What High School Taught Millennials About the War on Terrorism

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The threat can be eliminated, the Patriot Act was uncontroversial, and Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

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Some time ago, I got curious about what the high school kids are reading these days in history class. A quick consultation with a few teacher friends led me to The American Vision by Professors Joyce Appleby, Alan Brinkley, Albert Broussard, James McPhereson, and Donald Ritchie. It's one of the most popular American history textbooks aimed at eleventh grade students. As I understand it, the 2003 copy I hold in my hands would've been used in a typical classroom for five to eight years. In other words, this is the American history book that shaped a lot of the young people who've recently joined the ranks of adult society, or at least eligible voters.

How have they been taught our shared past?

As I flipped through the table of contents, pondering where to begin, I suddenly felt foolish, for I hadn't anticipated that the last chapter would be titled, "The War on Terrorism." Do you mean to tell me that history didn't end when I last studied it -- that today's history textbooks include stuff that happened years after I graduated from high school? Intent on feeling wiser if I was doomed to feel older, I decided to start there. How better to begin assessing a tome of history than by reading how its authors describe the major national events that I witnessed as an adult?

Here is the first paragraph that I read:

The terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, killed all 266 passengers and crewmembers on the four hijacked planes. Another 125 people died in the Pentagon. In New York City, nearly 3,000 people died. More Americans were killed in the attacks than died at Pearl Harbor or on D-Day in World War II.

That's a confusing way to compare the events for any student whose touchstone is Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. It makes it seem as though 9/11 cost more lives than the invasion of Normandy. It's true that an estimated 2,499 Americans died on June 6, 1944 itself, a slightly lesser figure than the victims who died on September 11, 2001. But add up all Allied deaths on D-Day and the figure reaches 4,414 killed. American casualties were around 6,600 that day. Total Allied casualties were roughly 10,000. And "over 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded or went missing during the Battle of Normandy. This figure includes over 209,000 Allied casualties, with nearly 37,000 dead amongst the ground forces and a further 16,714 deaths amongst the Allied air forces. Of the Allied casualties, 83,045 were from 21st Army Group (British, Canadian and Polish ground forces), 125,847 from the US ground forces."

But as I said, the book was published in 2003, and soon I began to fully realize what that meant. The textbook would serve as a time-capsule for prevailing attitudes right after the attacks. And those attitudes would be frozen in print to inform students for some years to come.

With that in mind, what followed was fascinating. In the space of a few pages it conveyed the mindset that got us from the rubble of the WTC to Bush's invasion of Iraq, which wasn't a culprit.  

The textbook moves quickly from a description of 9/11 to a general definition of terrorism: "Terrorism is the use of violence by nongovernmental groups against civilians to achieve a political goal." On the very next page, a graphic called "Major Terrorist Attacks Affecting Americans, 1970 - 2001" labels the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole terrorist attacks, though neither fit the definition the authors just offered.

What follows is an account of the early War on Terrorism told from the perspective of the Bush Administration, often using paraphrased or direct quotes from government officials rather than exercising judgment. "President Bush decided the time had come to end the threat of terrorism in the world," the authors say, as if discussing a plausible proposal that might well end up succeeding.

Isn't that the sort of myopia historical study is supposed to gird us against?

Those of us who lived through 9/11 recall the controversy over George W. Bush's domestic response to it, especially the PATRIOT Act. Circa 2003, here is how the authors described its adoption:

As part of his efforts to protect the American people from further terrorist attacks, President Bush created the Office of Homeland Security to coordinate the dozens of federal agencies working to prevent terrorism. He then appointed Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge to serve as the agency's director. The President also asked Congress to pass legislation to help law enforcement agencies track down terrorist suspects. Drafting the legislation took time. Congress had to balance Americans' Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure with the need to increase security. President Bush signed the new antiterrorist bill - known as the USA Patriot Act - into law in October 2001. The new law allowed secret searches to avoid tipping off suspects in terrorism cases. It also allowed authorities to obtain a single nationwide search warrant that could be used anywhere. The law also made it easier to wiretap suspects, and it allowed authorities to track e-mail and seize voicemail.

There are a lot of obvious flaws and omissions in that passage. For a more subtle criticism, see Julian Sanchez's astute post about why 4th Amendment "balance" metaphors are problematic. The book next mentions anthrax, includes a few paragraphs on the Afghanistan War, and begins its final section with a boldfaced title that doesn't bode well for the content that follows:

Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 showed that terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda were determined to kill as many Americans as possible. President Bush and his advisers were deeply worried that terrorist groups might acquire weapons of mass destruction. Weapons of mass destruction can kill tens of thousands of people all at once... During the Cold War, very few nations had weapons of mass destruction, and the United States relied on a policy of deterrence to prevent the use of such weapons. Under the deterrence policy, the United States vowed that if a nation used weapons of mass destruction against the U.S., the U.S. would counterattack by using its own weapons of mass destruction. Deterrence worked during the Cold War, but it could not stop state sponsored terrorism. If a nation secretly gave weapons of mass destruction to terrorists who then used them against the United States, the American military would not know where the weapons came from or whom to attack in response.

In his state of the union message to the American people in January 2002, President Bush warned that an "axis of evil," made up of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, posed a grave threat to the world. All three nations actively sponsored terrorism and were developing weapons of mass destruction. "I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer," the president promised. "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most dangerous weapons." Of the three nations in the "axis of evil," President Bush and his advisers believed Iraq to be the most immediate threat. After the Gulf War ended in 1991, UN weapons inspectors found evidence that Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein, had developed biological weapons and nearly succeeded in building a nuclear bomb... In the summer of 2002, President Bush decided the time had come to deal with Iraq. On September 12, he asked the UN to pass a new resolution against Iraq. If Saddam Hussein wanted peace, he had to give up Iraq's weapons of mass destruction...

The style of writing here is remarkable. It's often difficult to tell if President Bush is being paraphrased of if the authors are stating historical fact. The two things blend together until it's as though history itself is synonymous with the narrative that the Bush Administration told Americans.

As noteworthy is the subsection titled "Confronting Iraq":

The Iraqi government agreed to the return of the UN Weapons inspectors. In December, Iraq gave the UN a statement denying it had any weapons of mass destruction. Secretary of State Colin Powell accused the Iraqis of lying. Iraq, Powell warned, was "well on the way of losing its last chance."

In January 2003, the United States and Great Britain began building up their forces in the Middle East in preparation for war with Iraq. On January 28, President Bush delivered his State of the Union address. He warned that unless Saddam Hussein disarmed voluntarily, "for the safety of our people, and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him." The United States did not want war, the president explained, but "sometimes peace must be defended. A future lived at the mercy of terrible threats is no peace at all."

And there ends the section and the chapter. Evidently the authors felt no need to include any of the arguments against war in Iraq, any sense of the controversy it created, or any mention of movement to oppose it. For historians, the last chapter of a book like this must be among the toughest to write. It is nevertheless unsettling to see the degree of deference these authors afforded sitting politicians, as if their job was to relay the narrative frame that president Bush chose.

Re-reading it now makes it easier to understand the mindset that got us from 9/11 to the Iraq War. I'd be curious to see how the War on Terrorism and Iraq are handled in the most up-to-date version of this book. And I hope the kids who came up on the version discussed above took American history in college.

Update: Julian Sanchez, whose policy analysis work includes the PATRIOT Act, explains other ways the quoted text is inaccurate.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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