Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.
I was bantering online with an old friend and fellow historian and I hit him with my best shot: history is un-American. If you think like an historian, and especially if you think America and its future actions should be informed, or possibly even constrained, by history, you are clearly un-American. History is more or less bunk, Henry Ford famously said, and Americans can safely ignore it. We are like gods, creating our own futures out of nothing, imposing our will on everything around us.
This attitude, this hubris, explains much about the U.S. military’s woeful record since 1945. The French lost in Indochina? No matter. Americans will prevail in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia because we’re not the French. The Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan? No matter. Americans will prevail there because we’re not the Russians. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his minority Sunni government will unleash chaos that strengthens Shia forces in Iraq, aligning that country more closely with Iran? No matter. America will bring order and the blessings of democracy to Iraq at the point of gun or a Hellfire missile.
Karl Rove, a major player in the Bush/Cheney administration, summed up this hubris in this now-infamous passage:
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
That man did not want for confidence.
Related to the idea of history being un-American is the business- and management-oriented nature of the officer corps in the U.S. military. To be promoted to field-grade (major or lieutenant commander), you almost have to have a master’s degree or be close to finishing one. But rarely do officers choose to pursue a master’s in history or any other subject related to the humanities. The master’s of choice is in business administration or some type of management.
By pursuing MBAs and management degrees, officers show their practical nature. They also set themselves up well for future careers once they retire or separate from the military. After all, who needs to know history, even military history? The U.S. military will simply act, creating its own realities, which feckless historians will then passively study as America’s real actors get on with the job of remaking the world in America’s image.
We live in the United States of Amnesia, Gore Vidal quipped, and history is part of that amnesia. Who remembers that America was at war in Afghanistan as late as 2021? It’s on to new “great power” struggles with China and Russia. Look forward, not backward, Barack Obama said when he became president, meaning there was no need to hold the Bush/Cheney administration responsible for anything, including torture and other war crimes. “We tortured some folks” – time to move on!
An expression I learned in the U.S. military is “analysis paralysis,” as in don’t overthink the problem. Act! But if America’s military record since World War II proves one thing, it’s that ignoring history because it’s “bunk” or less practical than another business or management course is a very unwise idea.
Acting should be informed by thinking. Dare I say, historically-informed thinking. Even for America’s wannabe gods.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.
10 thoughts on “History Is Un-American”
Ehud Barack Obama refused to prosecute George Warmonger Bush for war crimes and torture because he did not have the guts to stand up to him or any other Republican. He brought us more of the same and not that Change You Can Believe In. He kept Gitmo open, sent drone strikes to Afghanistan, Pakistan and many other countries, ended the war in Iraq, only to restart it with another war in Syria and bombed Libya at Hillary Clinton’s request and said there was genocide going on there. Obama, Bush, Trump and Biden should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity because they are disgraces to the human race.
I don’t think Obama lacked guts as much as he wanted to be protected when he did his own crimes.
The US is not good at learning lessons and often repeats obvious mistakes again and again. Despite managing to muddle through anyway, this boneheaded approach to life is going to slowly eat away at the Empire, like it has all previous empires. I am not looking forward to the death throes of the Empire, because, based on the US’s history, they will be very destructive indeed.
A lack of respect for history to the degree of denying it has any influence on the present, is a rock solid hallmark of the American view of the planet.
It is one of the reasons that a large percentage of “liberal democrats” were so easily seduced by the fairy tale that the Russians had no legitimate political or strategic reasons to initiate their special military operation.
Those who cannot remember to quote Santayana are condemned to be reminded of him. And good luck crusading against ignorance. I’m down to open mocking.
For some reason that struck me as rather funny TC.
Some cliches go without saying.
Good insightful post Christian, “Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana
Jan 5, 2023 WILL THE WAR PARTY WIELD THE SPEAKER’S GAVEL?
We’re witnessing a fascinating thing: Congress is actually debating and voting on something. Remarkable!
For the first time in a century—and only the second time since the Civil War—the vote for the next Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has entered multiple ballots.
I know some do not like these facts. US presidents and their wars.
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