Saturday, August 19, 2006

Some rambling comments about JLG.

I was reading John Lewis Gaddis's Surprise, Security, and the American Experience---his second-most recent book---last night, and got about half-way through. Before you think this is very good of me, being post-comps and all, the book is really, really short, so it didn't take too long. It was also 4am, so there wasn't much else to do.

This book is an odd little set of lectures, whipped together to make an odd little triumphalist "history book." Gaddis can be a decent historian, but he seems to have lost his way in recent years. His Cold War was apparently very bad. I haven't read it, but Tony Judt gave it a scathing review, and one of my professors, who is a fairly conservative guy, thought it sucked too ("the research is embarassing"). In Surprise Gaddis riffs on unilateralism, preemptiveness, and hegemony, basically providing some "historical analogies" (read: uncritically chosen anecdotes unworthy of a serious historian) to justify American foreign policy immediately after 9/11. I don't object to this book being written, but I'm disappointed that Gaddis would write something so un-historian-like. It isn't an attempt to put current practice into historical perspective---not really---or show how foreign policy thinking has changed over the years in response to changing circumstances. Part of my problem is that I am uncomfortable with all his essentializing of "security" (and everything else he essentializes), but even if I let him get away with this, I'm still bothered. I don't think it's the historian's job to soothe public and policy maker anxieties about complex and significant state policies. I rather think it's their job to explain things critically. And, if they are going to write about current events, shouldn't they point out philosophical hipocrisies and other evidence of unthoughtful thinking on the part of policy makers and leaders? Hmmm. Gaddis is also too quick to blame the other side for doing things which force Americans' hands in certain directions. To read him, you'd think the US is an island of civilization in a vast sea of barbarism that is the rest of the world. And that questionable actions by Americans---or American-supported groups---do not much affect America. I know lots of people believe this, but I don't buy it. What is my point? I guess it's just that I find Gaddis's underlying assumptions and beliefs really bizarre, and this being the case, his book is of little use to me other than as an example of how people like him think. Which is why I only read half of it: I realized that I'd learned enough. And I've already returned the book to my supervisor.

P.S. I just scanned some of the customer reviews on, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised. For non-academic types, Gaddis seems erudite and he writes all the right things (for the right-thinking people), but, to quote another of my professors, "oh, that's an awful book." I probably wouldn't say that, but it is profoundly embarassing.

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