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As war looms, Churchill rises on the reading list

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 9, 2002


You can tell a lot by the books people read, especially when the readers are members of Congress making life and death decisions about a war.

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Winston Churchill is big on Capitol Hill, among both Democrats and Republicans. So is Kenneth Pollack's new book, "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq," whose title is derived from Churchill's "The Gathering Storm."

Not on the must-read list are books like Mark Bowden's "Black Hawk Down," a harrowing account of just how grim urban street fights can get, even for today's most elite forces. Nor, judging by interviews and the buzz on Capitol Hill, is there a surge of interest in "hearts and minds" books on Arab history or the culture of radical Islam.

The upshot: The ideas shaping thought in Congress about war appear to be clustered around a few simple, Churchillian themes: that there is a grave threat to national and global security that would be folly to ignore. That professional military advice is sometimes just "the sum of their fears." That there's no point in trying to understand "barbarism."

"There is enormous admiration for Churchill among the conservatives. He is becoming a giant for them," says Former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, who is now director of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

Some may be turning to Britain's bulldog simply to borrow tough-fibered phrases from one of the most powerful writers in the English language. But the language also contributes to a view that these times are like those Churchill faced in World War II, when a more forceful response to Hitler in 1938 might have saved millions of lives.

Outside the beltway, some experts say World War II may not provide the best analogy to today's war on terrorism.

"The Nazi analogy is very dangerous because it's absolutely wrong," says Mark Juergensmeyer, director of global and international studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of "Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence."

A few lawmakers also say the World War II framework makes it hard to understand the concerns of those designated the enemy - an understanding that they say could help shape a more comprehensive US response to Islamic terrorists.

"What people are reading and how they are forming their images is a key question," says Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio. She has recently launched a study group on Central Asia and the Mideast (The House Democratic caucus website lists it under the unusually obscure title: "Lecture Series Taskforce.")

"We are personalizing an enemy in the face of one individual," she says, referring to Saddam Hussein, "but essentially ignoring the history of a whole region. It isn't old history ... but recent history that we need to pay attention to, especially American strategic decisions in that region that shape how we are perceived."

Congressional reading has made a difference in the past. When President Johnson refused to give Sen. William J. Fulbright an Air Force jet to get to a conference in Australia in 1965, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee borrowed books on Vietnamese and Chinese history from the Library of Congress for the long flight. When he returned, he launched a series of televised hearings that helped shift Senate opinion against the war.