Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Visit to Texas: How Can You Remember the Alamo When You've Never Heard About It?

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By Barry Rubin
                                                                                                    San Antonio, Texas

We go to Texas for a vacation trip. On the way, I ask my son what he's learned in school about the southwestern part of the United States. He replies that the only thing he has learned is that the Mexican War (1846-1848) was unjust and the United States stole a lot of land from Mexico. The students in this class are certainly aren't going to remember the Alamo, or how Mexico's dictatorship was unjust to Americans because they'll never have heard of it.

Others have held that view of the Mexican War, though. If you ever get the chance to read the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant--a truly remarkable book in terms of its writing and overall accuracy--you will discover that Grant was somewhat ashamed of having participated in it. Still, one would hope that Americans in Maryland would be taught that there was some good in California, Arizona, and New Mexico being added to the union along with Mexico being forced to acknowledge that Texas was part of the United States. Not to mention the stirring confirmation of the freedom-loving American spirit and the dire confirmation of how ruthless dictatorships behave that took place in the Texas revolution

Texas is perhaps the ultimate antithesis to the current dominant thinking in Washington. It has done fairly well despite hard economic times and people from other states are flocking there. One guide recounted that she had recently moved from Michigan where there were no jobs available.

It is always interesting to visit a place about which you have heard so much. So it was with the Alamo in San Antonio. After the dictator of Mexico had withdrawn rights that the American settlers in Texas (then called Texians) enjoyed previously, they--along with some of the ethnic Mexican inhabitants--revolted and declared their independence.

There is something very basically American about the story--though, of course, especially Texan--of around 200 men who faced a seige outnumbered a dozen to one, then chose to die for the cause of liberty. There really is--or should I say, has been?--a fanatical devotion to individual freedom at the core of America, and opposing powerful government that takes away liberties formerly possessed by citizens has been a major feature of that creed. This can go too far, of course, but perhaps in a lot of privileged circles in the country it doesn't go far enough nowadays.

Incidentally, when the Texans captured Mexico's dictator, even after he had personally ordered that the defenders of the Alamo and later 300 more Texan fighters who had surrendered at Goliad, be massacred, they let him go after he agreed to end the war and accept Texas's independence. The American side was not bloodthirsty; the dictatorship it fought was.

History should not consist of learning only that your side was good. But it is even worse if history is taught as your side having only been bad. History should teach about the shortcomings of democratic societies. But it is even worse if it is taught to demonstrate only the shortcomings of democratic societies. And students should certainly not be deprived of knowledge about the depredations of dictatorships, including those conducted under the name of Communism as well as fascism.

One thing I've learned to appreciate is that the educational systems in the country vary widely. The shocking indoctrination I've seen in one county of Maryland does not necessarily extend elsewhere. Indeed, Texas seems to be going too far the other direction, with the right-wing exercising excessive power. This is not good either. There is something really important about being able to stay toward the center--and that applies to resisting pulls in both directions.

Still, it's disgusting hypocrisy to see en route to Texas a big story in Yahoo headlines about how  conservatives are creating historical myths. Not one word is said about the far-left version of history presented elsewhere. Why is one extreme derided while another is embraced? Depending on the state, both sides are going too far, though I'd bet that the swing to the left--especially on the university level--is more widespread. For one thing, those on the right are more likely to give up on public schools and send their kids for home-schooling or private schools.

At the Alamo, there is a nice modernization of the account of what happened in the museum there without becoming self-hating, ridiculous, or just plain wrong. There are prominent write-ups about ethnic Mexican participants in the Texas war of independence--they didn't like being ruled by a tyrant even if he was from the same cultural background--and even at the Alamo itself, as well as women and the sole African-American participant. Yet there is no rapturous exaggeration either to create events that didn't happen or tell the story out of proportion.

One saw something similar at the Nimitz Museum on the Pacific war in Fredericksburg, Texas, the hometown of the commander of the U.S. Navy there during World War Two. There is a clear sense of the Japanese side of the story, a section on the internment of Japanese-Americans, a lot of stuff on the home front and the participation of African-Americans, women, etc., without any pandering being done at all. It is a splendid museum, one that I hadn't even known existed until 24 hours previously.

Some details of what I saw there struck me as relevant especially to the modern day.

--In June 1945, the U.S., British, and Soviet leaders declared--to try to persuade Japan to end the war--that they were using the phrase "unconditional surrender" only in reference to Japan's military. They weren't, the intent was to show, seeking to destroy Japan's people or culture or even remove the emperor. But the unintentional effect of this effort was to convince key Japanese leaders that the Allies were weakening and made them redouble their determination to continue fighting until all Japan was destroyed.

It is a fitting reminder that concessions can lead to the other side, especially if an ideologically radical one, interpreting such steps as fear and lack of true grit, thus making them even more militant and ultimately costing more lives on both sides.

--U.S. bombing of Japan was relentless, with bombs falling on civilian areas. In one raid alone, between 80,000 and 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo were killed. This compares today to a view of warfare--especially where Israel is involved--that killing one civilian (even if in self-defense, even if one has tried to minimize such tragedies) is equivalent to a war crime.

--U.S. forces lost around 120,000 killed in the Pacific. Japanese dead were around 2 million. No one thought this 20-1 ratio killed indicated the United States was waging some kind of genocidal war. (Of course, if Chinese and other casualties are added the result is more even, and not all Japanese casualties were inflicted by U.S. forces. Still, the point remains valid.) It is not a sin to win a war nor is it a sign of evil to inflict more casualties by far on the enemy than it did on you. This merely shows that the other side was foolish to start the war and even more foolish not to end it by negotiation or surrender earlier.

--Japanese racism and atrocities against Filipinos, Koreans, and Chinese were pointed out, along with American sympathy for these Asian victims. The simplistic argument that everything is about race and that Americans have been racist was shown to be nonsense. In addition, history reminds us that you don't have to be "white" to be a racist, national chauvinist, or imperialist. That's a very valid point in dealing with Middle Eastern and some other polities.

--Finally, if you are facing an aggressive and bloodthirsty tyranny, it is better to overthrow that regime. Only by destroying the Nazi regime in Germany, the Fascist regime in Italy, and the fanatically imperialist regime in Japan was it possible for the people in those countries to have better lives as well as for the fighting to end.

In this context, the way the West prevents any possibility of Israel winning militarily over Hamas is quite remarkable. It would have been better by far if Israel had been able to bring down the Hamas regime in January 2009, though I should stress that Israel wasn't trying to do this, knowing that it would never be accepted. Not only better for Israel but for the Palestinians of Gaza and for the prospects of a peace process and the creation of a Palestinian state.

But I don't mean to make this all about contemporary issues. We cannot possibly study the experiences and course of World War Two enough, nor take for granted the outcome. Hopefully, the next generation not only of Americans but of people all over the world will understand this giant historical event.

And Americans at least should understand that the Texas War of Independence against a Mexican dictatorship almost precisely a century earlier was also a part of the great struggle for democracy and liberty against tyranny. But how many students in school today are going to be able to remember the Alamo or understand World War Two?

I can't resist adding something else from this aspect of the story that applies so well to the present day. After his humiliating defeat against the Texans and his raising taxes higher and higher, the Mexican dictator, Santa Anna, was forced out of office and had to flee the country.

When the U.S.-Mexico war broke out, he made a secret deal with a naive and credible American government, promising if he was allowed to pass through the U.S. blockade to get back to Mexico he would sell America the land that it claimed. The U.S. government engaged the former dictator and made a deal with him. But once in Mexico, Santa Anna broke his promise and led the Mexican army against the American forces. Engaging with dictators and making deals with them often results in betrayal and your leaders looking very foolish indeed.

Remember that fact as well as the Alamo.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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