomenon. Nothing could be further from the truth, the difference in modern times is that it is easier for a few men to kill lots of civilians, not that civilians have never been a legitimate target. You will not hear a liberal admit that anytime soon though.
You will never hear a liberal acknowledge the Mongol policy of massacring entire cities that refused to surrender. That the rule in medieval Europe was that a city that had to be taken by force was sacked for 72 hours, that for hundreds of years Muslim slave traders preyed on European shipping in the Mediterranean, or that the ancient Goths and others who preyed on the edges of the Roman Empire routinely slaughtered entire villages as a way of solidifying their control of areas by spreading terror. There has never been an absolute prohibition on killing civilians in warfare and what protections civilians have had, especially in modern times, comes out of the Western, specifically, Roman and Christian traditions.
3. Dropping the Atomic Bomb on Japan – The dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II is a topic that has come in for considerable debate. I have even read people that claim America should apologize and perhaps pay reparations for the bombing. I am flabbergasted by this. I simply cannot understand how America should in any way apologize for ending the war that Japan started or the manner in which they did so. This argument even goes back and claims that Japan was goaded into war by American policy. That is the “West is at fault argument” taken to its absurd extreme. What is even more ironic and silly is that many of the folks who make this claim condemn America and then turn around and condemn Japanese wartime conduct out the other side of their mouth. These people would have you believe that America is in the wrong for civilian deaths at Saipan and Okinawa during the war and that any place with civilians nearby was not a legitimate target.
I hate to disappoint people, but people die in wars, sometimes the dead are even civilians. Civilians are not normally targeted but they are legitimate targets as civilians are the lifeblood of any society and nothing can convince a people that they have lost than seeing that their military cannot defend them. Targeting civilians is a legitimate act of warfare. Unsavory yes, but still legitimate. The arrow, bullet, or bomb that can always miss a civilian has not been invented and probably never will be. It would be imprudent in the extreme for a military force to hamstring itself out of fear of causing a single civilian death. If they do that they might as well surrender because the military is then of no use to the society that sponsors it and it is to the sponsoring society that the military must answer, not that of the enemy.
Rant over. Feel free to comment, I am more than happy to debate on this. (the usual comment rules apply)
1. Brown Thomas. Did the U.S. Army Distribute Smallpox Blankets to Indians? Fabrication and Falsification in Ward Churchill’s Genocide Rhetoric. Plagiary: Cross‐Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification. Vol 1, 2006 pp. 100‐129