History is irrelevant. This I believe. I am doomed to relive history whether I study it or not. I don’t know much about history is a proud refrain and why not? We neither learn from it not turn to it for guidance. How else can I explain Darfur, Rwanda, Cambodia? The holocaust museum was established to remind me not to forget about the genocide of the Jews by Hitler’s Germany, the country of my birth. Yet the world stood by while Pol Pot slaughtered millions in Cambodia. Nations proved impotent to prevent the Hutus’ from raping and killing the Tutsis’ in Rwanda. No power – not America, not Europe, not the UN – has the will to stop the murderous genocide in Darfur, despite public outcries. Why bother keeping the memory of the holocaust alive in my heart. It doesn’t change the exercise of power by world leaders. They make decisions calculating what is in their best interests in light of today’s dynamics. History contributes precious little to that calculus.
Reading history is a quaint pastime for bedside amusement. Debating the lessons of history provides tenure for professors and maybe a best seller. But what is the use of that debate if no one pays attention to those lessons? Today, my sense of history is fueled by sound bites, by distortions from strident voices with an agenda, by visceral appeals to my misperceptions of the past, rather than by a dispassionate reading of what really happened. Remember the Alamo!
As a naïve young history major, I protested America’s invasion of Viet Nam – our attempt to stop the Communist take-over of its neighbors like falling dominoes. Ignoring the anti-colonial history of the conflict, we were going to transform South Viet Nam into a beacon of democracy. By the time the futility of that effort was obvious, our prestige and power were on the line. Then, we really couldn’t get out. Didn’t we learn from Viet Nam that military power doesn’t solve all problems and is a poor choice for remaking a country in our image? Substitute Iraq for Vietnam, Muslim extremism for Communism, “cut and run” for falling dominoes, and then tell me what lessons we learned from our history with Viet Nam.
I like history. I enjoy reading historical novels. Knowing a bit of history makes me feel as if I better understand what is going on around me. I discuss history with my sixth grader and will do so with my pre-schooler as he grows up. But I have no illusions that history is anything more than an interesting pastime. I make of history whatever I want, facts be damned. I believe that the lessons of history don’t hold a candle to the power of prejudice and emotion in lighting the way forward. No one rummages through the dust bin of history for pearls of wisdom. Sadly, this is what I believe.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.