Sunday, September 11, 2005

Historical Critique or Disguised Polemic: Werther vs. Hanson

There has been a little attention (here, here and here, too) given to a piece written by the pseudonymous writer Werther who presents a case as to why Victor Davis Hanson, “court historian” of the Bush administration and other “neocons”, is the "worst historian since Parson Weems." By now, we are all used to attacks and defenses of the prolific Prof. Hanson, and while I didn’t intend to defend Hanson (he’s big enough to take care of himself if he so chooses), I did make a remark in another forum that some of Werther’s critique seemed to hold Hanson’s commentary to the standard reserved for scholarly works. I wrote that I thought that holding a piece of historical commentary to the standards of a scholarly piece--as exhibited by Werther's snide comment about "Mr. Hanson's . . . extended and unsourced whine”—was both gratuitous and disingenuous. As any consumer of commentary knows, rare is the op-ed that has footnotes. Yet, Werther’s criticism of Hanson’s piece as being “unsourced,” while gratuitous, was not really the core of Werther’s critique.

Unfortunately, my initial musings on the subject were made in passing (ahem, at work) and after only a quick reading of both Werther's and Hanson's pieces. I was subsequently enlightened by other historians as to the error of my ways. In essence, even if Hanson and other historians shouldn’t be expected to cite sources and footnote their commentary pieces, they should still be held to the accepted professional standard of historians. If Hanson or any other historian is going to, at the least, imply that his historical proficiency is cause for taking his commentary seriously, then his peers have a right and a duty to hold him to the standards of the profession. In the end, I have come to believe that it wasn’t that I had ever disagreed with such a thing, but more that I was focusing too much on Werther’s “sourcing” comment and not enough on the wider picture. As such, I re-read Werther’s piece and found that while he did seem to have a few valid points concerning Hanson’s history, some of his tactics were still unseemly and misleading.

While I did indeed have a problem with both the tone and the tactics used by the bravely anonymous Werther, I was more intrigued by his tendency to always infer from Hanson’s writing exactly what would put Hanson in the worst light and thus prove Werther’s larger point that, well, Hanson sucks as a historian. I was not the only one to observe such. J.F. Beck also noted "that Hanson isn't actually quoted" by Werther in his screed. Further, Beck noted that
Werther misrepresents. . . Hanson's work. The focus of Hanson's article is the downplaying by revisionist historians of the US role in World War II, not the general neglect of the US role.
All in all, much of Werther’s "historical critique" is really polemic (2nd comment down) disguised as literary/historical criticism. Throughout, Werther sets up many of his Hanson-skewering petards by hoisting upon us what he thinks Hanson must have been thinking as he was writing. Sometimes his inferences as to Hanson’s apparent thought process seem solid enough (as in his discussion of the taking of Iwo Jima), but at other times it seems as if, in his attempt to refute all of the Hanson’s historical interpretations—apparently Hanson has never gotten anything right to Werther's mind (I can make infererences too!)—he sometimes reaches too far.

For example, Hanson wrote:
Revisionism holds a strange attraction for the winners of World War II. American textbooks discuss World War II as if a Patton, Le May, or Nimitz did not exist, as if the war was essentially the Japanese internment and Hiroshima. That blinkered and politically correct focus explains why so many Americans under 30 are simply ignorant about the nature and course of World War II itself. Similarly, the British have monthly debates on the immorality of their bombing Hamburg and Dresden.
To which Werther comments:
We have before us at this moment our daughter's high school history textbook. Contra Hanson, there is no mention of the internment of Japanese-American civilians. Mr. Hanson's strange obsession with this subject invites speculation. Does his complaint about the alleged academic emphasis on this episode mean he would have opposed internment, or that it was merely a regrettable but necessary expedient best left unmentioned?
In addition to putting thoughts into Hanson’s head, Werther embarks on an attempt to skewer Hanson for philosophical or ideological inconsistency based on the assumed premise he, Werther, has already set up. All of this misses the point. Many of these episodes, like Hiroshima to which Hanson refers, have been the focus of much historical debate. Hanson is not commenting either on the value of the debate or even taking sides. Instead, he is pointing to episodes that could be reasonably interpreted as being instances of “bad behavior” on the part of the Allies. Hanson does this to bolster his assertion that “…the supposedly biased West discusses the contribution of others far more than our former enemies — or Russian and Chinese allies — credit the British or Americans” and that
most Americans never learned the standard narrative of War II — only what was wrong about it. Whereas it is salutary that an American 17-year-old knows something of the Japanese relocation ordered by liberals such as Earl Warren and FDR, or of the creation and the dropping of the atomic bomb by successive Democratic administrations, they might wish to examine what went on in Nanking, Baatan, Wake Island, Guadalcanal, Manila, or Manchuria…
Now, I agree with Werther and think there is something to his observation that Hanson seems to enjoy having it both ways regarding the bad notes sung by Democrats in wartime—but Werther’s attempt to catch Hanson in some sort of shell game is based on nothing more than assumptions that he, Werther, made in the first place. Also, as Beck noted, Werther never actually divulges the textbook to which he refers, thus rendering any source-checking of him impossible.

In another example contra Hanson, Werther states that:
On the other hand, the textbook [his daughter's unsourced one, again] contains a long extract from Reichsf├╝hrer S.S. Heinrich Himmler's 4 October 1943 speech in Posen outlining the intent of the German government to undertake its Final Solution. Hanson, by contrast, suggests that the Liberal obsession with World War II revisionism and the alleged faults of the United States have resulted in the diminution of appreciation for the Axis' killing of innocent civilians. Really?

The number of books, articles, films, commemorations, and newly-opened museums having the holocaust as its subject is a veritable deluge. Somehow, this fact has escaped Mr. Hanson's curiosity.
But Hanson says no such thing. He doesn’t mention the Holocaust at all and explicitly refers to other mass killings and the tendency of the heirs to those governments who perpetrated said killings to give such incidences short shrift.
…the post-Soviet Russian government will not speak of the Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact, the absorption of the Baltic states, the murder of millions of German citizens in April through June 1945 in Eastern Europe, and the mass execution of Polish officers. If we were to listen to the Chinese, World War II was about the gallant work of Mao’s partisans, who in fact used the war to gain power, and then went on to kill 50 million of their own citizens — about the same number lost in all of World War II. Japan likewise has never come to terms with the millions of Asian civilians its armies butchered or its systematic brutality waged against American POWs.
Werther's attempt to use the Holocaust as proof that atrocities by the Axis have not been ignored is slippery writing. Hanson is specifically comparing how people, historians and governments, of the old Allies are engaged in legitimate scholarly debate over events in which some feel their native nations may have fallen short—Japanese Internment, Hiroshima, Hamburg and Dresden bombings—while the same cannot be said of the governments of other WWII participants. I would note that here, Hanson has performed a bit of a slight-of-hand himself by refocusing his criticism of revisionists. Just because the governments or people of Germany or Russia have not focused on such things, doesn’t mean that historians haven’t. But Werther is so wrapped up in trying to explode Hanson’s history in it’s entirety that he misses a chance point out how Hanson himself is guilty of conflation. Perhaps conflators cannot identify fellow travelers?

Werther also comments that:
…one doubts, again contra Mr. Hanson, that there are many editorials in American newspapers decrying the bombing of Hamburg. The sole example we can find is a piece by the British (not American) author Niall Ferguson, which is more ambivalent than denunciatory.
This is another instance of Werther intentionally conflating things and twisting Hanson’s statement. While Hanson did write:
Indeed, most recent op-eds commemorating V-E day either blamed the United States for Hamburg or for the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, or for our supposed failure to credit the Russians for their sacrifices.
Later on, he elaborated more by writing, "the British have monthly debates on the immorality of their bombing Hamburg and Dresden." Nonetheless, Hanson may be guilty of not being clear enough as to which editorials he was referring, and it is easy to infer he reads only American ones (though not so much now in the digital age), but he does speak of the British debates over the Dresden bombings and there were in fact many editorials and articles (here, here, here, here, here, here, for example) that did appear on that subject.

Werther goes on to smugly write:
Having disposed of Mr. Hanson's assorted red herrings and straw men, the gravamen of his argument is bosh. Seven-eighths of all Wehrmacht combat-division-months (i.e., one division spending one month in combat) during World War II occurred on the Russian Front. It was the Red Army, as Churchill admitted, which ‘tore the guts out of the German Army.’ Without diminishing the courage of the assault troops of D-Day, the successful operation in Normandy would have been impossible in 1944 without Stalingrad and Kursk.

Can human imagination encompass the fact that there were 27 million Russian deaths in World War II? That fact was a demographic catastrophe from which Russia has never recovered. Yes, Stalin was a swine, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was an act of treachery. But that does not entitle comfortable court historians to simulate outrage at how the American role in World War II has allegedly been belittled by (uncited) Marxist scribblers. Equally, the memoirs of German veterans of the Russian Front generally regarded a posting to the West as virtual salvation compared to the relentless meat grinder of the East. Their testimony has more credibility regarding the Russian contribution to World War II than the jeremiad of a shallow intellect.
Apparently Werther missed the beginning part of Hanson’s piece.
It is true that the Russians paid a horrendous price. Perhaps two out of every three soldiers of the Wehrmacht fell on the Eastern Front. We in the West must always remember that such a tragic sacrifice allowed Hitler to be defeated with far less American British, Canadian, and Australian dead.
To Hanson’s claim that
the Anglo-Americans…had fewer casualties than did the Russians because we fought more wisely, were better equipped, and were not surprised to the same degree by a treacherous former ally that we had supplied.
Werther responds
Yes, the Red Army was horribly profligate with human life. But was the United States so daintily economical with its own sons because of its wise policies and whiz-bang technology, as Mr. Hanson says? Read Belton Y. Cooper's Death Traps, or Paul Fussell's Wartime. Both books are tours de force about the wartime experience, and both defy summary in the space allotted here.
To Werther’s list I’d also add With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge. These accounts are invaluable in understanding war. Nonetheless, despite the tragedy portrayed in those works, when viewed on the macro-level, to my knowledge there has not been much debate over who was more careless with the lives of their fighting men, the Soviet Union or the U.S. This protest by Werther could be seen to add credence to Hanson’s assertion about some historians who, ”If they cannot find perfection in history, they see no good at all.”

Werther does add a very helpful reference to the role of oil in WWII, even though he implies that because Hanson did not mention it he has fallen short, which is not really fair (criticizing for the piece one didn’t write and all that). As mentioned before, Werther also has a good point about Iwo Jima contrary to Hanson’s assertions.

Werther and those who enjoyed his piece are correct: both Proper sourcing and research techniques are inded the lifeblood of historians and it is the responsibility of those in the field to hold each other to such standards. But is it not also professionally accepted that historical critique should also include specific passages--quotations--to which one can offer their opinion on the faults being described? Sure, he provided a link to Hanson's piece, but that was a half-measure. He sourced pretty specifically when it supported his argument, only broadly did he refer to the target of his critique, and failed to do so at all in one instance (the textbook). Thus, as a polemic, Werther's piece has much to commmend. As historical critique, however, he is guilty of adhering to the professional standards of history only when it was to his ideological advantage. I have attempted to do the opposite. Heck, I may be way off on my own assumptions and interpretations, but at the very least I have provided the direct context from which you, the reader, can make your own judgement by reading both sides (yes, albeit only portions) within the whole of a single piece. Werther did no such thing.

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