Here's how, in his classic Vietnam War history, The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam summed up Washington life via the career of Dean Rusk, the hawkish Secretary of State under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson: "If you are wrong on the hawkish side of an event you are all right; if you are accurate on the dovish side you are in trouble."
Wouldn't it be wonderful, so many decades later, to be able to say that such a statement is thoroughly out of date in Washington and elsewhere in this country? Unfortunately, on the evidence of the Iraq War years, it would be a lovely lie.
Where, after all, are those who went out into the streets in their millions globally to say: don't do it, it's madness! And the far smaller crew who said the same about the Afghan War? Logically, they should be celebrated today. They were on target. To the extent anyone could, they saw it coming. Logically, some of the more prescient among them should be our experts of the moment. They should be the media's go-to guys and gals as a war atmosphere builds vis-a-vis Iran that has eerie similarities to the pre-Iraq invasion period (despite the intervening decade-plus of disaster in the Greater Middle East).
The antiwar figures who protested then, who said the war hawks of the Bush administration and the many pundits beating the war drums for them were fools, and an invasion a fool's task, should be in the Rolodexes of every journalist reporting on American foreign policy, the Iran crisis, or our wars. But when was the last time you heard from one of them or saw one spotlighted?
For years, to give a single example, on anniversaries of the Iraq invasion, my hometown paper, the New York Times, called on the very figures who had gotten it wrong or actively helped make it wrong to assess the war, to tell us just where we were. Now, the urge to surge once again seems to have parts of the polity in its grips, as 58% of Americans in a recent Pew poll favor someone using military force to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. (Of course, in a recent CNN/Gallup poll, 71% were already convinced that Iran has a nuclear weapon!) At this very moment, the experts being called on are regularly those who were "wrong on the hawkish side." Meanwhile, the Republican candidates (Ron Paul excepted) are all but swearing they will launch a war on Iran if elected. In the midst of this, remind me: Is anyone in that mainstream world checking in with those who were "accurate on the dovish side"? If so, I haven't noticed, and I'm not holding my breath waiting for them to do so either.
Perhaps because they managed to snag the more impressive bird, the hawks remain eternally wrong and triumphant when it comes to war, and the doves remarkably right and yet eternally erased from the scene. It's a story that Adam Hochschild, author of the bestseller To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (just out in paperback), reminds us is anything but new. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Hochschild discusses the largely untold stories of those in England who opposed involvement in World War I and the message they offer for our own time, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom
The Untold War Story -- Then and Now
Going Beyond the Tale of a Boy and His Horse
By Adam Hochschild- Advertisement -
Well in advance of the 2014 centennial of the beginning of "the war to end all wars," the First World War is suddenly everywhere in our lives. Stephen Spielberg's War Horse opened on 2,376 movie screens and has collected six Oscar nominations, while the hugely successful play it's based on is still packing in the crowds in New York and a second production is being readied to tour the country.
In addition, the must-watch TV soap opera of the last two months, Downton Abbey, has just concluded its season on an unexpected kiss. In seven episodes, its upstairs-downstairs world of forbidden love and dynastic troubles took American viewers from mid-war, 1916, beyond the Armistice, with the venerable Abbey itself turned into a convalescent hospital for wounded troops. Other dramas about the 1914-1918 war are on the way, among them an HBO-BBC miniseries based on Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End quartet of novels, and a TV adaptation of Sebastian Faulks's novel Birdsong from an NBC-backed production company.
In truth, there's nothing new in this. Filmmakers and novelists have long been fascinated by the way the optimistic, sunlit, pre-1914 Europe of emperors in plumed helmets and hussars on parade so quickly turned into a mass slaughterhouse on an unprecedented scale. And there are good reasons to look at the First World War carefully and closely.
After all, it was responsible for the deaths of some nine million soldiers and an even larger number of civilians. It helped ignite the Armenian genocide and the Russian Revolution, left large swaths of Europe in smoldering ruins, and remade the world for the worse in almost every conceivable way -- above all, by laying the groundwork for a second and even more deadly, even more global war.
There are good reasons as well for us to be particularly haunted by what happened in those war years to the country that figures in all four of these film and TV productions: Britain. In 1914, that nation was at the apex of glory, the unquestioned global superpower, ruling over the largest empire the world had ever seen. Four and a half years later its national debt had increased tenfold, more than 720,000 British soldiers were dead, and hundreds of thousands more seriously wounded, many of them missing arms, legs, eyes, genitals.- Advertisement -
The toll fell particularly heavily on the educated classes that supplied the young lieutenants and captains who led their troops out of the trenches and into murderous machine-gun fire. To give but a single stunning example, of the men who graduated from Oxford in 1913, 31% were killed.
"Swept Away in a Red Blast of Hate"
Yet curiously, for all the spectacle of boy and horse, thundering cavalry charges, muddy trenches, and wartime love and loss, the makers of War Horse, Downton Abbey and -- I have no doubt -- the similar productions we'll soon be watching largely skip over the greatest moral drama of those years of conflict, one that continues to echo in our own time of costly and needless wars. They do so by leaving out part of the cast of characters of that moment. The First World War was not just a battle between rival armies, but also a powerful, if one-sided, battle between those who assumed the war was a noble crusade and those who thought it absolute madness.