Saturday, July 10, 2010

So, Is the US Invasion of Iraq Like the Nazi Occupation of Czechoslovakia? (did anyone actually say it was?). On the problem of historical analogies

Even though or perhaps because I had by chance recently been posting a lot about the history of Czechoslovakia under the Nazis (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), I almost missed the furor that erupted over an analogy to the Sudeten Germans and the Third Reich in a discussion of the Iraq war last week. (h.t.: BHB)

One just wants to shake one’s head, except that it would hurt: anyone foolhardy enough to plough through Glenn Greenwald'suniversality of war propaganda” in Salon, the riposte by Joe Klein in Time, and the responses they provoked—including, at last count, 405 and 161 talkbacks respectively—is bound to end up with a bad headache. I’ll summarize, but you really have to read the originals in order to savor the full aroma.

Continuing his long-running feud with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg over this, that, and almost everything else (mainly the Middle East), Greenwald reacts vehemently to Goldberg’s invitation to visit Kurdistan and see the benefits of the US entanglement in Iraq, retorting: Well, of course the Kurds are happy because outsiders came in, and in a war fought mainly elsewhere in the country and at the expense of other citizens’ lives, defeated their enemy and secured for them a good and even favored status. For him, this is just rank apologetics by “the neocon fabulists who cheered on the Iraq War” (as he refers to his bugbears in one of his 6 “updates”). “It's difficult to find an invasion in history that wasn't supported by at least some faction of the invaded population and where that same self-justifying script wasn't used.”

He goes on to employ a series of historical analogies (most involving Nazis):
That's true even of the most heinous aggressors. Many Czech and Austrian citizens of Germanic descent, viewing themselves as a repressed minority, welcomed Hitler's invasion of their countries, while leaders of the independence-seeking Sudeten parties in those countries actively conspired to bring it about. Did that make those German invasions justifiable?
This predictably provoked impassioned criticism, for example, by Time’s Joe Klein:
This is obscene. Comparing the Kurds, who had been historically orphaned and then slaughtered with poison gas by Saddam Hussein, with Nazi-loving Sudeten Germans is outrageous. Comparing the United States to Nazi Germany is not merely disgraceful, but revelatory of a twisted, deluded soul
As to Greenwald’s built-in disclaimer—“It should go without saying, but doesn't: the point here is not that the attack on Iraq is comparable to these above-referenced invasions”—Klein says, “No, it's not irrelevant. If he's going to compare the U.S. in Kurdistan with Nazi Germany in Sudetenland, Greenwald can't just slink away by saying those actions "may or may not be comparable."

Klein does himself no favors when he speaks of Greenwald’s “patented, vile, intellectually dishonest jihads” (why that noun?), and the latter repays the courtesy by deriding (less felicitously) “those who want to deliberately distort what you say and/or whose reading comprehension skills are extremely impaired.” The point-counterpoint really goes downhill fast, culminating in an irrelevant and dilettantish debate among their respective supporters about whether Germany actually “invaded” Austria, the Sudetenland, the rest of Bohemia, and Slovakia, much of it based on second-rate sources and third-rate reasoning. Historians everywhere must be averting their faces.

So, who’s right?

Greenwald didn’t really quite say what Klein and others accused him of (“Glenn Greenwald Compares The Iraq War to the Nazi Conquest of Europe,” was the title of Goldberg’s response [cf. this]). Still, Klein is within his rights in shooting back with the charge of disingenuousness. It’s just that he misdirects his fire.

Goldberg’s point was that Saddam’s regime was oppressive and its elimination a good thing, as measured—for instance—by the improvement in status of the Kurdish minority. Greenwald disagrees, but he distorts and trivializes the argument by reducing it to the assertion “that if you can find some citizens in an invaded country who are happy about the invasion, then it demonstrates the aggression was justifiable or at least morally supportable.”

What, in the end has been proven?
Little, if anything.

Is it true that “Those who perpetrate wars of aggression invariably invent moral justifications to allow themselves and the citizens of the aggressor state to feel good and noble about themselves”? Yes, indeed. But it is no less true of those who engage in defensive or other justified wars (that’s implied in “universality”).

Since we’re all using Nazism as the gold standard of evil, and the fight against same as the gold standard of goodness, let’s return to some basic historical facts: The World War II Allies did not fight fascist Germany out of a desire to advance the cause of human rights and roll back repression. The British and the French appeased the Nazis until it was no longer possible credibly to do so, given their treaty obligations to Poland. Few were eager “to die for Danzig” (as the saying went). Stalin cynically partnered with the Nazis in carving up Poland, and it was only the incursion of German troops in 1941 that caused the two erstwhile allies to clash. As for the US, President Roosevelt did all he could to aid the beleaguered British. However, immediately after Pearl Harbor, Congress declared war on Japan alone. The foolhardy German declaration of war  three days later forced the US to follow suit (an inept Republican got in trouble over his ignorance of the latter not long ago). In other words, the four major Allied nations went to war because they were forced to do so, and not on some abstract moral grounds. Once they had entered the fray, they found ample justification for their cause, and portrayed it as the struggle of freedom against tyranny. Cynical and belated? Perhaps. Propaganda (in the original or other sense of the word)? Sure. Nonetheless true and justified? Absolutely.

It is perfectly legitimate to make an analogy and specify a limited application. Most of us do that from time to time. However, if the only point is that the welcoming of an invader by any part of the population is no proof of the morality of the invasion, then that’s unexceptionable because it’s banal and utterly uninformative. In that case, citing 5 duplicative examples from the Third Reich (along with pictures, for excess) really does start to look disingenuous, as if the writer seeks to avail himself of the full moral opprobrium of the Nazi analogy while at the same time maintaining plausible deniability.

It would be pedantic and uncharitable to focus on the multiple historical misstatements, but for the fact that they reveal the shoddiness of the historical reasoning.

Anyone who is historically literate will stumble over the phrase, “independence-seeking Sudeten parties in those countries”—twice. In the first place, the Sudeten German Party by definition existed only in Czechoslovakia, and not in Austria (“Sudetenland” was an artificial term for the western borderlands of the former, in which ethnic Germans predominated). In the second place, the German ultranationalists in both countries did not seek “independence.” On the contrary, they sought union with their larger kindred neighbor: their battle cry was “Heim ins Reich!”—“Homeward into the Reich!” Similarly, the phrase, “citizens of Germanic descent, viewing themselves as a repressed minority” will raise an eyebrow or two. It applies perfectly well to many of the so-called Sudeten Germans, but it is the first time I have heard it applied to Austria—and for good reason. Germans made up only 33% of the population of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but fully 95.3% of the population in the small Austrian republic created after World War I. Even the innumerate should be able to tell the difference. To the extent that Austrians welcomed Anschluss with Germany (and a rigged plebiscite notwithstanding, most clearly did), their complaint was not that they were a “minority.”

The sloppiness reveals an inability to rein in the instinctive desire for overkill, heedless of the merits. As David Hackett Fischer observed in his now-classic Historians’ Fallacies, “The word ‘analogy,’ in modern usage, signifies an inference that if two or more things agree in one respect, then they might also agree in another.”  My concern here is not with the rightness or wrongness of the Iraq war (about which decent people, pace Greenwald, have disagreed), and instead, about the right or wrong use of history.

If one employs a historical analogy, it really has to fit, and one has to be aware of both its strengths and its limits. This is a tempting but dangerous enterprise, as Hackett Fisher demonstrates. “The fallacy of proof by analogy,” he says, “is a functional form or error, which violates a cardinal rule of analogical inference—analogy is a useful tool of historical understanding only as an auxiliary to proof. It is never a substitute for it, however great the temptation may be or however difficult the empirical task at hand may seem.”

Greenwald is too smart to maintain that the Sudeten Germans are like the Kurds or the Nazis like the Americans. Unfortunately, he is unable or unwilling to use history in any meaningful way. It could have been productive to pursue the analogies rigorously: Was the US invasion of Iraq more like the German conquest of Europe or the Allied invasion of Normandy? How?  On what grounds is it justifiable to intervene militarily in another country’s affairs? What were the motivations: Was it “aggression” or “liberation”? How do we measure the consequences: What is the moral and practical trade-off between the benefit to a portion of the population and the suffering of the rest?

Greenwald sets up a whole display window full of straw men in which history is but cheap and incidental decoration. Instead of furnishing the fabric for a robust analysis, it just dresses up a rant.

As James Bryce famously said, “The chief practical use of history is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies.” And, from implausible and gratuitous ones, we might add.

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