Facing history to avoid repeating it

The story of America is glorious. And it’s terrible. Those ideas are not contradictory.

US Marines burn their fortifications on front line positions in Fallujah, Iraq, on April 30, 2004, before pulling out of the city.

Some countries have done terrible things, but not my country. Throughout our history we have promoted peace. We never brutalized our citizens or launched aggressive wars. The world would be a much better place if other countries were as good as ours is.

People in many places grow up believing this. Narratives of national innocence are comforting. When reality crashes against them, some people panic. That’s why a bill has been introduced in the New Hampshire legislature to forbid the teaching of any “negative account” of American history. A bill in Texas would ban textbooks containing material that might “make students feel uncomfortable.” Virginia has opened a “tip line” where parents can report “divisive” school assignments.

Advocates of this kind of censorship argue that studying the ugly aspects of our history erodes national unity and weakens traditional patriotism. They’re right. Refusing to face history, though, ignores the reality that many nations, especially great nations, have at some point committed great crimes. How fully should we confront the worst things we’ve done? The United States is hardly the only country wrestling with this dilemma — and Donald Trump was hardly the first world leader to rail against books “that try to make students ashamed of their own history.”

Two countries where I lived have taken radically different approaches to their history. In Germany, all schoolchildren are taught the full story of the Holocaust, often including visits to concentration camps. It’s tough. Kids are jarred by evidence that damns their great-grandparents. As a result, though, no German can claim ignorance of the country’s history. That makes another such tragedy far less likely.

Turkey takes an opposite approach. History texts ignore or minimize massacres that Ottoman leaders ordered in the early 20th century, as well as violent campaigns the Turkish military waged in later decades. When the novelist Orhan Pamuk told an interviewer in 2005 that “30,000 Kurds have been killed here and a million Armenians, and almost nobody dares to mention that,” he was prosecuted and fined for “insulting Turkishness.”

Popular culture, though, is finding ways around such taboos. A new Netflix mini-series called “The Club” shows how pressure on Greek and Jewish citizens of Turkey erupted into a pogrom in September 1955. This pogrom helped shape modern Turkey, but many Turks watching “The Club” are learning about it for the first time.

Many countries avoid confronting their history. Japan rejects historical evidence of its depredations across East Asia during the first half of the 20th century. A million Indonesians were slaughtered at the government’s direction in 1964 and ’65, but officially, it never happened. When textbooks telling the story were finally introduced in 2004, nationalists erupted in protest. The books were recalled and burned, replaced by older ones that say 80,000 subversives were killed in a “patriotic campaign.”

In 2018 Poland passed a law making it illegal to assert that anyone in Poland helped Nazis kill Jews. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, children in Bosnia have been taught different versions of their country’s history depending on whether they attend Serbian, Croatian, or Muslim schools. Belgium, which looted the Congo in a horrific campaign beginning in the late 19th century, recently spent $73 million to revamp its embarrassingly self-congratulatory Africa Museum near Brussels, but critics say it still does not depict the reality of Belgium’s oppression. Last year Nicaragua banned a new book by the country’s leading literary figure, Sergio Ramirez, because it depicts the killing of several hundred protesters by police in 2018.

The United States has been the hope of generations, the giver of freedom to countless millions, and an inspiration to the world. It also tolerated slavery for generations and imposed bloody dictatorships on foreign countries. These facts are not contradictory. Good and evil coexist in national histories just as in individual characters. Acknowledging one does not make the other disappear.

Americans, like people everywhere, inflate our national successes and minimize or forget our failures. There will never be an end, for example, to the torrent of American books, movies, TV shows, video games, comic books, exhibitions, articles, conferences, speeches, and general chest-thumping about the American role in World War II. In our version, we won the war and liberated the world. Never mind that the United States lost fewer than a quarter million soldiers during its one year of fighting the Nazis in Europe, while the Soviet Union fought them for four years and lost 10 million.

Our version of this story is endlessly satisfying because it portrays us as we like to see ourselves: crushing evil and leaving democracy as our gift.

We embrace this feel-good history, as we should. We know little, however, about our war in the Philippines, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians died, or our destruction of incipient democracies in Guatemala and Iran during the 1950s. It’s natural for people in any country to exaggerate and revel in their triumphs and to forget or downplay their misdeeds. It’s also dangerous.

Americans have never been called on to face the reality of what we did in Iraq. Today we have a chance to look honestly at our record in Afghanistan. Books that try to do so, however, may now be banned from classrooms or libraries as “negative” or because they could make readers “uncomfortable.” History can hurt, and discomfort is a fact of life. Only honest understanding of America’s past will prepare us to shape a different and better future.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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