How will the history books handle Sept. 11?

Larry Rogers

Larry Rogers

One of the more interesting meetings after the Sept. 11 attack involved Karl Rove, George Bush’s senior adviser and most of the major Hollywood studio chiefs and producers. In it, Rove suggested that Hollywood needed to sign up for the duration of the war against terror. The mission? Hollywood would produce new movies whose story lines would sell our way of life and polish our image before the outside world. Hollywood responded, at least at first. In the words of one producer, “All of us in the industry have … this incredible need … to do something” (Minneapolis Star Tribune, Feb. 20).

Parallel meetings took place in the textbook industry, whose books had been rendered even more obsolete than usual by the attack. (The members of my social studies methods class spent a fun-filled Tuesday afternoon searching in vain for anything in the American history textbooks in the curriculum library at Briggs that would point the way to the possibility of Sept. 11.) Prentice Hall and McGraw Hill staffers sought to relate the attack to our past. Was Sept. 11 like Pearl Harbor? Was the imprisonment of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters like Japanese-American Relocation? Was the war against terrorism like the war against the Barbary pirates? Was Sept. 11 the psychological equivalent of the Tet Offensive? Should textbooks even mention Osama bin Laden? Should they downplay the attack and focus on the recovery? “Do something marvelous,” Peter Jovanovich urged his writers. “Your country deserves no less” (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21).

It’s too soon to tell what the results of either session will be. Anyone who has read James Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Taught Me” will be prepared for almost inevitable disappointment regarding textbooks, but maybe a movie will sneak thought the Hollywood process and tell something like the truth. It can happen.

Take “Blackhawk Down.” In contrast with the spate of propaganda that Hollywood produced between 1942 and 1945, “Blackhawk Down” offers an unvarnished and visceral look at the Battle of Mogadishu, the 1993 Pyrrhic victory that drove us out of Somalia. The movie paints a clear picture of the strategy behind the battle and shows how a clean plan can unravel in the face of unanticipated resistance. It also shows what personal and unit loyalty means under intense fire. It is a stirring and truthful movie. It’s probably too truthful. Maybe Rove would make the ending more upbeat. Maybe the textbook writers would forget to mention the battle at all. We should recognize it as an example of what happens when someone tells the truth about duty, minus political posturing and editorial timidity. See it before the wave of movies and textbooks arrives to polish our image.

E-mail comments to Professor Rogers at [email protected].