Magazine | March 23, 2015, Issue

Still Deranged

Bush-hating historians are on auto-rant

In December 2003, Dr. Charles Krauthammer diagnosed a new mental disorder, Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS), which he defined as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency — nay — the very existence of George W. Bush.” Krauthammer, trained as a psychiatrist, had already diagnosed the disorder now known as “secondary mania” (see Archives of General Psychiatry, November 1978), so he could spot new maladies as well as any other shrink. He had hoped that BDS might be confined to, as he put it, “the Upper West Side and the tonier parts of Los Angeles,” but after twelve years of history-book reviewing, I’m afraid I have to report that BDS has now reached epidemic levels in the history departments of the Anglo-American academy. Here are my findings, which I present for peer review. Most of the books I mention are well written and scholarly, but all of them unaccountably veer off into denunciations of George W. Bush, even though they are totally unconnected with the 43rd president, the Iraq War, or neoconservatism.

In Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (2009) — a book that ends with Woodrow Wilson’s presidency — for example, the historian Jackson Lears writes that President Bush “revived all the old, destructive fantasies — the belief in America’s capacity to save the world; the faith in the revitalizing powers of combat; the cult of manly toughness in foreign policy.” He adds that 9/11 “brought militarism back with a vengeance, providing the idea of regenerative war with a luster it had not enjoyed (outside Fascist circles) for nearly a century.” Reviewing Cullen Murphy’s book on the Spanish Inquisition, God’s Jury (2012), Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker argued that the institution’s “thumbprint is everywhere. . . . Even our own Guantanamo-making apparatus . . . has a forebear in Torquemada and the men in the red hats,” adding (correctly) that the book was “racing back and forth in history from Torquemada to Dick Cheney.” (The Spanish Inquisition, already long defunct, was abolished in 1834.)

In a Times Literary Supplement review of two books about the Louisiana Purchase — which took place in 1803, some 143 years before George W. Bush’s birth — Michael O’Brien complained in 2004 that “the governed of Louisiana had never given their consent. Nor, in due course, would most of the inhabitants of Florida, Texas, California, Hawaii, Alaska, Iraq and so forth, all of which were bought or conquered in the name of liberty, without consent.” Slipping “Iraq” into a list of American states that were brought into the Union, as though the U.S. wanted to rule over Iraq forever, as it does Hawaii or Alaska, is a classic of the BDS genre. Yet what country ever gives its consent to be conquered? O’Brien’s implication is that Occupied France and Nazi Germany should have been polled to give their “consent” before D-Day could be launched. The fact that Iraqis cheered in the streets, pulled down Saddam’s statue, and voted in their millions in democratic elections is no more a post-invasion expression of “consent” for O’Brien than the repeated demands of Hawaii, say, to be allowed to become a state.

For BDS sufferers, it’s completely impermissible not to assume that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were both utter disasters. When, in 2013, the Indian historian Zareer Masani wrote a biography of Lord Macaulay, which stated that liberal interventionism had led to the Iraq and Afghan wars, “for better or worse” — since, for a historian writing about Victorian Britain, the jury must still be out concerning an event only 13 years ago — the British historian Piers Brendon lambasted him for it in Literary Review. By contrast, when Catherine Hall, in her 2012 book Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain, managed to slip into her introduction a reference to “Britain’s shameful colonial history in Iraq, and subsequently in Afghanistan,” indeed the introduction was as much about Tony Blair as Lord Macaulay. (Blair Derangement Syndrome — or BDS Strain II — is as prevalent in Britain as Bush Derangement Syndrome is in America.)

The First Total War (2007), by David Bell, which the author explains is about “the culture of war roughly across the lifetime of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821),” contains 317 pages of text. Until the top of page 316 it is lucid and insightful, proving that the mid 18th to early 19th centuries saw the military for the first time as being in a separate sphere of society, and war outside the ordinary bounds of social existence. But sufferers of BDS can’t confine themselves within their own boundaries, however carefully set forth in dates, so Bell quotes George W. Bush unflatteringly and states that “what commentators insist on calling our new ‘world war’ against Islamist terror has probably had a smaller [body] count than just one single Napoleonic battle.” He then blames “the apocalyptic language” of both sides for having “created the conditions under which the American public came to support the misguided war in Iraq that has drained away American lives, American treasure, and American credibility in the world and that has arguably left the US less secure against more serious threats from elsewhere.” So 315 pages of serious historical analysis are followed by two pages of ranting.

To stay in the period, a new book on Napoleon’s secret-police chief, Joseph Fouché, attempts to suggest “parallels between extraordinary rendition and military tribunals and present-day challenges and responses.” Furthermore, in Napoleon and His Empire (2007), edited by Philip Dwyer and Alan Forrest, the emperor’s decision to execute or deport 130 Jacobins without trial in 1800, and the wholesale destruction of civil liberties that followed in France, is described as “a scenario which can appear eerily familiar in our post–September 11 world.” One can understand historians’ desire to try to make their work contemporaneous and relevant, but when did the U.S. conduct mass executions post-9/11 and close down 60 opposition newspapers?

Margaret Macmillan’s new book about the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 somehow drags in George W. Bush, and in a review of Frank Costigliola’s book Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War — which ends in 1949 — Professor O. A. Westad, writing in Literary Review, managed in his first paragraph not to discuss Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Averell Harriman, George Kennan, or indeed anybody about whom the book is written, but instead to ask: “Would the US reaction to 9/11 have been different if George W. Bush had not needed to act as a Texas cowboy in order to hide his privileged East Coast upbringing?”

Other books that drag in Bush or the Iraq War with the absolute minimum of connection to the subject include Adrienne Mayor’s The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy and The Folly of Fools, a science book by Robert Trivers, which suddenly veers off on an anti-Bush diatribe, blaming him for going to war for no cause and for oil, despite the self-contradiction. Even the great Yale historian Timothy Snyder, writing about the equally estimable Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe (2008), stated in the very first paragraph of his Times Literary Supplement review: “The United States of George W. Bush invaded Iraq in the name of democracy, though any representative democracy would have to oppose a foreign occupation.” Similarly, Chris Bellamy in his book about Hitler’s invasion of Russia, Absolute War (2008), has a recurring subtheme of the unanticipated resistance to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

Historians of the ancient world and their reviewers are just as likely to suffer from BDS as those of Lord Macaulay or the Spanish Inquisition. On page one of Josiah Ober’s Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (2008), the author denounces “the recipe followed by the conservative George W. Bush administration when planning for war in Iraq in 2002.” Similarly, Peter Jay opened his review of John R. Hale’s Lords of the Sea: The Triumph and Tragedy of Ancient Athens (2010) in The Spectator with the words: “One thing is certain: George W. Bush was no Pericles. For which reason it is a pity that John R. Hale’s new history of Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BC is launched with a rhetoric more Texan than Attic. . . . To be sure it was not Dubya . . . who called Athens ‘a democracy based on triremes.’ . . . That was Aristotle.”

For the moment there seems to be no cure to BDS in sight. Except, perhaps, ridicule.

– Mr. Roberts is a British historian and journalist. His most recent book is Napoleon: A Life.

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