Judy Atkins Reports on H.A.W. Conference on Iraq War (Mentions Professor Kirstein’s Paper)

Subject: Report on Historians Against the War Conference
Date: Mon, 20 Feb 2006 22:03:03 -0500 (EST)

Historians Against the War
“HAW” Sponsors Unique Academic Conference

Submitted by Judy Atkins
February 20, 2006

Historians Against the War (HAW) held a conference
called “Empire, Resistance, and the War in Iraq” this
past weekend at the University of Texas, Austin. Living
up to its subtitle, “A Conference for Historians and
Activists,” this conference brought together historians
from many U.S. campuses and local activists, but
it was also about historians as activists which was
what I thought made it unique. I know it is dangerous to call
anything unique among a group of historians, but if
anyone wants to prove that this wrong, the correction
would be welcomed.

In addition to the many fine papers summarized by their
presenters in five panels, these scholars also gave
their personal views on the present moment, and the
organization proposed some practical steps that it
could take in the future.

The attack on progressive scholars by David Horowitz
was mentioned several times as some of the “101 Most
Dangerous Academics” were in attendance. Most notable
was Howard Zinn, who along with Andrea Smith, filled
auditorium of 1500 in the LBJ auditorium for their
keynotes. The audience was swelled by university and
local peace activists and progressives as well as many
local high school and middle school teachers.

In their talks, Smith and Zinn introduced themes that
would continue throughout the conference. Smith’s talk
was comprehensive in its reframing of the issues of
race, class and gender. She criticized the errors of
certain parts of the feminist movement which applauded
the attack on Afghanistan after 9/11 as if bombing
could ever liberate women. She spoke about gender
hierarchy and the culture of sexual violence as a
strategy of the state. She spoke of new models of
coalition building based not on common victimization
but on three inter-related models of oppression,
Slavery, Genocide and Orientalism. She talked about new
forms of organizing and the Latin American and
indigenous models of “making power” outside the system
based on mutual respect and responsibility. She called
into question the future of the nation state.

Howard Zinn’s speech started with the challenge of how
to go about “making history useful” to everyday people.
He asked “Why do people believe the media?” He
attributed this naivete to a lack of historical
perspective or “historical amnesia.” For example, U.S.
Presidents have historically lied about the reasons for
going to war, so of course we should be skeptical about
this President’s rationalizations – unless we act as
though we were born yesterday. The biggest lie that
many people fall for is that there is a common national
interest between the common people and the government.
A study of history shows that there is no common
national interest between them and us. But rather a
“clash of classes.” And it’s our lack of historical
knowledge that sets us up again and again to swallow
the government’s lies. Our job, he said, is to take our
history and our country back, that the war in Iraq is
not the only problem but the problem is war itself
which poisons and corrupts and threatens our democratic

Time constraints made it necessary for many of the
panelists to shorten their presentations. And space
constraints force me to give just a few highlights of a
conference in which so many of the papers should be
given much more attention. This is frustrating,
however, Historians against the War promises to put
many of the papers up on their website –
www.historianagainstwar.org – as soon as possible. And
“portside” invited the presenters to submit their
papers and remarks to us for possible distribution.

The panel, “The U.S. in the Middle East,” was
particularly varied and meaningful. Magnus Bernhardson
from Williams College posed the question “What is
Iraq?” He described the different views of Iraq –
media Iraq; partisan Iraq; wishful Iraq; and the actual
Iraq. What is overlooked most, he said, is the actual
Iraq. The people are not just suffering from the
current occupation, but rather they have undergone one
long period of war – from the Iran/Iraq war through the
first Persian Gulf War, through the sanctions and now
with the current war on Iraq. He described a conference
he attended in Jordan between U.S. and Iraq scholars in
which the Iraqis told them that what is important to
them is the restoration of normal daily life. There is
no way to discuss new forms of democracy when the
country is at war and normal life is impossible. The
conditions of war must be ended before a new democratic
government can be formed.

In this same panel, Rahul Mahajan from NYU, described
the different views of U.S. foreign policy toward the
Middle East. There are three schools of thought in
regard to democracy in the Middle East. First, the
mainstream view of “promoting democracy” while at the
same time questioning whether Arabs are “fit for
democracy.” Second, the Chomsky school which says the
U.S. is indifferent to democracy and just wants a
favorable investment climate similar to all its
previous interventions. Third, the view of William
Robinson who says the U.S. is promoting a polyarchy
form of government in which there are a couple of rival
elites competing with each other for power. He says
that promoting polyarchy serves U.S. interests better
in this age of globalization. Mahajan reported that all
three views have flaws, and that it may actually be
impossible to discern a rationality to the current
administration’s foreign policy.

I have to mention one more speaker on this panel – Nada
Shabout. Her talk was about the attack on cultural Iraq and
destruction of the last 25 years of Iraqi art. The
works in the Museum of Modern Art have been destroyed,
and public monuments torn down and rebuilt in a “New
Iraq” image. While conceding that much of it was
monumental art that celebrated the regime of Saddam
Hussein, some of it was actually good art. She
questioned the effect that conscious destruction of 25
years of art would have on a country. She also pointed
out the U.S. promotion of a “new” Iraqi artist named
Pashi who many Iraqis believe is a fraud. He is being
promoted by the U.S. government and his art is now
being shown in New York and was featured in an AP

Another panel pointed out the threats to academic
freedom and civil liberties that arise during wartime.
Colleen Woods’ presentation on a N.Y. City public
school teacher who was put on trial for not being
patriotic enough during World War I provided insight
into the beginning of the accusations of disloyalty
against teachers and the rise of the loyalty oath for
school teachers.

Peter N. Kirstein, whose personal email answer to a spam
invitation to celebrate military values, was misquoted
and blasted all over the internet by the right wing,
and which resulted in his suspension from St Xavier
University, gave a spirited description of the attacks
on him and his successful defense against these
attacks. Other examples of violations of academic
freedom were discussed. Other speakers on this panel
were Amee Chew from Harvard and Jeffrey Kerr-Ritchie
from the University of North Carolina.

On Saturday night we heard from Irene Gendzier from
B.U. and Rashid Khalidi from Columbia. Irene talked
about the roots of U.S. policy toward Iraq and the long
encouragement of Saddam Hussein by all sectors of the
U.S. government. She said that academics should have
been paying more attention – especially to the Henry
Gonzalez hearings in 1991-2 when these connections were

Rasid Khalidi gave an excellent speech on the U.S.
goals in Iraq and the almost certain outcome of
failure. He warned of the U.S. addiction to power and
to war, and quoted James Madison that war is the
poisoner, corrupter and destroyer of democratic rights.
The Bush administration is openly contemptuous of the
rule of law both international and domestic. He noted
that while U.S. public opinion opposes the war and
believes it is a mistake but that this shift has not
yet affected the media or the political structure. It
is time to hold the both to account. We must oppose the
war, and fight the domestic implications of an imperial
presidency, a national security state and the
curtailment of civil liberties.

The last panel on Sunday morning was “What Activists
and Historians can learn from Each Other.” Dan Berger
talked about his book on the Weather Underground and
his view that they were important for their
anti-imperialism and their recognition of white
supremacy and their emphasis on action. The legacy of
the Weather Underground was questioned by another
panelist, Carolyn Eisenberg, who disagreed and
argued that the anti-Vietnam war movement needs more
study if we are to learn from our mistakes and create
a stronger anti-war movement today. The title of her
presentation was “Nixon’s and Kissinger’s Tips for the
Peace Movement.” Many speakers spoke of the crucial
importance to the anti-war movement of the returning
vets who are speaking out and noted the courage of the
military families and in particular Cindy Sheehan.

At the close of the conference, Historians against the
War co-chair, Margaret Power, called for discussion on
tactics and laid out some proposed plans for the
future. Their specific ideas are to call for National
Days of Teach-Ins on the war probably in the Fall; to
begin to put pressure on Congress to bring the troops
home and cut off funding; to gather oral histories of
returning veterans and their families; to develop short
pamphlets on different topics for distribution, and to
work with High School and Middle School social science

As I left the conference it was hard to ignore the huge
LBJ museum and library so I ducked into the museum
not expecting much. I wandered past LBJ’s presidential
limosine and other memorabilia. My attention was drawn
to a soundless videotape. It was a tape of the 1967
March on the Pentagon. I watched students and nuns and
priests and veterans and Abraham Lincoln Brigaders and
union members and ordinary people file silently by and
by and by. It did my heart good to remember how broad
the opposition to the Vietnam war was and to see some
familiar faces looking again as young as the students
of today.


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