I’m sure you’re all familiar with the lines. Or, at any rate, I really hope you are. “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” “History repeats itself because no one was listening the first time.” The acknowledgement that certain patterns repeat themselves throughout human development isn’t exactly new. If we accept this idea, and I think most of us do, we forfeit the right of saying that we don’t have to care about history, that we can ignore it if we want. I’m going to try and throw my usual volleys of jokes in, but, erm, this starts with World War One and gets more depressing from there. The other side of the razor- or, the infinite void below it? No clue- will be in the next post, concerning why we shouldn’t remember things too clearly. Oh, cripes, I just realized that I said ‘volleys’ in a post that mentions war. Great start, that, I’m bringing all the morbid humor to this post!
This brings me to a growing trend in the U.S. of human rights advocates demanding changes or alterations to various monuments. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t. One fairly reasonable example I saw was that of a monument for WWI veterans which was nothing more than a giant cross. As was pointed out by many people discussing it on, um, Facebook (a well-known source of thoughtful, civil debate and comprehensive research), we can reasonably be certain that not all soldiers serving in WWI were Christian, so it could be argued that explicitly Christian war memorials are disrespectful to the fallen. Well, maybe they are. I think it’s very interesting to note that the Iwo Jima memorial portrays the action itself- raising a flag at the highest point of a former enemy stronghold- rather than a religious emblem. That contrast can be useful. It’s also interesting to note that the photograph the memorial is based on, while representative of the initial flag raising, was actually captured from the raising of a second, larger flag, not under fire. Not that Rosenthal deserves any crap for happening get there after the shooting was done. Men with guns don’t sprint directly into the line of fire (anymore, if they can help it, usually) so why would a guy with a camera?
The cross memorial is not representative of modern beliefs, nor should it be. Whether you believe that we’re improving or worsening as a species, I hope you understand that we need to know where we’ve been before we can decide where to go next. It’s important for us to keep outdated monuments in at least a few places, precisely because they’re outdated. If and when I get married, stop being all young and carefree and have children (ha, carefree, as if I ever was!), I would like to have some of those monuments around. This is so I can tell my son or daughter (or plurals thereof), “Yes, hun, that’s what war memorials used to look like. There was a time when it mattered more what god you worshiped than that you were brave enough to give your life to keep others free, and aren’t you glad it’s not like that anymore?” Because I for one would be glad if it that were the case, which it totally isn’t. We still value people who hold our same exact ideas more than people who do things we would never have the courage or wit to do.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone; I tend to fume at people all the time for daring to disagree with me on things. I’m trying to be better. Occasionally I succeed for a bit. We’re all fighting our own nature here, which is precisely why we cannot ignore history. Almost every lesson we learn in our lives has been learned by billions of others before us. I firmly believe, because I’m a horrible romantic and possibly deluded, that all of us have the ability to learn those lessons without going through the same pain, and still take them to heart. It’s easier that way, but we’re less likely to do it because we aren’t being run through the wringer for the lesson then. It’s not that we can learn from our past, we just keep choosing not to.
On a side note about the opening of the second paragraph that’s going to grow over time into my actual argument, yes! America did send soldiers to the First World War! I know we took our sweet time about it, but it was hard to believe the nationalist hype when none of the countries who started it wanted any part of it either. I know Lord Kitchener said they wanted everybody, but c’mon now, why should we show up to watch all of you miss everything we learned in the Civil War (I.E, we forgot already, please remind us)? It’s only fair we held off until 1917, because it took three years for High Command to figure out an alternative to mass charges between bouts of playing trench cards. Now, you see, the best part of this tangent is that’s it 100% relevant, because I’m talking about patterns repeating in history. If rushing in tight formations against entrenched flintlock rifles and Civil War-era howitzers was suicide, how is it that it took several months of shredded infantry battalions to realize that doing the same thing against bolt-action rifles, machine guns and eight-inch field artillery was also stupid? Probably for whatever reason caused the Union and Confederacy not to find a reasonable alternative at any point in five years.
Are you beginning to see my point? Humans are very bad at learning lessons, especially lessons which they’ve been allowed to ignore. It follows from this that if we ignore history, there’s a good chance we’ll forget everything we don’t think of as relevant. Which many of us seem to do anyone. Just, you know, moreso. So instead of the United States bankrupting itself through pseudo-Imperialist over-extension into various foreign countries, every major power on Earth will do that. Rome fell first from within, when it became lazy and sluggish and allowed the might of its Legions to fade. When its external enemies finally conquered it, it was less that they had grown stronger, and more that Rome was weaker.
Hitler thought that he could beat the Russians before Winter, where Napoleon had failed. Hitler might’ve had something there, if Operation Barbarossa was launched in, say, the Spring Thaw of 1942, and not late summer of 1941. Nothing pushes a country into economic overdrive like being invaded, the Russians in particular are historically unfavorable to getting invaded, and you cannot beat General Winter. You can resist him, but you cannot beat him. While the Wehrmacht didn’t have to deal with Typhus and assorted other diseases, they started far too late and still had to contend with the Russian’s favorite method of preventing invaders from destroying their country, which is doing it themselves. There’s another lesson we’re bad at learning: if your definition of victory is purely military, you’re setting yourself up for a real mess in the long term. For the record, I truly admire the Russian fighting spirit, but it makes me very sad to see so many instances of them forgetting everything else. We haven’t had many Tchaikovskies or Tolstoys for the modern age.
The other lesson from Russia’s military history? Don’t try to outspend the U.S., especially in the immediate aftermath of a desperate tooth-and-nail war against one of the most powerful, technologically advanced armies of its time. Spending is the one area in which we of the spangled-banners and suspended bridges (and distended guts) truly excel, The only reason we’re in debt is that Congress hasn’t got the balls to make our more wealthy citizens pay something remotely equal to their income. Whether that money is doing anything worthwhile is highly debatable, though I should point out that guerilla tactics are another thing historically noted for being hard to deal with, so they’re not a very good benchmark for the U.S. military’s power. That, and Afghanistan. Excuse us for not solving all the problems that none of the other external military occupations were able to make a dent in either.
And hey, we didn’t deliberately bomb civilian targets, er, officially. Like, no orders were given to do so. So the attrocities were just accidental! I mean, aside from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and probably some other places. My point here is this: even when we as a species finally stop repeatedly doing the same dumb things, we can’t start ignoring history. There is no real emotional benefit to be gained from pretending the Holocaust never happened, or simply forgetting in a hundred years that it did. The Holocaust was partly enabled by two thousand years of systematic anti-Semitism that probably carried on from the Romans and even earlier. Disease keeps making resurgences because people keep forgetting how damn awful it is. The most tragic part of these things after the fact that they happened is we act, every time, as if they can never happen again, which is only true if we actively make sure they don’t. If all you learned about the Nazis was that they restored Germany’s national spirit and reinvigorated its economy to make it a European superpower, you’d probably think National Socialism was looking pretty great, wouldn’t you?
Those things are true (to the best of my knowledge, and feel free to correct me), they just don’t come remotely close to being worth any of the other crap.If I were a cynic, I’d chose all this as evidence that we’re incapable of improving. But I’m not, so I’m going to say it’s the opposite: we are very good at improving, but when we forget how far we’ve come, we make the same old mistakes in a spirit of youthful invincibility, and so resurrect the same old problems. We have the capacity to be more responsible, and to finally bury the mistakes of the past, as long as we never forget them.
Because if you bury a mine in your backyard and forget about it, you shouldn’t be surprised when it blows someone to bits. Hm. Maybe I am a cynic. Also, don’t visit my house. I may have forgotten something.