Memory and the Left

It's difficult to avoid exasperation over the left's absolute refusal to acknowledge the new realities of the Iraq war. The surge, the Anbar awakening, the collapse of the militias (particularly that belonging to everybody's favorite would-be caliph, Moqtada al-Sadr) -- it's as if none of it ever happened, as if one the most impressive turnabouts in modern military annals never took place.

The left, including its Democratic political wing and placeholders in the media, continue on with the same defeatist drone that we've heard since 2003, concentrating on lone (and mercifully rare) suicide bombers, emphasizing Coalition casualties, and highlighting the new government's difficulties. (Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Mr. B.H. Obama, a Democratic senator currently running for president. Reports last week hinted that Obama was about to climb down from his intention to abandon Iraq sixteen months after taking office. But he held tight, assuring reporters he had in no way abandoned his plan for peace in our time.)

There's no point in waiting for the nickel to drop at last. The American left has not missed the unfolding victory in Iraq, nor are they ignoring it. They have forgotten it. They have taken it in, analyzed it, weighed the results, and then flushed it from memory as completely and brutally as a Ministry of Truth goon from 1984.

The process of selective amnesia is an important and often overlooked aspect of the left-wing mentality. It's a direct inheritance from the communists, for whom the capacity to self-edit was often a matter of life and death. In Stalin's Soviet Union, honored heroes of the Revolution could suddenly turn into traitors to the Worker's Paradise and just as suddenly into nonentities on a day-to-day, if not an hour-to-hour basis. Among survivors, the capacity to manipulate memory was honed to a fine instinct. Mentioning the name of a nonperson could get you put on a list, if not shoved aboard the next cattle train headed for the Arctic. Soon, people would be forgetting about you.

This process was also extended to history. At the time of the Bolshevik coup, Stalin was dawdling well to the east of St. Petersberg. He played no serious role in the events that put the Soviets in power. But after he consolidated his position in the early 30s, it turned out he had been everywhere -- advising Lenin, giving speeches to the masses, leading armed revolutionaries. People who remembered differently were soon trying to remember what life was like in regions where the temperature occasionally rose above zero.

The practice -- and the choking terror that provoked it -- soon spread to the international parties,  including the CPUSA. Disasters and crimes occurring in the USSR were subject to the same treatment. When Walter Duranty, a paid Soviet propagandist, announced through the New York Times that the Ukrainian Famine hadn't happened, the event was duly put away, even though photographs and eyewitness accounts had been circulating around the country for months. Fifty years later, Robert Conquest's outstanding study of the atrocity, Harvest of Sorrow, was greeted as a revelation.

The same occurred with the purges, the show trials, the mass relocations. Numerous defectors, among them Walter KrivitskyIgor Gouzenko, and Victor Kravchenko, laid out the facts repeatedly beginning in the late 1930s. All were run through the left's forgetfulness machine.

Possibly the greatest act of selective mass amnesia -- certainly the fastest -- occurred in the summer of 1941. For two years following the August 1939 gangster pact between Hitler and Stalin, international communist parties protested the war against Nazism. The American left worked itself into a frenzy in support of Hitler and his occupation of Europe. A particular target was U.S. materiel aid to Great Britain, at the time standing alone against the Nazi monolith. The campaign's centerpiece was to have been "Peace Week", scheduled for the last week of June 1941. Unfortunately, Hitler chose June 22nd to send three army groups armed with over 4,000 Panzers against the Soviet Union.

Peace Week was called off. Instead, the communists immediately began demonstrating and marching against Hitler and in favor of our brave British allies. (I wonder if Nicholson Baker featured this incident in his "history" of WW II? ...I didn't think so.)

American communism collapsed in the 1950s, confronted by events with too much impact to be ignored (Khrushchev's epoch-making 20th party conference speech and the Hungarian Revolution in particular). But the art of forgetfulness survived, to be picked by New Left and then handed on to "liberalism" when the left took over that moribund ideology in the early 1970s.

Selective memory was applied with force to the Vietnam war. My Lai retains the power to shock to this day, and to many, stands as a representation for the entire conflict. But the contemporaneous Hue massacre, in which as many as 10,000 businessmen, intellectuals, and officials were slaughtered by Viet Cong cadres, is not even a footnote. Those thousands of dead have simply been forgotten.

Similarly, the last two years of the war in which the new strategy of Gen. Creighton Abrams broke the back of the PAVN forces operating in the south and sent the survivors fleeing over the border into Cambodia and Laos, was also fed into the hopper. Instead, the impression that the U.S. was "defeated" survives among the public at large. Works demonstrating the contrary, such as Lewis Sorley's A Better War, have scarcely made a dent.

And now it's Iraq's turn. For one example, we can look to Haditha. A Marine unit was ambushed, responding as trained against their attackers, who were hiding behind helpless civilians, among them women and children, as many as two dozen of whom were killed. Insurgent war at its most ugly, tragic and unavoidable. The blame, to any rational observer, clearly lay with the Al Queda thugs who insisted on using innocents as a shield.

But rationality is sometimes too much to ask. Haditha was trumpeted as an American war crime, the moment that encapsulated the entire war as an atrocity. The media played it as the My Lai of Iraq, while political opportunists, chief among them John Murtha (whose domain begins only a half mile from where I sit), attacked the Marines as "cold-blooded killers". The "Haditha massacre" was given front-page play for weeks, the name effectively becoming shorthand for American efforts in Iraq.

But today, after the prosecution has fallen apart, after seven of the eight men accused have been held blameless and no real case remains against the eighth, the name of Haditha is difficult to find in mass media. Even after ranking USMC officers were found to have interfered in the case (imagine if this had occurred in any other legal proceeding!), and after several of the cleared Marines announced a lawsuit against Murtha, a sitting congressman, Haditha remains, at best, a back-page story. It has been fed into the grinder, and has become one of those things we're not supposed to think about any more.

The same is true of Iraqi yellowcake, which Joe Wilson, ambassador extraordinaire, and his valiant spy bride demonstrated to the world did not, and could not exist. Yet last weekend 550 tons of the stuff -- a pile large enough that even a diplomat couldn't miss it -- was transferred from Iraq to the U.S. with less coverage than this year's soybean harvest. Saddam Hussein's bomb program, one of the greatest threats to world peace of our time, ended without so much as an echo.

The same weekend saw final victory in Iraq draw nearer with the almost complete pacification of the city of Mosul.  Mosul was the last urban redoubt of Al-Queda in Iraq. Their ejection from the city has deprived them of a base of operations and turned them into a force of scattered guerilla bands. Stamping out these final remnants may be a drawn-out process, but the Jihadis are no longer a threat to Iraq as a nation. What a change from 2006! Yet what have we heard about it?

The average leftist is not even aware of any of this. If asked about Iraq, he will drone through the standard run of slogans, none of which made much sense in the first place and now come across as sheer raving. But it doesn't matter. It worked with the famine, it worked with the purges, it worked with Nam, and it will work -- so they think -- with Iraq.

How do you debate with such people? You don't. You can't. St. Augustine once said that there's no use wasting your time arguing with someone who won't grant a subject's basic premises. How much more so with people who won't grant a common reality?

Conservatives tend to be exemplars of civility, given to upholding standards of discourse, always giving their opponents the benefit of the doubt. This is a point of pride, and should not simply be thrown away. But after a certain definite point, you simply become an enabler. To cooperate with such behavior is to concur with it. Instead of acquiescing in this form of deceit (or, as is occasionally still seen, acting shocked that it even occurs) we need to find alternatives.

Fortunately, things have changed since the left's heyday. Haditha is not a forgotten name. That twelve-story pile of yellowcake is proving difficult to ignore. At one point, the left controlled virtually the entire national media sphere. This is no longer the case. If the new media is about anything, it is about discovering, highlighting, and promulgating the things that we're not supposed to know, the stories we're not supposed to think about, the events that are supposed to be forgotten. The Holodomor, the Great Purge, the Hue massacre -- all were buried because they could be. They cannot be buried anymore.

Walter Krivitsky was murdered in 1941 as he was about to reveal to Congress the full extent of Soviet espionage in the United States. Silenced forever, so the Kremlin thought. A cursory web search today comes up with 1,350 entries dealing directly with Krivitsky. You can no longer hide events, personalities, or crimes. Archives, morgues, and secret files simply will not hold them.

This in itself marks a change in human affairs more profound than we can easily grasp at the moment. The impossibility of burying information deprives the left of one of its most hallowed weapons. (Attitudes forever lagging behind technology, they are not yet aware of the fact. Obama, in particular, with his habit of saying one thing on Monday and contradicting himself on Wednesday, as if the fix is in down at the newsroom and he can say anything he damn well pleases.)

Of course, the right has been using the new technology, both the Net and talk radio, to confront the left with facts they'd rather not acknowledge for some time now. But certainly more can be done -- more in the way of strategy, more in the way of coordination. We need greater efforts to discover what sets of facts the left particularly wants to hide -- and why. There are reasons why the left needs certain events to be forgotten. Discover those reasons, and it will shake them more than any other single effort. The left has been playing games with reality almost since its inception - let them see how it feels to live with the record like everybody else.

Orwell revealed that control of the past means control of the future. The left has controlled the past for generations. (Not that it's helped them much.) They don't any longer. That the facts can no longer be buried is a victory in and of itself. We will march on from there.

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.
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