Monday, November 9, 2009

Studying history can offer cautionary tales for today by John Matuszak

I have spent most of my life studying history, enraptured by the rich narratives and fascinated by the connections of the past with the present.

But, at times, I find myself asking "Does history really matter?"

In times of crisis, does it provide a blueprint for the future or a negative that only blurs our choices and blocks our judgment?

Does history ever really repeat itself, or are we left alone without a map to guide us through a shifting mine field?

I have been posing these questions to myself as President Obama ponders the policy choices before him in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other hot spots. Hanging over him, along with the centuries of history of the unruly region, is the spectre of Viet Nam and the consequences of ill-considered action that this war demonstrated.

Are there lessons to be learned about current conflicts from our involvement in Southeast Asia? No two historical situations can be completely analogous. But are there at least broad comparisons to be drawn, or are we left to blunder blindly forward?

History, while often taught in wide brushstrokes, is lived through minute details that are are unlikely to be replicated. The columnist Gwynne Dyer noted that the course of events, like a raindrop down a window pane, does not follow a straight line but is directed by almost invisible imperfections.

So what good is studying history if every situation is unique and the landscape is always changing?

As I contemplated this question, in the midst of my reading I was hit with an observation so profound and unexpected that it made it blindingly clear to me that while history's contours might change, human nature does not, and that there are flaws in ourselves that must be heeded before we take another step into that uncharted land.

I stumbled across this bit of wisdom while reading a short biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Josiah Bunting III. The author was making a connection between the obstacles Grant faced in reconstructing the South after the Civil War and the roadblocks encountered by the architects of America's Viet Nam counterinsurgency policy. The comparison seems perfectly apt to the present crises in central Asia and the Middle East.

Bunting borrows from ancient history to shine a light on recent events.

"You have not yet begun to consider what sort of men are these Athenians whom you may have to fight," the Corinthians warned the Spartans before their ill-fated encounter with Greece.

In other words, Bunting explains, "you cannot imagine how different they are from yourselves. Things you revere, they abominate; actions you may take to demonstrate goodwill and magnanimity, they will see as demonstrations of weakness of the most abject kind."

The author finds a particular flaw in a democracy, that its citizens cannot for long support policies that "however noble their goals, do not demonstrate measurable progress."

"Moral a perishable commodity in the American polity," Bunting observes.

Bunting offers the final word on the outcome as it occurred in the South, in Hanoi, and, one could project, as it may play out in Kabul and Baghdad: "You do not understand us; you presume to impose your will upon us, but you will fail. For there is a final consideration in the analogy: we are patient, and you are not."

So Obama is confronted with the age-old, but nearly impossible challenge of "Know thy enemy," as well as a gap in our democratic DNA that makes us demand gratification with the insistence of an ADD child.

I did not expect to find such a cogent coda on American nation-building in a biography of a 19th century general and president. Sometime it takes a lot of sifting to uncover such gems. And it seems that the ancients have much to offer when it comes to understanding the present.

In the end, I believe there are two important reasons for studying history: to understand how our place in history is unique, and also to see how the patterns of human behavior (if not their precise actions) repeat themselves.

I am currently reading "American Passage: The History of Ellis Island," by Vincent J. Cannato. This author illustrates that every alarm being raised today about the threat of Hispanic immigration has been repeated throughout American history almost verbatim with the arrival of the Irish, the Italians, the Jews and other minorities. But no one would argue today that American life hasn't been enriched by these same groups that were maligned and marginalized when they first arrived.

There are lessons to be learned by studying the past. The path of history is made by walking, not standing still, but there are road markers behind us about what to fear and what not to fear. Looking over our shoulders from time to time as we move ahead is never a bad idea.

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Design is copyright 2009. All rights reserved. Bexley Public Radio Foundation. Text is copyright 2009. All rights reserved. John Matuszak.

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