As war looms, Churchill rises on the reading list
WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
For the current Congress, the World War II analogy took hold early after Sept. 11, and has remained as Washington faces the prospect of war in Iraq.
"Churchill shows you the power of moral clarity and the importance of it," says Richard Diamond, an aide to retiring House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas.
The phrase "moral clarity" - and focus on Churchill - stems in part from Capitol Hill appearances by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just after the Sept. 11 attacks. He urged Congress to fight terrorism by dismantling the regimes that sponsor it, especially those on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, such as Iraq.
Mr. Netanyahu also cautioned lawmakers not to try to understand the motives of terrorists: "If we begin to distinguish between acts of terror, justifying some and repudiating others based on sympathy with this or that cause, we will lose the moral clarity that is so essential for victory," he told a House committee on Sept. 20, 2001.
For all the plaudits for "The Gathering Storm," many lawmakers have little time to read much beyond what's required for the next meeting in 10 minutes. That's why congressional recesses can be a time to develop new thoughts.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska is reading Arnold Toynbee's epic "A Study of History." "His theme is that each civilization has to deal with challenges.... Those civilizations that failed to respond went by the wayside of history," he said, as he began a trip through the Middle East with Sen. Joe Biden (D) of Delaware, who will be relinquishing chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee to the GOP.
"I think one of the things we can do to get ready for the challenges of this time is to take a wider view of world events," Senator Hagel adds.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, who takes over the gavel from Mr. Biden, is reading Pollack's "The Threatening Storm." But the point of history he thinks is most relevant for these times is immediately after World War II, when the US began to rebuild Germany and Japan. "He makes the assumption that in one form or another Saddam [Hussein] will be gone at one point, and the US will need some sort of plan for how to improve life there," says Lugar aide Andy Fisher. "What we're talking about now is a democracy, which would be very, very different for Iraq."
On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Bush has been doing some reading of his own - selections shared by some lawmakers and their staffs. One is Eliot Cohen's new tome: "Supreme Command: Soldier, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime." It lauds Churchill for understanding "modern warfare better than his generals." Another is Jay Winik's "April 1865: The month that saved America," which tells how decisions by a handful of leaders in a fateful month at the end of the Civil War helped rebuild a nation. It was one of America's "finest hours," Winik writes.
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona has relished a war-related book for a much more personal reason. "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power" by Max Boot, refers to a McCain relative, Lt. William McCain, who knocked one of Pancho Villa's raiders over the head with a pistol in 1916, after the Mexican guerrillas found the McCain family hideaway in the mesquite behind their house.