History Textbooks in China

My starting point is this NYT article.

(New York Times)  China's Textbooks Twist and Omit History.  By Howard W. French.  December 5, 2004.

The history teacher maintained a blistering pace, clicking from one frame quickly to the next, during a lecture on China's relations with the world from 1929 to 1939 in one of this country's most selective high schools.

There was Hitler, shown on parade, his hand lifted in the Nazi salute. The teacher mimicked the gesture, to brief laughter, announcing the year the dictator came to power, with no pause for a discussion of fascism. Pushing ahead quickly, he said the United States was exploiting Canadian and Latin American resources, while Britain fed off India. Wherever it could, France, which was dismissed in barely a sentence, mostly followed Britain's example.

Getting to the meat of the lesson, the teacher said Japan decided to pursue its own longtime desire for a continental empire, and attacked China. The presentation lingered on a famous 1937 picture of a Chinese baby sitting in the middle of a Shanghai road amid the Japanese aerial bombing of China. Then, moments later, the teacher announced plainly, "America's attitude toward the Japanese invasion of China stopped at empty moral criticism."

This country has made a national pastime of wagging its finger at its neighbor, Japan, which it regularly scolds for not teaching the "correct history" about Japan's invasion of China in the 1930's, straining relations between Asia's biggest powers.

However, a visit to a Chinese high school classroom and an examination of several of the most widely used history textbooks here reveal a mishmash of historical details that many Chinese educational experts themselves say are highly selective and often provide a deeply distorted view of the recent past.

Most Chinese students finish high school convinced that their country has fought wars only in self-defense, never aggressively or in conquest, despite the People's Liberation Army's invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the ill-fated war with Vietnam in 1979, to take two examples.

Similarly, many believe that Japan was defeated largely as a result of Chinese resistance, not by the United States.

"The fundamental reason for the victory is that the Chinese Communist Party became the core power that united the nation," says one widely used textbook, referring to World War II.

No one learns that perhaps 30 million people died from famine because of catastrophic decisions made in the 1950's, during the Great Leap Forward, by the founder of Communist China, Mao Zedong.

Similar elisions occur in everything from the start of the Korean War, with an invasion of South Korea by China's ally, North Korea, to the history of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as an irrevocable part of China.

"The Anti-Japanese War finally succeeded, and Taiwan came back to the motherland," another leading textbook states, referring to Japan's defeat in World War II and the loss of its colonial hold on Taiwan.

"The closer history gets to the present, the more political it becomes," said Chen Minghua, a 12th grade history teacher at the No. 2 Secondary School in Shanghai. "So for things after the founding of the People's Republic, we only require students to know the basic facts, like what happened in what year, and we don't study why."

Although some defend the curriculum, many academics say the way history is taught in China forces even the best teachers to bob and weave around anything deemed delicate by the country's leaders and leaves students confused about their own country's place in the world.

Asked what they made of the discussion of the 1930's, one student at the Shanghai high school eagerly volunteered that China had prevented Japan from taking over much of the world. Another said war was inevitable. And a third, who approached the teacher after class to pursue the discussion, said the war had not been a bad thing, since it had prevented Japan from becoming a world power.

Defenders of China's curriculum say that whatever its shortcomings, history education has vastly improved in recent years. There is more choice among textbooks, even if all textbooks are carefully screened by the government, and once taboo subjects, like the Chinese Nationalists' contribution during the war against Japan and even the Cultural Revolution are being mentioned, if only cursorily, in more and more textbooks.

Asked why Chinese textbooks do not mention such matters as Tibet's claim to independence at the time Communist troops invaded, Ren Penjie, editor of a history education magazine in Xian, said: "These are still matters of controversy. What we present to children are less controversial facts, which are easier to explain."

Others said such events were too recent to be seen with objectivity, or that the facts were still coming in, both of which are common explanations offered by Japanese historians who defend the lack of candor about Japanese atrocities in World War II.

For his part, Mr. Ren, who took part in the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, which ended in a military crackdown that left hundreds of civilians dead, counted that event as being far too recent to touch upon.

One 1998 textbook that alludes to the demonstrations calls them a "storm" created by the failure of leaders to stop the spread of "bourgeois liberalism," adding vaguely that "the Central Committee took action in time and restored calm." The most recent edition of the same textbook is vaguer still, speaking only of thoughts fanned by a small number of people whose aim was to overthrow the Communist Party, with no mention of the lethal aftermath.

Some Chinese history specialists were less inclined to make excuses for the evasions, however.

"Quite frankly, in China there are some areas, very sensitive subjects, where it is impossible to tell people the truth," said Ge Jianxiong, director of the Institute of Chinese Historical Geography at Fudan University in Shanghai and a veteran of official history textbook advisory committees. "Going very deeply into the history of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and some features of the Liberation" - as the Communist victory is called - "is forbidden. In China, history is still used as a political tool, and at the high school level, we still must follow the doctrine."

Taking the long view, though, Mr. Ge, 59, who taught high school during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when teachers were beaten and education became hyper-politicized, said things were gradually getting better.

Su Zheliang, a historian at Shanghai Normal University, who is himself the author of a new textbook, agreed.

"Sometimes I want to write the truth, but I must take a practical approach," he said. "I want my students to learn, and I've put out the best book that I can. In 10 years, perhaps, China will be a much more open country."

There is so much that could be said about this article, but there is a specific issue that really bothered me.  So I will extract the references to China-Tibet history from the preceding article and point your attention to it.

Most Chinese students finish high school convinced that their country has fought wars only in self-defense, never aggressively or in conquest, despite the People's Liberation Army's invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the ill-fated war with Vietnam in 1979, to take two examples.


Asked why Chinese textbooks do not mention such matters as Tibet's claim to independence at the time Communist troops invaded, Ren Penjie, editor of a history education magazine in Xian, said: "These are still matters of controversy. What we present to children are less controversial facts, which are easier to explain."

If the subject of this NYT article is the twistings and omissions in Chinese history textbooks, then the reporter is no less guilty himself.  The two references to China-Tibet are made from the viewpoint of someone who knows the absolute historical truth (that is, the People's Liberation Army invaded an independent Tibet in 1950) and therefore the failure to publish that particular line is either 'twisting' or 'omitting.'  I submit that it is debatable whether this is the whole and only truth of the matter.

What really went on with China-Tibet?  How would I know?  I am only a blogger.  But even if I were a China-Tibet specialist, I probably could not tell you with genuine confidence or certainty.

That is a generalized assertion, and I owe you a more detailed explanation about how I arrived at that opinion.

On my recent trip between Hong Kong and New York City, I had the usual 15 hours on the airplane to kill each way.  My reading material on the way from Hong Kong to New York City was the 569-page Sky Burial: The Fate of Tibet (in Chinese) by the Chinese author Wang Lixiong (王力雄).  Wang is not the usual Communist Party hack, as he was the winner of the first independent writers' award from International PEN's Independent Writers' Association in China.  On my return trip, my reading material included John Powers' History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles Versus the People's Republic of China.  Thus, I read two very different books by two very different persons on China-Tibet relationships, but somehow they ended up with the same conclusions and so did I.

Wang Lixiong's most famous book was Yellow Peril, a widely popular (and banned in China) science-fiction novel originally published under a pseudonym.  But Sky Burial is a completely different kind of work, more like a combination of history based upon examining documents and ethnography based upon extensive personal travel in Tibet.  Here is my translation of the beginning of the foreword.

Today, information on Tibet is duopolized by two different political propaganda machines.  One machine is located in Beijing, and the other in Dharamsala.  Since Tibet is to a large extent still under a state of blockade, other individuals or organizations find it very difficult to obtain independent information (especially at the macroscopic level).  Like it or not, people who are concerned about Tibet are getting most of their information from these two propaganda machines.

The bad thing is that the information from these two sources is almost surely conflicting with and even completely opposite to each other.  Faced with this absurd situation, the solution is to choose your position first and decide which side you want to stand with, and then you treat the information from that side as true and everything from the other side as false.

This formula is not adopted by everybody, and yet there is no alternate way to make assessments based upon data.  The western world is suspicious and disgusted with the propaganda machines of communist countries, so the western world and its media tend to believe in the Dalai Lama.  Meanwhile, the "patriotic" (nationalistic) Chinese, even though they may object to the Chinese government on other issues, stand with the Communist Party on the Tibet issue.

If you have any level of understanding about Tibet, you will realize that the determination of truth from lies is not that easy.  Both Beijing and Dharamsala have elements of truth in what each say, but they also tell many lies.  Even if the Dalai Lama is respected by everybody, his propaganda machine still issues propaganda for political purposes that are as removed from the truth as the Beijing propaganda.

Whereas ordinary lies are deliberate attempts to deceive people, some of the lies about Tibet are often sincere.  As far as Communist China is concerned, they honestly believe that they have cause to boast about their rule in Tibet and the many resources and money that they have invested there, and so they are aggrieved and angered when they are accused of oppressing Tibet.  As for the accusations from the Dalai Lama side, no matter how removed from the facts they might be, the basic sincerity should not be in doubt.

In Chapter 14 of Sky Burial, Wang Lixiong offers a detailed example.  The event took place on April 28, 1952 when the Tenth Panchen Lama returned from exile in China to meet with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in Lhasa.

In his 1990 book Freedom In Exile by Dalai Lama, this description appeared:

After the Panchen Lama arrived, I followed the official meeting protocol and I met the young Panchen Lama.  We had a private lunch at the Potala Palace.  A mentally alert Chinese official was following close behind.  When we were meeting in private, this person wanted to barge in.  My attendants stopped him, and this nearly turned into a major crisis because that man was armed.

Finally, I was able to arrange to have some time to meet the Panchen Lama in private.  The impression that he gave me was that he was a very honest and trustworthy young man.  He was younger than me by three years.  He was not a grown-up yet, so that he still maintained a certain innocence and thought that I was a very happy and delightful person  I felt very close to him, but neither one of us realized that he would be looking at some very sad days later on in life.

On this same incident, there was another recollection by the Fan Ming (范明), who was in charge of the Chinese northwestern forces that entered Tibet.  He was the Chinese official who was detailed to arrange for and escort the Panchen Lama's return to Tibet.  In 1989, he wrote a 35,000-word article about the Panchen Lama's return.  The section about the meeting between the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama goes like this:

When the Panchen Lama returned to Tibet, there were some disputes over the protocol of the meeting with the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, and this turned into a serious political problem ... the Dalai Lama side was trying very hard to find ways of demoting the position and influence of the Panchen Lama.  They proposed that when the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama meet, the Panchen should kneel to honor the Dalai Lama, that the Panchen Lama's seat should be two levels lower than the Dalai Lama's, that the Panchen Lama should offer gift tributes to the Dalai Lama, that the Panchen Lama not be allowed to stay at the Jokang Temple and so on.  When these proposals were forwarded to the Panchen Lama, his followers were very angry.  They said that if these are the proposals, then they might as well as bypass Lhasa and go directly back to Shigatse.  The two sides quarreled without reaching any resolution.

... The Chinese Communist Party Working Committee held a meeting and came up with a compromise: by age, the Panchen Lama was several years younger than the Dalai Lama.  Although they did not have a master-student relationship, the Dalai Lama was older.  On this basis, at the first meeting, the Panchen Lama may kneel and bow to the Dalai Lama, and then they can have the head touching ceremony as equals; as for the seats, since the Dalai Lama is historically above the Panchen Lama, he can have a seat with one additional cushion; the formal gift offering can be altered to an exchange of gifts between the two.  After some more discussions, there were four decisions: the Panchen Lama was to kneel and bow to the Dalai Lama while the latter stood in front of his seat; the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama will then exchange gifts; the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama will touch heads; the seats of the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama will be equally tall ... after talking to him for an entire night, the Panchen Lama reluctantly agreed, but he wanted us to guarantee that this was the final word.  We gave him our promise ...

On the afternoon of April, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama met in Potala Palace.  When the Panchen Lama knelt down to bow to the Dalai Lama, the latter sat in his seat and did not rise up; when the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama exchanged gifts, it turned into Panchen Lama making the offer and the Dalai Lama accepting it; the Panchen Lama's seat cushion was pushed way down, and it was placed on the side.  The Panchen Lama's followers were very angry, and their security guards wanted to shoot the other side.  Fortunately, Comrade Liu stopped them and nothing bad happened.  Afterwards, some people on the Panchen Lama side were crying and accusing us of having deceived them.

These two recollections are so vastly different, so which one should you believe?  Based upon instincts about the trustworthiness of the sources, many people would choose to believe the Dalai Lama.  But for those who knew the details of the situation back then, it was easy to lean towards Fan Ming.  The contradictions between the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama were long-standing, and the attempt by the local Tibetan government to prevent the Panchen Lama's return was well-known.  After bowing to pressure from Beijing to accept the Panchen Lama, it was entirely logical that the local Tibetan government would make some annoying little moves to insult the Panchen Lama.  Fan Ming's description was much more detailed and persuasive in that sense.  When Fan Ming published the article, he had already retired.  Prior to that, he was the subject of much political criticisms inside the Communist Party, so he had no reason to make up all of these other things.

Of course, I am not saying that the Dalai Lama was lying.  I note that in the Dalai Lama's narrative, he wrote the words "we followed the official meeting protocol."  That is to say, he could encapsulate the fight over the meeting protocol and all the unhappy consequences within these few words.  He was not twisting any facts; he just did not disclose the details of the situation.  Moreover, the reason why the Panchen Lama was unhappy was not due solely to the fault of the Dalai Lama, since the tussle over the "official meeting protocol" was conducted by their followers.  When the two living buddhas, who are the sun and the moon of Tibet, had their meeting, they would not be concerned about the nitty-gritty details about protocol and they should be displaying amity, at least on the surface.  Thus, the narration of the Dalai Lama emphasized the personal warmth between the two.

If such is the case, then both of the recollections by the Dalai Lama and Fan Ming are true.  Yet, two truthful descriptions of the same event conveyed completely opposite impressions to people.  How can this happen?  It is all a matter of narrative technique.

This leads to another problem: the nature of event itself was now dictated by the communication method, and the vast differences in the net results were due to not the event itself but to the media.  The media did not have to deliberately twist the facts; all they have to do is to selectively choose and recombine different elements of the facts and the "reality" can be packaged to appear in various ways.  Just how these facts are chosen and recombined are decided by the media alone, and this explains why the media around the world hold so much power.  Most facts must pass through the communications media in order for people to understand them, and they become the sole arbitrators of reality.

In this light, if I had the time and patience, I would go back to the New York Times article and deconstruct the selectivity of factoids to perpetuate the memes that the western media hold about China on the Tibet issue and everything else.  But this sort of task is Sisyphean.  If you like, you can do that on your own.  It is very easy, but it gets boring and predictable after you do it a few times.

Chapter I of John Powers' History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles Versus the People's Republic of China begins this way.

The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning.  History has no "meaning."

--- Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader, p. 56

The adage that history is written by the victors may once have been true.  In the past, when a conquering force either eradicated its enemies or so completely subjugated them that they were no longer able to tell their stories to the outside world, effective control over the production of historical narratives was generally held by governments that had the power to determine what version of history would be widely circulated and that controlled the means by which this information might be disseminated.  But in modern times, one of the hallmarks of conflicts between competing groups is an ideological battle over the production of historical "truth" that often continues long after military subjugation has been finalized.  Some of these battles are being waged between relatively colonized states and their former overlords; in other cases, colonial domination is a current phenomenon.  But while the colonial power may possess the military power to conquer and rule a colony, modern technology, including the advent of affordable desktop publishing and the Internet, allows a people that has lost the war militarily to continue the ideological struggle through the production and reproduction of its versions of events.


Each side views its version of Tibetan history as an essential part of its national identity.  Tibetan histories generally construct a narrative in which China played at most a peripheral role until the mid-twentieth century, while Chinese sources paint a picture of Tibet in which the region was completely under the administrative and political control of various Chinese central governments from at least the thirteenth century and in which Tibetan culture is largely derived from China.

There is a growing corpus of works in Western languages that explore this contested history, and debates about Tibet tend to be highly emotionally charged.  Many Western writers on Tibet -- including academics, who commonly claim to adhere to "the facts" in making their assessments -- are no less passionate than Tibetan and Chinese writers trying to persuade readers to their respective points of view.  A number of Western academics who write about Tibet advocate for either the Chinese or the Tibetan position, and they often present the issues in absolute terms, as conflicts between truth and falsehood, good and evil, oppression and freedom (this is particularly true of pro-Tibet authors).

Powers then goes through a study of thirteen works by contemporary Chinese authors, thirteen works by contemporary Tibetan authors, two Chinese government web sites devoted to Tibet and the Tibetan government-in-exile's official web site.  And this is what Powers wrote for his conclusion:

One striking aspect of the competing narratives is their incommensurability.  There is no real debate between proponents of the Chinese paradigm and those who accept the Tibetan exile version of Tibetan history.  In the sources we have examined (particularly those by Chinese authors), there is little attempt to convince readers through reasoned arguments or consideration of all aspects of historical records; rather, choices of sources are highly selective, and readers are generally presented with a particular conclusion.  Even when authors appeal to universal principles like human rights or democracy, these are used selectively and in accordance with preset goals.

Much of the discourse resembles a political rally in which competing factions yell slogans at each other from behind barriers that physically separate them.  Our Chinese and Tibetan authors utilize a repertoire of historical simulacra -- generally divorced from their context and stripped of the ambiguities that accompany them -- that have been accepted by their respective communities as being concordant with the party line, and their conclusions follow from them.  Their competing models resemble the situation Alasdair MacIntyre has described in his characterization of contemporary discourses on morality:

The rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighing the claims of one as against another.  For each premise employs some quite different normative or evaluative concept from the others, so that the claims made upon us are of quite different kinds.  Hence it seems that underlying our own position there must be some non-rational decision to adopt that position.  Corresponding to the interminability of public arguments there is at least the appearance of a disquieting private arbitrariness.  It is a small wonder if we become defensive and therefore shrill.


In this situation, it seems impossible that either side could conceivably win its argument; on the other hand, neither can lose.  So we are left with a stalemate, in which the two sides shout at each other and accuse their opponents of deliberately obfuscating, while overlooking their own obfuscations.  As MacIntyre notes, when two polarized sides of protestors shout at each other, their messages are primarily aimed at those who already share their imaginings, and so each faction is essentially talking to itself or shouting slogans that are ignored or rejected by the other.  Thus, each group ends up talking to itself and those who already agree with it. 


When I first began this study, my background in Tibetan studies mostly consisted of philosophical and doctrinal studies with refugee Tibetan lamas.  During my tenure in graduate school and in subsequent research trips to South Asia, I lived in Tibetan communities and developed friendships with a number of Tibetans.  In this situation, my exposure to Tibetan history was heavily conditioned by their perspective, and I implicitly assumed that the authors of Chinese versions of Tibetan history particularly those related to the takeover of Tibet in the 1950s, must be aware that they were lying, distorting, and fabricating and that the Tibetan case for independence was so compelling that anyone with even the slightest exposure to the facts would reach that conclusion.  The deplorable human rights situation in Tibet added weight to this conclusion.  But in recent years, as a result of speaking with many Chinese, both in China and overseas, and reading a wide variety of publications by Chinese authors (both inside and outside the PRC), my inescapable conclusion is that they do sincerely believe the party line . This is true of most overseas Chinese, as well as residents of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.  Their commitment to its veracity is as strong as that of the Tibetans to their own paradigm, and any problemization of it is generally viewed as dangerous, the crumbling edge of a slippery slope that leads to the destruction of the certainties that sustain the Chinese worldview and the Chinese state.

The certainty with which most Chinese accept their "regime of truth" with regard to Tibet should give pause even to the most passionate Tibet activist.  Chinese people commonly assert that they have a valid perspective that has largely been ignored by a world that is either ignorant of the facts or deliberately misrepresents Chinese actions in Tibet.  They claims that trying to present their case to pro-Tibet foreigners is like arguing with a brick wall -- exactly the experience their opponents have with them.  In this situation, it seems likely that both sides will continue to argue at cross-purposes, and it is difficult to imagine a resolution in light of the incommensurability of their respective premises and sources of evidence.

Just look at the first half of the second last paragraph: "I implicitly assumed that the authors of Chinese versions of Tibetan history particularly those related to the takeover of Tibet in the 1950s, must be aware that they were lying, distorting, and fabricating and that the Tibetan case for independence was so compelling that anyone with even the slightest exposure to the facts would reach that conclusion."  

Now that was just the kind of judgment that the all-knowing New York Times reporter passed on the Chinese school history texts, as in his quotes on the China-Tibet problem:

Most Chinese students finish high school convinced that their country has fought wars only in self-defense, never aggressively or in conquest, despite the People's Liberation Army's invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the ill-fated war with Vietnam in 1979, to take two examples.


Asked why Chinese textbooks do not mention such matters as Tibet's claim to independence at the time Communist troops invaded, Ren Penjie, editor of a history education magazine in Xian, said: "These are still matters of controversy. What we present to children are less controversial facts, which are easier to explain."

I don't know what or why Ren Penjie said to this reporter.  If I were in his place, I would have probably said something just as 'uncontroversial' in order to appear polite.  After all, why should I waste my time shouting at yet another foreign brickwall who is not interested to hearing my reasoning or the socio-political aspects of the situation in China over and beyond intellectual arguments and 'facts'?

Perhaps this NYT reporter may be a rare exception as someone who is 'educatable'?  But the evidence exhibited in the article leaves that very much in doubt, beginning with the value-laden use of the word 'ill-fated' to characterize the 1979 war with Vietnam.  This reporter has also decided that Chinese students are being taught that the country 'fought wars only in self-defense, never aggressively or in conquest.'  Now how bizarre can this get!?  

Just pick up any Chinese history book and read through the dynasties chronologically -- those dynasts didn't get that far by sitting on their hands and watching the grass grow.  [Here, you must try to visualize me keeling over with laughter.]

And do you think that the Mongols (who are represented by one of the five stars on the Chinese national flag) were a bunch of peaceniks?  Among the more noteworthy accomplishments of the Mongols are the sacking/razing of cities such as Nishapor, Merv, Herat, Dasmascus, Jerusalem, Krakow, Kiev, Smolensk, Buda and Pest (these twin cities were burned to the ground on which the city of Budapest now stands) and Baghdad (oh, yes, Hugalu Khan got there in 1258 way before the Americans, and the Mongols killed almost 1 million of the inhabitants in what was reputedly the largest city in the world at the time) while Japan, Cairo and Vienna barely escaped that fate.

Well, perhaps the problem that the NYT article refers to is precisely because the history textbooks don't tell the kids what the Mongols did.  Golly gee!  Now how did I find out about them?  Do you think the information that kids receive about world history comes only from school textbooks?  I certainly found out about the history of China from numerous other channels --  beginning with the readings of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms from my mother to put me to sleep at night as a young child to the newspaper supplements, magazine articles, movies, penny novels, comics, radio stories, television dramas, unversity courses, study groups, web blogs and all that.  Of course, these sources may represent the same historical event from very different perspectives, but our NYT reporter would have preferred a hegemony of thought: The People's Liberation Army invaded an independent Tibet in 1950.  PERIOD.  END OF DISCUSSION.

Americans do not have to go to China to find problems with history books in schools.  They could have just as easily stayed home and looked inside their own schools (especially the legendary Texas school board).

(USA TODAY)  Students Don't Learn Enough About Recent Controversies.  By Jonathan Zimmerman.  January 20, 2004.

Is America's war in Iraq "another Vietnam"?

Democratic presidential hopefuls have invoked the Vietnam War as a metaphor for U.S. ineptitude and failure overseas. As an educator, however, I'm more concerned about a failure here at home: Our public schools haven't taught students enough history to evaluate that metaphor.

Ironically, that gives our children something in common with kids in Iraq. Even before his capture last month, Saddam Hussein had disappeared from Iraq's textbooks. According to The Christian Science Monitor , U.S.-appointed Iraqi educators reviewed the country's textbooks last summer, eliminating every image and passage about Saddam and his Baath Party. Gone are the fawning tributes to him and all other Baathist propaganda.

But modern history is gone, too. By purging the textbooks of any mention of Saddam, Iraqi authorities also blotted out significant events of the recent past.

The Iran-Iraq War? Never happened. Ditto for Saddam's bloody attacks on the Kurds or the 1991 Gulf War. Indeed, The Monitor reported that the new books omit any reference to Americans, Israelis or Kurds. Amid the flux and violence of the U.S. occupation, all three were deemed too controversial for the Iraqi classroom. 

American officials have remained mostly in the background during this process. For three-plus decades, the Americans point out, Iraqi textbooks and teachers dished up a non-stop diet of Baathist lies and distortions. You can't expect them to address contemporary controversies overnight.

Fair enough. But most American textbooks don't address controversy, either, as James Loewen illustrated in Lies My Teacher Told Me , his book about bland, inaccurate history texts. So if the U.S. really wants to be a "force for democracy" around the globe, as President Bush suggests, it might start by changing the way it teaches recent history at home.

Consider our approach to the Vietnam War, the most controversial episode in the past half-century of U.S. foreign policy. You'd never realize that, however, by reading most of the textbooks in our own public schools, which present a banal chronology of names and dates: Tonkin Gulf Resolution, 1964; Tet Offensive, 1968; etc.

What's missing? First, any sense of the brutality of the war itself. If you were older than 10 at the time, you remember iconic images of the conflict: a naked little girl fleeing a napalm attack; a police chief executing a suspect at point-blank range; a Buddhist monk immolating himself in protest. But most children today won't recognize those images, because their textbooks generally omit them on the grounds that the pictures could disturb young readers. 

Of course, we should want our children to be disturbed by that war. About 58,000 Americans and roughly 3 million Vietnamese lost their lives. Our nation was split apart in ways that continue to divide us. Our kids should know that.

Most of all, our textbooks should ask students to enter the Vietnam controversy themselves. Educated Americans must do more than merely identify the war's key names and dates; they should be able to render a judgment about it. Was U.S. involvement in the war a "noble cause," as Ronald Reagan famously declared? An imperialist adventure? A bureaucratic bungling? If you can't formulate an answer, you haven't learned enough about the Vietnam War. And the fault lies squarely with our textbooks and schools, which rarely ask us to make up our own minds.

Instead, we teach "facts" - and our children promptly forget them. A 1999 study by the Asia Society of New York found half of U.S. adults and two-thirds of students think Vietnam is an island. It's reasonable to presume they don't know much about the war that took place there, either.

Let's hope Iraqi textbooks soon address the recent past, including the U.S. occupation and Saddam's capture. Let's also hope, however, that they don't imitate our own texts. Were the Americans liberators or conquerors? Friends or foes? Most of all: Is this "another Vietnam"? Iraq's children should decide. And so should ours. 

Why is it so important for American school children to learn about Vietnam?  So they will understand more about what is happening in Iraq when they are shipped out to fight there under the forthcoming military draft.  D'après Eric Alterman, they will learn that the war in Iraq is very unlike the war in Vietnam because:

Unlike Vietnam, our allies are treating the local populace well and are fighting effectively.

Unlike Vietnam, our troops are not torturing anyone or committing any atrocities anywhere.

Unlike Vietnam, our allies are committed to democracy, and are capable and experienced in carrying it out.

Unlike Vietnam, we are backing strong, independent leaders, rather than quislings and puppets whose power base rests with our military forces and economic support.

Unlike Vietnam, we are beloved by the people we are saving.

Unlike Vietnam, our president and his cabinet officers are leveling with the nation about the costs of victory and likelihood of defeat.

Unlike Vietnam, we have the support of the international community.

Unlike Vietnam, it is particularly popular in the region where the war is being fought, and among the alleged audience abroad we seek to impress with our wisdom and resolve.

Unlike Vietnam, our actions are not inspiring anyone to take up arms against us and thereby increase the level of threat we face.

Unlike Vietnam, dissenters within the government, particularly those with expertise in the history and culture of the people we seek to govern, are being heard with care and respect for their views.

Unlike Vietnam, this is also true for experts in academia and with direct experience in these nations.

Unlike Vietnam, our wise leaders have a clear idea of the cultures into which we have inserted ourselves.

Unlike Vietnam, we are not asking the poorest and least well-connected among us to do the fighting and dying.

Unlike Vietnam, our troops are well-trained for their well-defined mission, (a particularly hearty congratulations goes to Colin Powell for so effectively preventing the same kind of abuse of grunts he witnessed in Vietnam). 

Unlike Vietnam, our civilian leaders are taking seriously warnings and advice of more experienced military leaders.

Unlike Vietnam, those who point out problems with the present course are not being sullied as “counsels of despair and defeat,” and giving “aid and comfort to the enemy.”

Unlike Vietnam, we have the whole thing well-planned out.

Unlike Vietnam, this is a necessary war against an enemy that had the will and capacity to threaten our lives at home.

Etc, etc.

In American schools, they do teach the history of their own nation with multiple viewpoints:

(Raleigh-Durhan News ObserverSchool defends slavery booklet.  By T. Keung Hui.  December 9, 2004.

Students at one of the area's largest Christian schools are reading a controversial booklet that critics say whitewashes Southern slavery with its view that slaves lived "a life of plenty, of simple pleasures."

Leaders at Cary Christian School say they are not condoning slavery by using "Southern Slavery, As It Was," a booklet that attempts to provide a biblical justification for slavery and asserts that slaves weren't treated as badly as people think.

Principal Larry Stephenson said the school is only exposing students to different ideas, such as how the South justified slavery. He said the booklet is used because it is hard to find writings that are both sympathetic to the South and explore what the Bible says about slavery.

"You can have two different sides, a Northern perspective and a Southern perspective," he said.

The booklet isn't the only connection its two co-authors have with the school.

One of the authors, Douglas Wilson, a pastor in Moscow, Idaho, wrote a book on classical education upon which the school bases its philosophy. Wilson's Association of Classical and Christian Schools accredited Cary Christian, and he is scheduled to speak at the school's graduation in May.

Some school leaders, including Stephenson, founded Christ Church in Cary, which is affiliated with Wilson's Idaho church.

The booklet's other author, Steve Wilkins, is a member of the board of directors of the Alabama-based League of the South. That is classified as a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights group.

"Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins have essentially constructed the ruling theology of the neo-Confederate movement," said Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report.

Potok said people who argue that the South should secede again have latched onto the writings of Wilson and Wilkins, which portray the Confederacy as the last true Christian civilization.

At a time when a number of Triangle Christian schools have lost enrollment and even closed, Cary Christian has seen rapid growth since it opened in 1996.

The school has 623 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. With a relatively low tuition -- up to $5,000 -- it has attracted families from 55 churches. At least one parent must be a regular attendee of a church.

Stephenson said the school's growth is based on parental desire for a classical education founded on the basics of phonics, grammar, logic and rhetoric. Students read many classics, such as the writings of Plato and Socrates.

"As a classical Christian school, we think it's important for our students to be able to think and not be slanted to a particular position," Stephenson said. "We want them to think for themselves."

Until two years ago, Stephenson said, middle school students also had read excerpts from "Southern Slavery." He said the booklet was a counterpoint to "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which he said portrayed all Southern whites as treating their slaves badly.

Once the Civil War was no longer taught in middle school, Stephenson said, Cary Christian stopped using the booklet in those grades.

But the 43-page booklet is still read in its entirety by ninth-graders when they study the Civil War. Stephenson said the booklet can help students formulate arguments when taking the pro-Southern side in debates.

"A student may be assigned an opinion they may not agree with, so they will understand both sides," Stephenson said.

Angela Kennedy, whose daughters have attended Cary Christian since 1996, said all the booklet does is help students learn about both sides so that they have a basis to form their own opinions. She pointed out that the students also read Abraham Lincoln's speeches.

"They really do get both sides of the story," Kennedy said. "In public schools, all they get is one side of the story. That's not education. That's indoctrination."

Stephenson said the booklet is discussed for two days. Even as they read the booklet, he said, students are told slavery was wrong.

"Slavery is wrong," Stephenson said. "That's not debatable about slavery. The South was wrong about the slave trade."

Marcus Ranch, who has three daughters at Cary Christian, said he has no problem with the school using the booklet. He said it offers an accurate portrayal that is overlooked of how many slaves were treated kindly by their owners.

"That book is fine," Ranch said. "It does a good job with that particular perspective."

But Potok questioned how the school can use a booklet that asserts that slavery "was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence."

"What these men have written is an apology for slavery," he said. "They're putting window dressing on an abhorrent institution."

Potok also blasted the booklet, which was published in 1996, for plagiarizing a previous work. The booklet has received criticism from a number of historians.

Wilson declined to comment and referred questions to his assistant, Mike Lawyer. Lawyer said the booklet has been pulled from publication because of faulty footnotes and citation errors.

Lawyer said he thinks few schools use the booklet, which is published by a company owned by Wilson's Idaho church.

But Lawyer said the authors stand by their central belief that the Civil War didn't have to happen and that slavery would have ended on its own.

"The Southern Poverty Law Center is just trying to make money out of this," Lawyer said. "The Southern Poverty Law Center is totally off base to think in any way that the book is neo-Confederate."

But the use of the booklet is leaving some area pastors concerned that it could promote intolerance.

"If there's any attempt to divide us, it's totally un-Christian," said Richard Dial, pastor of Cary Church of God.

Mike Woods, administrator of Wake Christian Academy, said he couldn't see his school using "Southern Slavery, As it Was," especially with younger students.

"It's so easy for some of them to take something they read and assume you're in favor of it," he said.


Here are some excerpts from the booklet:

* "To say the least, it is strange that the thing the Bible condemns (slave-trading) brings very little opprobrium upon the North, yet that which the Bible allows (slave-ownership) has brought down all manner of condemnation upon the South." (page 22)

* "As we have already mentioned, the 'peculiar institution' of slavery was not perfect or sinless, but the reality was a far cry from the horrific descriptions given to us in modern histories." (page 22)

* "Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence." (page 24)

* "There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world." (page 24)

* "Slave life was to them a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care." (page 25)

* "But many Southern blacks supported the South because of long established bonds of affection and trust that had been forged over generations with their white masters and friends." (page 27)

* "Nearly every slave in the South enjoyed a higher standard of living than the poor whites of the South -- and had a much easier existence." (page 30)