Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bush tales

In Bush's Wars, Terry H. Anderson tells a very familiar story (but keeps it brief)

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.  

It is often said that journalism is the first draft of history. Bush's Wars is presented as the first major comprehensive study of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an effort to weigh the legacy of President George W. Bush. This is how the blurbs and publicity for the book position it, and the way Terry H. Anderson puts it in his introduction: "to 'figure out,' in Bush's words, the history of the defining policies of his presidency -- and to do it during his lifetime."

But Bush's Wars is more a report of the journalism on those wars than a scholarly assessment in its own right. Strictly speaking, a piece of academic scholarship would draw on primary source research and advance an argument that had never been systematically articulated before. Bush's Wars distills an already voluminous literature into a 240 page narrative (whose footnotes are batched a little too aggressively to track sources all that easily). Its point of the view, that the Afghan war was bungled, and that that Iraq was both launched under false pretenses and bungled, has long been the conventional wisdom in U.S. society at large. So the book doesn't really have a lot to offer in the terms on which it presents itself.

Perhaps I should be praising it with faint damnation. Bush's Wars is actually a useful little volume that may well have a long shelf life for two reasons. The first is that there is indeed nothing like it: a piece of one-stop shopping that surveys its subject in a way that manages to be both wide-ranging and succinct. The second is that while there's little here that your garden-variety news junkie wouldn't already know, there are undoubtedly a large number of people who lived through the era without knowing much about it, and a growing number of people who were too young to really remember it. It is for those people -- i.e. college students -- with whom the book should find a home as what it really is: a course adoption text.

To wit, Anderson, who teaches at Texas A&M, starts the book off with two introductions: the first a 16-page overview history of the Islamic world; the other a longer one that covers the regime of Saddam Hussein, the rise of the Taliban and al Queda, and U.S. policy in the region. From there, he offers chapters on 9/11 and the Afghan War, the efforts of the Bush administration to justify the overthrow of Hussein, the invasion itself, and the rise of an insurgency. Only after that does he return to Afghanistan, which gets much less attention than Iraq does. This is nevertheless a well-paced narrative that touches on all the major bases.

What it doesn't do, and what we still need, are studies that are less about what Bush did than ones which examine why his administration was able to get away with it. Did changes in the structure of American journalism allow the administration's mendacity to succeed in ways that it might not have otherwise? (Consider, for example the record of the BBC relative to to that of U.S. networks and newspapers.) Was the American electorate more credulous than it had been since the Vietnam era? What larger geopolitical shifts occurred while the United States exercised is unipolar hegemony? What does the way the war was ginned up and fought suggest about the state of the U.S. armed forces? My guess is that we will get ambitious efforts to answer such questions. But they will probably take more time than Bush's Wars took to write. "The Iraq story post-2003, this is still chapter one," former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said (metaphorically) in 2009. "This is a very long book."

In the meantime, we have Bush's Wars. It should prove handy.