Saturday, February 04, 2012

Book Review - The American Future : A History by Simon Schama (The Bodley Head 2008)

In 2008, America stood on the cusp of a change which even just a few years earlier would have been unthinkable. Barack Obama, a black American, had a realistic chance of being elected President of the United States. His vision of change was providing an inspiring alternative both to a discredited Republican regime and Hillary Clinton's Democratic Party machine. Establishment politics had failed - the long years of easy credit and economic boom had come crashing to an end, whilst American troops struggled to make an impact against nebulous foes in Iraq and Afghanistan. If ever there was a potential political watershed, this was it.

Simon Schama's TV series and book were an attempt to take a long perspective on America's most pressing issues, mixing historical aperçus with contemporary analysis to brilliant effect.

When West Point Academy for officers was founded, the study of French was compulsory for the practical reason that many of the textbooks were written in French. But the principles of mathematics and engineering that were instilled allowed the Army to play a major role in the Civil Engineering of the new nation. They helped create, for instance, the levées that protected New Orleans until contemporary negligence contributed to their breach  in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Switch to the retired General who, when asked if the Army could have done more to fix the infrastructure of Iraq, said that that is not what the Army is for.The Union's success in the American Civil War was largely due to the success of West Point graduate Montgomery Meigs' clear-headed and incorruptible approach to logistical management. Switch to Iraq, where "Construction companies awarded no-bid contracts had bungled the job after pocketing front-loaded operational budgets". No explicit contrast is made - none is needed.

For a country founded on immigration, America's attitude to new immigrants has often been ambiguous. Discrimination against Chinese workers in the West is contrasted with American migrants to Mexico in what is now Texas. The first part of the American history is the search for land, as settlers pushed further and further west, and the American army made gains to the South. Treaties with American Indian tribes are torn up with impunity by Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Mexican war. Rewind to Schama's meeting earlier in the book with Generals Freddy Valenzuela and Ricardo Sanchez, all-American heroes in a Hispanic military café in San Antonio, Texas.

For the American history is a complex history, ebbing and flowing from highest ideals to naked greed and corruption. What Schama manages to do is to select examples that not only encapsulate how America came to be what it is today, but also to underline its complexity. He moves easily back and forward through the history of the Meigs family and the history of the nation, but eschews easy answers. As the past four years have shown, the problems that contemporary America faces are too deep-seated simply to be solved by well-crafted words, but this book is a fine attempt to shed some understanding on its most intractable issues.

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