Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Yesterday I was searching journal databases, and I came across a 1942 review of a book called Atrocity Propaganda, 1914-1919. The review is from the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, which had a special issue on "Organizing for Total War." The review concludes:

The author does not lapse into an arraignment of those who committed atrocities or those who spread stories of atrocities which were never committed. He recognizes the fact that all war is an atrocity and that isolated cruelties undoubtedly do occur. But any unbiased observer cannot help arriving at the conclusion that most atrocity stories are exaggerations....But only the scholar within the walls of the ivory tower dares to point out this danger. The public and its leaders in each war insist on following the same path. History may not repeat itself, but man as such certainly engages in tiresome repetition.


There's actually some debate now about how widespread German atrocities were during World War I, but it seems likely that U.S. and British propaganda exaggerated the extent and frequency of German attacks on innocent women and children. There's an icky, exploitative, sometimes quasi-pornographic tone to a lot of those stories, and thyey were probably calculated to appeal to contemporary sensibilities. If there's a lesson to be learned from World War I propaganda, it's that you should take those stories with a grain of salt.

The problem is that the lesson didn't apply in 1942. The atrocity stories trickling out of German-occupied territories weren't exaggerated.

One of the frequently-voiced justifications for studying history is that we can learn from the past, that people who ignore history are destined to repeat it. But it's just as true that those who study history risk drawing false analogies.

Anyway, today a nurse-type person asked me if I'd been out of the country recently, and I told him I'd been to Japan. And he said, I kid you not, "Japan is in Asia, right?" I am usually not sympathetic to those who whine about the ignorance of young people these days, but sheesh. How is it possible not to know whether Japan is in Asia?

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