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From the History News Network 

  • A screenshot from Braveheart (1995) 


    Premiering at the 2019 Edinburgh International Film Festival in advance of its general release on June 28, 2019, Robert the Bruce, directed by Richard Gray, will “boost support for Scottish independence,” if actor and independence activist Angus Macfadyen has his way. Macfadyen revisits his role as the titular Scottish leader, a role he first played in Braveheart (1995). That film, he believes, “led to a surge in Scottish nationalist confidence.” Coincidentally, within a few days of the premier of Robert the Bruce in Scotland, former UK prime minister Gordon Brown warned that “the unity of the United Kingdom has never been at greater risk,” due to the “hijacking of patriotism” by Conservative Party leaders and Brexit bulldogs Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, and by the Scottish National party’s embrace of “a more extreme nationalism.” 


    To many, the contribution of popular but historically inaccurate films—and literature—to Brexit and the evolution of a misguided patriotism that fails to take account of historical and political complexities seems obvious. Perhaps even more disturbing, however, is the synergy between politics, popular culture, and economics: as promoters of Scotland as a tourist destination continue to embrace “tartan heritage” in an effort to support Scotland’s important tourist industry, they unwittingly reinforce a version of history that serves the purpose of political propaganda, rather than disseminating a nuanced understanding of Scotland’s past. 


    The case for Braveheart’s influence on Scottish politics has been made previously by other observers, including historian Robert Brent Toplin, who noted in a 2015 History News Network article that Scottish audiences gave the film standing ovations at screenings and began supporting the separatist movement in far greater numbers after its appearance. Toplin concluded that “Braveheart’s impact on the people of Scotland reveals the potential of film to shape public opinion and agitate national politics.” It’s important to keep in mind that films such as Braveheart and Robert the Bruce, and recent books such as Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series with its “wildly popular” Starz adaptation, are building upon a romantic vision of Scotland developed by eighteenth-century writers and Romantic visual artists and codified by the poetry and novels of Sir Walter Scott in the nineteenth century: their creative workestablished romantic Jacobitism as a dominant narrative of Scotland’s past. This narrative of history fostered the idea of Scotland as an “imagined community,” to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase, associated with a heroic but doomed rebellion against an indifferent, often unjust overlord, or, as it evolved over time, patriotic Scots against the cruel English colonizer. When the contemporary American novelist Diana Gabaldon came to choose the subject for her first novel, she tapped into a historical master-narrative of Scotland that already had an established set of associations and cultural values influenced by fiction. 






    The truth of Scotland’s history is, of course, much more complex than the narrative of the past one finds in the realm of popular culture. Romantic artists erased the Gaelic population by visualizing Scotland as a picturesque landscape, sublime and largely empty of people, despite the presence of industry throughout the country in the eighteenth century and the rapid urbanization of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Romanticism’s promotion of Gaelic primitivism, now popularized by contemporary literature and film, has also overwritten the significant global contributions made by Scottish Enlightenment philosophers, statesmen, scientists, and innovators. Popular stories of the Jacobite Rising of 1745  typically narrate a conflict between heroic Highlanders and a better-equipped English army that overlooks the military successes and subsequent poor military decisions of Prince Charles’s army, as well as the presence of many Scots who fought and died alongside the English at Culloden. The history of the Highland Clearances is similarly more complicated than a nationalist narrative of ethnic cleansing by the English suggests. As author Madeleine Bunting has observed in her memoir Love of Country: A Journey through the Hebrides, “Racism, betrayal [by fellow Scots], and imperial exploitation: three toxic elements have been incorporated into different readings of the Clearances” (147).


    The fictional “history” of Scotland has and continues to receive reinforcement via the consumer website of Scotland’s national tourist board, which seeks to capitalize on the popularity of Braveheart and, now, Outlander by invoking that romantic narrative as it entices visitors and their pocketbooks to Scotland. In fact, just as the nineteenth-century tourist industry drew upon the popularity of Scott’s works to inspire readers to visit the locations he made famous, promoters of tourism today are quick to invite fans of Outlander to experience a version of Scotland that exists largely within the realm of the imaginary. 


    One may ask why this matters: if fan tourism brings much needed money into the country, does it matter if those tourists are ill informed about history, so long as the inhabitants of the country know better? If historical fiction had no effect upon its citizens’ perceptions and political decision-making, the oversimplification of Scotland’s history by novelists and filmmakers in quest of a good story—and the reinforcement of that story by those seeking economic gain—would not matter. But, as noted above, fiction does inform life, in the case of Scotland’s independence movement: the popular story of Scotland told across print and media platforms, on screen, in books, and on websites, has become, for many Scots, the only story of their past known by those who get their history from popular culture.


    Comments about Culloden made by members of the popular Facebook page Outlander Series Books & TV reveal that this series has constructed the history that some believe is true. As one member commented, “Scotland is where I was born and raised… . I never knew anything about the battle of Culloden until I watched outlander [sic].” Pop culture derived “history” has been similarly on display during Scottish independence rallies since the 2014 referendum. Reporting on a 2015 rally in Glasgow, VICE correspondent Liam Turbett noted the expression of “dodgy pseudo-ethnic nationalism” which, while it resembled “a parody of everything people say to discredit the independence movement,” was cheered by those “along the fringes of the Yes movement.” Turbett supplemented his verdict of this “contortion of history” with a mention of a pro-Independence sign containing a quote attributed to William Wallace—but really made by “his fictional dad in the film Braveheart.” 


    Whose responsibility is it to ensure that a more nuanced understanding of history is shared widely, especially among those who may lack the interest in or ability to access the scholarship of historians? The example of Scotland and the forces unleashed by Brexit and the current nationalist debate illuminate the importance of understanding how commercial and political entities use pseudo-historical narrative for self-promotion and the creation of an imagined community. However, it may be as important for serious writers and filmmakers to create historical fiction more thoughtfully. Knowing that literature and film can shape public opinion and beliefs about the past, writers and readers who crave a better-informed populace may need more often to use the power of the pen to avert the power of the sword.


    James W. Loewen is a sociologist.  The New Press recently brought out new paperbacks of Loewen’s bestseller, Lies My Teacher Told Me, and Sundown Towns, about places that were/are all-white on purpose. 


    Gresham’s Law, as I’m sure you recall from Econ. 101, states, “Bad currency drives out good.” It works like this. Suppose you have $100 in gold coins and $100 in paper bills. You want to buy a sport coat for $99. (I did buy a sport coat for $99, just before Christmas.) Are you going to hand over your gold coins or your paper bills? 


    You’re going to hand over your paper bills. At least most of us will.


    After all, the paper bills depend upon the backing of the government. The gold coins have intrinsic value. If North Korea or an ISIS terrorist sets off a nuclear bomb in D.C., where I live, I can escape in my car, camp out in southern Pennsylvania, and maybe trade a gold coin for some bread and cheese from the nearest Amish farmer. Even without the threat of societal breakdown, the gold coins also look nice, so I derive pleasure from merely owning them. From the paper, not so much. 


    As a result, gold coins don’t work as currency. People don’t exchange them. They hoard them. By definition, “currency” is “a medium of exchange.” Bad money has driven out good. 


    So it goes with reading, at least for me. My current fiction read is Cloud Atlas, a complex remarkable novel by David Mitchell that takes place in 1841, 1931, more-or-less the present, and several future eras. I recommend it to you. 


    I’ve been reading it for years. First, I used it as bedtime reading. This didn’t work, because to the annoyance of my spouse, I fall asleep within 30 seconds of opening it. Then I switched to taking it on trips with me. 


    Cloud Atlas has now been to, in chronological order, West Virginia, Indiana, Colorado, Montana, Minnesota, Georgia, California, Wisconsin, Philadelphia, New York City, Switzerland-to-Amsterdam on the Rhine, the United Kingdom, the Bahamas, New York City again, Vermont (twice), and Massachusetts (three times). A year ago it visited the Azores (which were excellent, by the way). This past April, it went down the Nile (a bucket-list trip, fascinating in many ways). Just last month, it ventured to Portland, Oregon, and then to Minnesota. Still, I didn’t finish it.  


    What is going on? 


    It’s Gresham’s Law of Reading. Bad reading drives out good. 


    Specifically, it’s the newspaper, in my case, the Washington Post. It’s Time, Smithsonian, and Multicultural Perspectives. It’s The National Museum of the American Indian. (Yes, that’s a magazine as well as the institution that puts it out.) God help me, it’s AARP the Magazine and whatever the magazine is called that AAA sends me. I am always behind on reading them, so I always pack a stack of them on my trips. Since I don’t want to bring them back home, I always read them first, so I can throw them out. Consequently I rarely get to the gold. 


    This pattern does have one payoff: I do catch up on my magazines. This saves me from the fate of a Time subscriber whose letter I still recall from about 1952, when I was ten years old, reading my father’s magazine. From memory, it went, 


    I really like your magazine. You’re doing a fine job. However, it is too much material for me. I file each new issue on my bookshelf on the right, and I read them from the left. Right now I’m in the middle of 1943, and I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!


    On my last day on earth, however, I shall be sad if I have not finished Cloud Atlas. I doubt I’ll lament not having finished the latest AARP. 


    Could this perhaps be a metaphor? On that day, might I also be sad, not having taken care of the important things — the gold — while wasting my time on tasks that have currency, but no real value? 



    What is a hero? It’s a question I’ve pondered off and on for the past seven years, ever since I came across a stack of books at my aunt’s house and read a piece of WWII history I hadn’t previously known. 


    The Women Airforce Service Pilots program (WASP), was the brainchild of famed aviatrixes Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love and—with the assistance of General Henry “Hap” Arnold, the commanding general of the Army Air Forces—they built a program teaching female pilots to fly every type of airplane the military owned, so long as they met the age and height requirements, had 500 flying hours under their belt each, and a pilot’s license in hand. They were taught to fly “the Army way” and flew warplanes that had been damaged in battle, planes right off the production line, simulated strafing missions, and towed gunnery targets for live ammunition training. The women who flew were bound by spirit and duty, bravery and skill… and bonded by their love of country and a job they knew they could do well. Some say they could handle those planes better than many of the men.


    If they washed out, they had to pay their own way home. If they were injured or killed, it was up to their friends and family to get them the care, or the casket, they needed. 


    Once training was finished, they were sent to one of the many military bases across the country where they ferried planes from base to base, transported military personnel and cargo, or continued testing new planes. There wasn’t always a designated space for them to bunk, so sometimes they slept in the nurse’s quarters. Other times they had to get a hotel room. No plane to fly back to the base you just landed at? No problem! Wait around for a day or more, or get yourself a ticket on a commercial flight – on your own dime of course. They weren’t allowed to pack much in the way of clothing—warplanes don’t always have a lot of room for luggage—so they tucked spare bits of clothing in the cockpits’ nooks and crannies. There were undergarments in logbooks, a pair of heels beside their seat. Sometimes they got stuck in a city for days, washing and re-washing the few items of clothing they’d brought until they could get back to their home base. 


    They did this without complaint or expectation. They did this so the men could go to war.


    I was stunned by anecdotes of bravery, death and outright misogyny. And I was baffled the subjects of these stories had tried to be heard, but still, seventy-seven years later, for the most part were unknown to the greater public. 


    On a humid and windy May morning I arrived at what is now the Texas State Technical College. Seven-plus decades ago though, in place of the brick buildings, stood long wooden structures that housed the pilots that trained here. There were offices and a chow hall, classrooms, and hangars. Boots marched on this dirt. Planes buzzed overhead at all hours of the day and night in the wide-open blue sky. This had been Avenger Field. And in 1942 - 1944, 1,074 women served their country with bravery and a whole lot of moxie. 


    What brought me there was the annual WASP Homecoming Reunion. I had heard there would be five members attending. Only two were able to make the trip. Kay Hildebrand and Dorothy Lucas were greeted with a salute and escorted from their cars by service women and men, who then rolled them in their respective wheelchairs between two walls bearing their comrades’ names and helped them onto the low brick wall that encircled a wishing well- the same one they’d jumped in when they’d graduated the program so many years before, and where they sat now, smiling at their admiring crowd. 


    The faces smiling back were both young and old. Some women wore outfits of an era gone by, their hair in Gibson Rolls, their lips painted red. There was one dressed as Rosie the Riveter and a young girl named Jenna sporting a pilot’s costume, goggles perched upon her little head. There were family members and fans, and there were the women who came after. Women who may never have had the chance to wear an Air Force uniform if not for the two women by the fountain. 


    Those two women – representing the 1,074 who served. They did not fight in Pearl Harbor. They didn’t storm the beach of Normandy. They didn’t serve in the Pacific or stand on the front lines of any battle. They never stared down the barrel of a rifle, waiting to plunge a bullet into a Nazi soldier racing to try and land his shot first. 


    But they did serve their country. They served at home, on American soil. They served without military status or benefits. Without expectation or praise.


    These are the women history forgot.


    Let me rephrase.


    These are the women erased from history.


    Do they not deserve recognition purely because they weren’t allowed to step foot on a front line? Or drop a bomb from thousands of feet in the air? Or sit in the ball turret of a B-17 discharging a machine gun?


    They signed up with no chance at being promoted. No raise in their future. No contract stating they’d be taken care of. And they did it with pride… and barely a thank you in return. 


    The WASP program ended on December 20, 1944. The women, with some exceptions, were responsible (of course) for getting themselves home. If they wanted to have a career flying, they’d have to find it elsewhere. They were no longer invited to fly the military’s aircraft. 


    And that was it. The file on them was sealed and for thirty-five years there was not a peep about what these birds of war had done. How they had stood up to serve their country – and how their country disserved them. 


    In 1977, after much debate between the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense – the former against, the latter in favor of—the WASP were finally given veteran status and President Jimmy Carter signed it into law in November 23rd of that year. On March 10, 2010, President Barack Obama awarded the WASP with the Congressional Gold Medal.


    And yet, why do so few know about these fearless flyers STILL? Why is their story not being added to curriculums across the country? Being taught in elementary schools, high schools, colleges? They are barely a blip on the History Channel’s website. I almost fell off the sofa when Josh Gates from Expedition Unknown went in search of Gertrude “Tommy” Tompkins, a WASP who went missing after taking off from an airfield decades ago. I shouldn’t be surprised to see these stories. It should be a given that ALL those who served have their stories told. There should be fieldtrips to the National WASP Museum. There should be mentions and parades and films! 


    I stood watching the two remaining WASPs sitting at that wishing well. When I’d first learned of their service, I was astonished and outraged I hadn’t known before. I hadn’t expected that, since that day eight years ago, I would fall in love with their stories. That I would write a book inspired by them. That I would become one of their biggest fans and greatest champions.


    What is a hero? By definition a hero is a person admired for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.


    I think the WASP fit that bill.  They are certainly my heroes.


    Close to fifty historians attended the day-long National Strategy Meeting of Historians at Columbia University on May 28, 2019. Historians for Peace and Justice (H-PAD) convened the meeting.  The unprecedented gathering of historians independent of a formal conference testified to the urgent need many of us feel to continue and expand our opposition to the Trump regime as well as the multiple crises that confront us in this country and around the world. Thanks to the efforts, enthusiasm, and contributions of a number of historians, the meeting was stimulating, congenial, and successful, despite being organized on a shoe string budget. For the list of attendees and agenda, go to


    Van Gosse and Margaret Power opened the meeting, which then broke into small groups to discuss several questions. Some of the questions were (1) What is the role of historians in this time of acute global and national crises? (2) How can we go forward together, forging stronger alliances and connections nationally and locally with each other, as engaged scholars and with the larger movements? (3) How important is it to act within our profession, including its associations? The body reconvened and a representative from each group reported on the main points it had explored. No clear consensus emerged from the report; instead a wide-range of opinions and priorities were expressed.


    In the afternoon, people attended one of six work groups, based on what they wanted to work on. The six working groups and conveners that emerged and are currently functioning are the following: 

    Direct Action/Combatting the Right’s Fake News, Contact:  Jeremy Varon,

    Empire and War, Contact: Prasannan Parthasarathi,

    K-12, Contact: Barbara Winslow,]

    Democratize the Academy/Smash the Carceral State, Contact:  Andy Battle, 

    Palestine, Contact:  Leena Dallasheh,

    Immigrants’ Rights, Contact Alex Avina,, and Margaret Power, 


    If you are interested in finding out more about the groups or in joining one of them, please contact the convener listed above. H-PAD hopes that other working groups will also form, so if you are interested in forming or participating in one, please contact us and we will announce them and put people with similar interests in contact with each other.


    The group also discussed whether to form a new organization to incorporate all the non-H-PAD people in attendance or whether to continue and expand H-PAD. Participants overwhelmingly decided it would serve no purpose to start a new organization and that those who wanted to get involved in the work should join H-PAD. For more information, go to


    The issue of humanitarian intervention has proven a vexing one of the political left during the post-Cold War era. In light mass violence in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Darfur, Libya, and Syria, many leftists abandoned their traditional opposition to militarism and argued for robust military intervention by the United States and its allies to alleviate these crises. Critics argued in response that interventionism would end up worsening the very crises it was supposed to resolve. These issues were recently debated at the Oxford Union Society at Oxford University on March 4, 2019. The participants were Michael Chertoff – former Secretary of Homeland Security during the presidency of George W. Bush and coauthor of the USA Patriot Act – who presented a qualified defense of humanitarian intervention; and myself, who argued against the practice. 


    In past years, when I debated this issue, I was struck by the sense of almost religious zeal that characterized advocacy for interventionism. “We have to do something!” was the standard refrain. Those who offered criticisms – including myself – were cast as amoral heretics. However, the repeated failures of interventionism that I note below have taken their toll and have served to moderate the tone. During the Oxford debate, I noted a remarkable absence of emotionalism. I came away from the event sensing that, while some still defend humanitarian intervention, their arguments lack the crusading tone that was so noteworthy in the past. I sense that public support for interventionism is beginning to ebb.


    What follows is a verbatim transcript of the full statements by myself and Mr. Chertoff, as well as our responses to questions posed by the moderator and a member of the audience. For reasons of brevity, I have omitted most of the audience questions, as well as the responses. Interested readers can find the full debate at the Oxford Union’s Youtube site.



    Daniel Wilkinson, Oxford Union President

    So, gentlemen, the motion is: “This house believes humanitarian intervention is a contradiction in terms.” And Professor Gibbs, your ten-minute opening argument can begin when you’re ready.


    Professor David Gibbs

    Thank You. Well, I think that when one looks at humanitarian intervention, one has to look at the record of what has actually happened and in particular the last three major interventions since 2000: The Iraqi intervention of 2003, the Afghanistan intervention of 2001, and the Libya intervention of 2011. And what all three of these have in common, is that all three were justified at least in part on humanitarian grounds. I mean, the first two partly, the third almost exclusively were justified on humanitarian grounds. And all three produced humanitarian disasters. This is really quite clear, I think to anybody who has been reading the newspaper that these interventions have not gone well at all. And when evaluating the larger issue of humanitarian intervention, one really has to first look at those basic facts, which are not pleasant. Let me add that it’s very surprising to me in a lot of ways that the whole concept humanitarian intervention wasn’t just fully discredited by those experiences, but it is not. 


    We still have calls for other interventions, including in Syria, most notably. Also, there are frequent calls for regime change, essentially intervention, in North Korea. I really don’t know what is going to happen in the future with North Korea. But if the United States does undertake regime change in North Korea, I will hazard two predictions: One, it almost certainly will be justified at least in part as a humanitarian intervention designed to liberate the people of North Korea from a very unwholesome dictator; and two, it’ll produce probably the biggest humanitarian disaster since 1945. One of the questions is: Why are we not learning from our mistakes? 


    The scale of the failures in these three previous interventions is in a lot of ways quite impressive. With regard to Iraq, it’s perhaps the best documented failure, I would say. We have the 2006 Lancet study. Epidemiologically looking at excess deaths in Iraq, which at that time were estimated at 560,000 excess deaths.(1) This was published in 2006. So, presumably it’s much higher by now. There have been other estimates, mostly on par with that one. And this is something that is problematic. Certainly, things were terrible under Saddam Hussein, that’s indisputable, as they were under the Taliban, as they were under Muammar Gaddafi, as they currently are under Kim Jong Un in North Korea. And so, we went in and removed from power those three figures one by one (or I should say with the Taliban, it was a larger regime, with Mullah Omar leading a larger regime), and things promptly got worse. It didn’t seem to have occurred to policymakers that things could actually get worse, but they did. 


    Another effect that’s worth noting is what I would say is a kind of destabilization of regions. This is particularly striking in the case of Libya, which destabilized much of North Africa, triggering a secondary civil war in Mali in 2013, which was directly attributable to the destabilization of Libya. This required a secondary intervention, by France this time, to combat basically the instability arising in that country, again justified at least in part on humanitarian grounds. 


    Certainly, one of the things one can say in terms the effects of humanitarian intervention, is that if you have a vested interest in intervention and that is something you are seeking, it’s an excellent idea because it’s the gift that just keeps on giving. It keeps on destabilizing regions, producing new humanitarian crises, thus justifying new interventions. That’s certainly what happened in the case of Libya and then Mali. Now if you’re interested in humanitarian effect, however the situation does not look so good. It does not look very positive at all. 


    The very striking thing here is the lack of loss of credibility. I’m very struck by the fact that the people who helped to argue for these three interventions – and by that I don’t just mean policymakers, but also academics and intellectuals like myself. I myself didn’t argue for them, but many of my colleagues did. And it’s rather remarkable to me that there’s no expression of regret or acknowledgement they did anything wrong in arguing for these interventions. Nor is there effort to learn from our mistakes and to try and avoid interventions in the future. There’s something very dysfunctional about the character of discussion on this topic, when we fail to learn from past mistakes. 


    A second problem with the issue of humanitarian intervention is what some have called the “dirty hands” problem. We are relying on countries and agencies of those countries which do not have very good records of humanitarian activity. Let us look at the United States and its history of interventionism. If one looks at that, the history of US interventionism, we find the United States as an intervening power was a major cause of humanitarian crises in the past. If one looks for example at the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, the overthrow of Allende in Chile in 1973. And I think the most striking example, a less known one, is Indonesia in 1965, where the CIA helped engineer a coup and then helped orchestrate a massacre of people that led to about 500,000 deaths. It’s one of the really great massacres post-1945, yes indeed, on the scale of what happened in Rwanda, at least approximately. And that was something caused by intervention. And one could also go into the issue of the Vietnam War and look for example at the Pentagon Papers, the secret Pentagon study of the Vietnam War, and one does not get a sense of the United States as either a gentle power or a particularly humanitarian one. And the effects certainly were not humanitarian in any of these cases. 


    There’s a larger issue perhaps of human rights violations by the agencies of state that are involved in intervention in the United States. We now know from declassified documents that both the uniformed military and the CIA were responsible in the 50s and early 60s in conducting radiation experiments on unsuspecting individuals; doing things like going around and having doctors working for the military injecting people with radioactive isotopes and then tracking their bodies over time to see what effects it had and what kinds of illnesses it caused them – without telling them of course. The CIA had very disturbing mind-control experiments, testing new interrogation techniques on unsuspecting individuals, with very damaging effects. One of the scientists involved in the radiation studies commented in private, again this is from a declassified document, that some of what he was doing had what he called the “Buchenwald” effect, and we could see what he meant. And the obvious question again is: Why on earth would we want to trust agencies that do things like this to do something humanitarian now? This is a course long ago. But the fact that we now use the term “humanitarian intervention” does not make it a magical phrase and does not magically erase this past history, which is relevant and has to be taken into account. I do not want to focus excessively on my own country after all. Other states have done other disturbing things. One could look at the history of Britain and France, let us say, with the colonial and postcolonial interventions. One does not get a picture of humanitarian activity; quite the contrary I would say, either in intent or in effect. 


    Now I think one of the issues that finally has to be noted is the cost of humanitarian intervention. This is something that is rarely taken into account, but perhaps should be taken into account, especially since the record of results is so bad in terms of humanitarian effect. Well, military action generally speaking is extremely expensive. Amassing division-sized forces, deploying them overseas for extended periods of time cannot be done except at extreme expense. In the case of the Iraq War, what we have is what has been termed “the three trillion-dollar war.” Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia and Linda Bilmes estimated in 2008 the long-term cost of the Iraq War at $3 trillion.(2) Those figures of course are obsolete, because that’s over ten years ago, but $3 trillion is quite a lot when you think about it. In fact, it’s greater than the combined gross domestic product of Great Britain at the present time. And one wonders what kind of wonderful humanitarian projects we could have done with $3 trillion, rather than wasting it in a war that did nothing but killed several hundred thousand people and destabilized a region. 


    And these wars are not over of course in either Libya, nor Iraq, nor Afghanistan. Afghanistan is nearing the end of its second decade of war and the second decade of US intervention. This may very well run into being the longest war in US history, if it not already is. It depends how you define longest war, but it’s certainly getting up there. And one can think of all sorts of things that could have been done with some of this money, for example, vaccination of children, who are under-vaccinated. (Two minutes is that right? One minute.) One could think of people who don’t have enough medicines including in my own country the United States, where many people go without proper medicines. As economists know, you have opportunity costs. If you spend money on one thing, you may not have it available for another. And I think what we’ve been doing is overspending on intervention again with no significant humanitarian results or very few that I can discern. I guess I’m very impressed by the medical analogy here and the medical emphasis, so that’s of course why I titled my book “First Do No Harm.” And the reason is that in medicine you don’t just go and operate on the patient because the patient is suffering. You have to do a proper analysis of whether or not the operation will be positive or negative. An operation can of course hurt people, and in medicine sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. And perhaps here, the first thing we should do with the humanitarian crises is not make them worse, which is what we’ve done. Thank you.



    Thank you, Professor. Michael, your ten-minute argument can begin when you’re ready.


    Michael Chertoff

    The proposition here is whether humanitarian intervention is a contradiction in terms, and I think the answer to that is no. Sometimes it’s ill-advised, sometimes, it’s well advised. Sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes it does work. It rarely works perfectly, but nothing in life does. So, let me first begin by talking about the three examples the professor gave: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. I’m going to tell you Afghanistan was not a humanitarian intervention. Afghanistan was the result of an attack launched on the United States that killed 3,000 people, and it was quite openly and deliberately an effort to remove the person who launched the attack from the ability to do it again. If you think it wasn’t worth it, I will tell you from personal experience: When we went into Afghanistan, we found laboratories al Qaeda was using to experiment with chemical and biological agents on animals, so they could deploy those against people in the West. Had we not gone into Afghanistan, we might be inhaling those now as we speak. This is not humanitarian in the sense of altruistic. This is kind of basic, core security that every country owes its citizens. 


    Iraq is also I think in my view not principally a humanitarian intervention. We can debate in a different debate what happened with the intelligence, and whether it was totally wrong or only partially wrong, regarding the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But at least that was the major assumption going in. It may have been erroneous, and there are all kinds of arguments that the way in which it was executed was poorly done. But again, it was not humanitarian. Libya was a humanitarian intervention. And the problem with Libya is I think the second part of what I want to say, which is not all humanitarian interventions are good. And in order to make a decision to intervene, you have to take into account some very important elements of what you’re facing. What is your strategy and your objective, do you have clarity about that? What is your awareness of what the conditions in the place you’re intervening in actually are? What are your capabilities and your willingness to be committed to see things through to the end? And then, to what degree do you have support from the international community? Libya is an example of a case where, while the impulse may have been humanitarian, these things were not carefully thought-out. And if I can say so, Michael Hayden and I made this point in an oped shortly after this process began.(3) That the easy part was going to be removing Gaddafi. The hard part was going to be what happens after Gaddafi is removed. And so here I agree with the professor. Had someone looked at the four factors I mentioned, they would have said: “Well you know, we don’t really know, we haven’t really though through what happens without Gaddafi?” What happens to all the extremists in prison? What happens to all the mercenaries that he’s paid for, who now aren’t getting paid anymore? And that led to some of the negative results. I also think there was a failure to understand that when you remove a dictator, you have an unstable situation. And as Colin Powell used to say, if you broke it you bought it. If you’re going to remove a dictator, you’ve got to then be prepared to invest in stabilizing. If you’re not prepared to make that investment, you have no business removing him. 


    By way of example on the other side, if you look at for example the interventions in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. Sierra Leone was 2000. There was the United Front that was advancing on the capital. The British came in, they repelled them. They drove them back. And because of that, Sierra Leone was able to stabilize, and they ultimately wound up having elections. Or Ivory Coast, you had an incumbent who refused to accept that he had lost an election. He began to use violence against his people. There was an intervention. He was ultimately arrested, and now Ivory Coast has a democracy. So again, there are ways to do humanitarian intervention that can be successful, but not if you don’t pay attention to the four characteristics I talked about. 


    Now, let me give you an example from something that we are literally facing today, and that is what is going on in Syria. And let’s ask the question whether a couple of years ago, before the Russians got deeply involved, before the Iranians got deeply involved, whether an intervention would have made a difference in saving literally tens of thousands of people from being killed, innocent civilians with bombs and chemical weapons, as well as a huge mass migration crisis. And I think the answer is: Had we done in Syria what we did in northern Iraq in 1991, established a no-fly zone and a no-go zone for Assad and his people, and if we had done it early, we might have averted what we now see unfolding and continuing to unfold in the region. So, now I’m going to now look at it from the other lens: What happens when you don’t intervene, as I suggest that we might have done in Syria? Well not only do you have a humanitarian crisis, you have a security crisis. Because as the consequence of not really enforcing any of the rules I’ve talked about and notwithstanding the fact that President Obama said there was a red line about chemical weapons and then the line disappeared when the chemical weapons were used. Because of the fact that we didn’t enforce these humanitarian measures, we had not only many deaths, but we literally had an upheaval that has now reached into the heart of Europe. The reason the EU is now having a crisis about migration is because, and perhaps with some intent, the Russians as well as the Syrians deliberately acted to drive civilians out of the country and force them to go elsewhere. Many of them are now in Jordan and putting a strain on Jordan, but many of them are trying to get into Europe. And I have little doubt that Putin understood or quickly recognized, even if it was not his original intent, that once you create a migration crisis, you are creating a disorder and dissension within your principal adversary, which is Europe. And that has a destabilizing effect, the consequences of which we continue to see today. 


    And so, one of the things I want to say to be honest, is when we talk about humanitarian intervention, there is often an altruistic dimension to it, but frankly there is also a self-interested dimension. Places of disorder are places where terrorists operate, and you’ve seen Isis until quite recently had territory in parts of Syria and parts of Iraq that were not properly governed. It creates migration crises and similar crises, which then have an impact on the stability and the good order of the rest of the world. And it also creates grievances and desires for payback that often result in cycles of violence that continue over and over again, and you see that in Rwanda. 


    So, my bottom line is this: Not all humanitarian interventions are warranted, not all humanitarian interventions are properly thought out and properly executed. But by the same token, not all of them are wrong or improperly executed. And again, I go back to 1991 and the no-fly zone and no-go zone in Kurdistan as an example of one that worked. The key is this: Be clear why you’re going in; don’t underestimate the cost of what you’re undertaking; have the capabilities and the commitment to see that you can handle those costs and achieve the result that you set out for yourself. Make sure you are aware of the conditions on the ground, so you make a rational assessment. And finally get international support, don’t go it alone. I think in those circumstances, humanitarian intervention can not only be successful, but it can save a lot of lives and make our world more secure. Thank you.


    Question (Wilkinson)

    Thank you, Michael. Thank you both for those introductory remarks. I’ll ask one question, and then we’ll move over to questions from the audience. My question is this: You both cited a number of historical examples. But would you say it is a fair assessment that practically the problem is that there can never be a sufficient long-term plan, sufficient well intentions, sufficient benevolent motivations, or a sufficient harm-analysis to counter the fact that individual organizations and international organizations are fallible. And they will always make mistakes. And the fallibility of those groups means that humanitarian intervention has to be a contradiction in terms. So, Michael, if you’d like to respond. 


    Answer (Chertoff)

    My answer is this: Inaction is action. Some people think if you don’t do something that’s somehow abstaining. But if you don’t do something, something is going to happen. So, if for example Franklin Roosevelt had decided not to help the British in 1940 with Lend Lease, because “I don’t know if I’m making a mistake or not,” that would have resulted in a different outcome with respect to World War II. I don’t think we’d be saying “well but that was inaction, so it didn’t matter.” I think inaction is a form of action. And every time you’re presented with a choice, you have to balance the consequences as far as you can project them, from both doing something and abstaining from doing something. 


    Answer (Gibbs)

    Well, I think that of course inaction is a form of action, but the onus should always be on person advocating intervention. Because let’s be very clear on this: Intervention is an act of war. Humanitarian intervention is a mere euphemism. When we advocate humanitarian intervention, we are advocating war. The movement for intervention is a movement for war. And it seems to me those who advocate against war really have no burden on them of proof. The burden of proof should be on those who advocate for the use of violence, and really the standards should be very high for the use of violence. And I think we can see it’s been used quite frivolously in the past to an extraordinary degree. 


    And a basic problem you have in small interventions – for example the 1991 no-fly zone over Iraq – is these things take place in the real world, not in a pretend world. And in that real world, the United States considers itself a great power, and there’ll always be the question of American credibility. And if the U.S. undertakes half measures, such as a no-fly zone, there will always be pressures on the United States from various factions in the foreign policy establishment to take a more maximalist effort and solve the problem once and for all. Hence the need for another war with Iraq in 2003, producing an utter catastrophe. I get very queasy when I hear people discussing “let us just do a limited intervention, it’ll just stop at that,” because it usually doesn’t stop at that. There’s the quagmire effect. You step into the quagmire, and you get deeper and deeper into the quagmire. And there will always be those who advocate deeper and deeper intervention.


    I guess one more point: I did want to respond to the claim which is a frequent one that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were not really humanitarian interventions. It is true that this was to some extent, both interventions were at least partly traditional national interest, realpolitik, and the like. But if you look back at the record, clearly both were justified in part as humanitarian interventions, both by the Bush administration as well as many academics. I have here before me an edited volume published by the University of California Press, and I believe it’s 2005, called A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq.”(4) Just do a Google search on “humanitarian arguments for war in Iraq,” and this was very much part of the picture.  I think it’s a bit of a rewriting of history to say that humanitarian intervention was not a significant factor in the arguments for war in Iraq or Afghanistan. They were very much part of both those wars.  And I would say the results very much discredit the idea of humanitarian intervention.


    Question (Audience)

    Thanks, so you’ve both talked about some historical examples and I’d like to hear both of your perspectives about the ongoing situation in Venezuela. And the Trump administration and the plans and the reports have come out that they might have plans to use military force there and how you would evaluate that in light of both of the perspectives that you’ve shared.


    Answer (Chertoff)

    So, I think what’s happening in Venezuela is first of all I mean there’s obviously a political dictatorship. And as I’ve said I don’t think political regime issues are a reason to intervene militarily. There is also a humanitarian element here. People are starving. But I don’t know we’re at the level of humanitarian crisis that we’ve seen in other cases. So, my short answer would be: I don’t think we’ve met the threshold for having a real discussion about humanitarian intervention in a military sense. 


    That’s not to say there aren’t non-military ways to intervene, just to be clear so we round the picture out. There are a lot of tools in the toolbox when you deal with intervention. There are sanctions, economic sanctions. There is even potential use of cyber tools as a way of having some impact on what’s going on. There is the possibility in some instances of legal action, for example International Criminal Court or something. So, all of these ought to be considered part of the toolbox. If I was looking at Venezuela, assuming it did, which I emphasize it has not, reach the level of humanitarian intervention, you would then have to balance issues like: Is there an endgame we see or a strategy we see to be successful? Do we have the capabilities to achieve it? Do we have international support? I think all of those would probably militate against it. That’s not to say it couldn’t change, but the dimensions of this I don’t think have reached the point where military action is reasonable or likely.


    Answer (Gibbs)

    Well, the most important thing you need to know about Venezuela is that it’s an undiversified oil exporting economy, and there’s been a drop in oil price since 2014. I’ll certainly grant that a lot of what is going on now is the fault of Maduro and authoritarian actions he’s been taking, as well as mismanagement, corruption, and so on. Most of what has been going on by any reasonable reading, by any informed reading, is due to low oil prices. 


    It points to I think a larger issue, which is the way humanitarian crises are often triggered by economic crises. Discussions of Rwanda almost never discuss the fact that the genocide – and I think it really was a genocide in the case of Rwanda – the genocide by the Hutu against the Tutsi took place in the context of a major economic crisis resulting from the collapse of coffee prices. Again, a very undiversified economy that was reliant almost exclusively on coffee. Coffee prices collapse, you get a political crisis. Yugoslavia had a major economic crisis just before the country broke up and descended into hell. We know about the descent into hell, most people don’t know about the economic crisis. 


    For some reason people find economics boring, and because it’s boring and military intervention seems more exciting, we think that the solution is to send in the 82nd Airborne Division. Whereas perhaps it would have been simpler and a lot cheaper and easier and better from a humanitarian standpoint to address the economic crisis; the very heavy emphasis placed on austerity in the international economic system and the very damaging political effects austerity has in many countries. Historical context is necessary here: For all the constant, repetitious references to the Third Reich and to World War II, which we hear again and again and again and again, people often forget that one of the things that brought us Adolph Hitler was the Great Depression. Any reasonable reading of Weimar Germany’s history would be that without the Depression, you almost certainly would not have gotten the rise of Nazism. So, I think a greater addressing of the economic issues in the case of Venezuela – Even if the United States were to overthrow Maduro by whatever means and replace them with someone else,  that someone else would still have to deal with the issue of low oil prices and the damaging effects on the economy, which would remain unaddressed by humanitarian intervention, whether we call it that or something else. 


    I guess another point about the United States and Venezuela is that the United Nations sent a representative down there and condemned the US sanctions as greatly intensifying the humanitarian crisis. So, the intervention the United States has been doing – economic at this point mostly, rather than military – is making things worse, and that clearly has to stop. If we’re interested in helping the people of Venezuela, surely the United States would not want to make it worse.


    (1) Gilbert Burnham, et al, “Mortality after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: A Cross Sectional Analysis Cluster Sample Survey,” Lancet 368, no. 9545, 2006. Note that the Lancet’s best estimate of excess deaths due to the invasion is actually higher than the one I cited above. The correct figure is 654,965, rather than the 560,000 that I presented.

    (2) Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict. New York: Norton, 2008.

    (3) Michael Chertoff and Michael V. Hayden, “What Happens after Gaddafi is Removed?” Washington Post, April 21, 2011.

    (4) Thomas Cushman, ed., A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

James Baldwin
The Price of the Ticket