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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars dangerous days and dangerous nights, October 25, 2009
This review is from: Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (Modern Library Chronicles) (Hardcover)
The thesis of Margaret MacMillan's Dangerous Games is that "we should be wary of grand claims made in history's name or of those who claim to have uncovered the truth once and for all." A distinguished historian, Dr. MacMillan's concisely written text provides abundant examples of how history has been invented, ignored or otherwise distorted to justify the pursuit of selfish interests, the culmination of which can at times be catastrophic. To be sure, MacMillan provides examples of history in the service of positive ends; as when, for example, history is employed to provide a sense of identity and solidarity for historically neglected or oppressed groups. Yet, as the title itself suggests, Dangerous Games is principally about the adverse and not infrequently tragic results produced by the willful or unintentional manipulation of the historical record. This book is worth reading and pondering. It suffers, I think, from two flaws.

(1) It is simply imperative that Dangerous Games lead by example - not just examples. Thus, it would have been remarkably helpful if Ms. MacMillan had retained the skepticism she urges upon us when discussing the more recent Bush Administration. That, apparently, was too much to ask. Instead, her commentary breezily follows the conventional critique. Thus, in the book's final pages we are once again told the "war on terror" is misleading. Why? "Terror" is an idea, not an enemy; the war on terror lacks a specific objective and; the Bush Administration used 9/11, according to Paul Schroeder, whom she favorably cites, to claim the right "to decide whom to attack when it pleased without consulting the allies..." Of course, the Bush Administration consulted the allies. It did not, however, break with the traditional claim of sovereign nations to act unilaterally. It is also the case that "terrorists" reside somewhere, and a "component unit" has the option, and more often than not a clear stake, in either convincing them to cease being terrorists or in removing them forcibly.

Ms. MacMillan's critique is not without merit. The response of the Bush Administration to the events of 9/11 is not beyond reproach. Nor is it without a defense. Ms. MacMillan is too accomplished not to recognize this. Yet, perhaps because the book emerged from a public audience she wanted to appease, she opted to suspend her critical capabilities. Instead, she displayed the very qualities she urges her readers to avoid.

(2) My principal problem with Dangerous Games is that, while it addresses an obvious problem, it sidesteps a very troublesome one. The obvious problem is that history has been, and likely will continue to be abused. The difficult problem is that truth in history does not appear to hold a candle against the myth.

That Ms. MacMillan successfully demonstrates history's malleability is beyond dispute. Far more difficult to show is that awareness of "the truth" or "the facts" in history can be deployed to counter the uninformed or the downright nefarious. In fact, one message conveyed in Dangerous Games, however unwittingly, is that history is never as important as when it is being distorted to serve an end other than that of the truth. What matters is less the historical record, which is, inevitably, constantly evolving anyway, and more how people perceive it, quite independent of whether those perceptions are valid. It would have been very useful if (a) MacMillan had explained why the truth doesn't cut it and (b) provided a few strategic options toward the end of improving the track record. Either or both might have made the games a bit less dangerous.
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