U.S. needs to hear it: ‘When will we ever learn history?’

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column was written almost two years ago, and now that we finally are pulling out of Afghanistan, I think it’s timely. And never forget Georges Santayana’s famous warning: “Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

Lt. Tirebiter: “What about the Gooks?”

Pico: “Bad news, lieutenant. There are Gooks all around.”

Alvarado: “They live here, lieutenant. They’ve got women, and guns, and pigs, and everything!”

Tirebiter: “That’s swell, corporal, but we’ve got orders to surround these little Gooks.”

Alvarado: “That’ll be easy, lieutenant. There’s millions of ‘em, on all three sides of us.” — From The Firesign Theatre, “Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliars.” 1970.

Writing my annual year in review at the end of 2019 reminded me of how much I have loved history for so long. My interest goes back to my earliest years.

When I was in eighth grade, my teacher let me pass on the final exam if I agreed to put together the test for everyone else, which helped plant the notion I wanted to be a history teacher when I grew up.

Though I always earned terrific grades in history throughout my academic career, I wasn’t able to land a job as a history teacher, virtually always being beaten out by coaches who masqueraded as history teachers (group social studies minors) and schools that wanted to save money by hiring them.

Two years after I graduated from Grand Valley with a bachelor’s degree and a history major (naturally), I parlayed my calling into “instant history,” or “history this week,” better known as the newspaper business. And I have Irvin P. Helmey of the Wayland Globe to thank or curse, depending on your point of view.

I am arrogant enough to believe I’m good at history and I’ve learned a lot over the years, despite personal taunts from Ranger Rick — “If you knew your history…”

But one historical theory I’ve developed over my lifetime that just hasn’t caught on, hasn’t gained traction, is the suggestion that if you don’t live there, eventually you will lose that war. I have long believed that wars of colonization or occupation eventually fizzle and die, leaving behind unnecessary death and destruction.

I certainly came across this notion while studying the Greek and Roman empires. Alexander the Great from Greece became the first famous person to learn of the hazards of trying to conquer Afghanistan, “Where empires go to die.”

One of the biggest reasons Rome was said to have finally witnessed its empire collapse was that its armies were spread too far away from home and it was too difficult to continue to supply the troops and control the people who had been vanquished years or decades before.

But the most eye-opening development was right here in these United States, where a rag-tag bunch of backwoods colonists somehow was able to expel the most powerful military in the world at that time — Britain. The biggest reason the Brits gave up and left? They didn’t live here and it had become too cumbersome for them to have to sail across the ocean to quell some kind of uprising in the colonies. Furthermore, Merry Olde England was preoccupied with wars in Europe.

Later examples surfaced for empires that conquered colonies, such as the British in India, the French in Algiers and Indochina and the Spanish in much of South America. Do not overlook Africa.

The excellent 1965 film, “The Battle of Algiers” outlined the eventual futility of France’s occupation of Algeria. The French also had learned they couldn’t subdue Indochina and pulled out in 1954, only to let the Americans come in and learn a painful similar lesson.

Ho Chi Minh warned U.S. generals they would win virtually all the battles, but not the war because this wasn’t their country and they didn’t have the will to be occupiers for a long time.

Indeed, during the Vietnam War, the United States had the finest and most powerful fighting force in the world, but it could not subdue the locals because of what Pico and Alvardo told Lt. Tirebiter.

Then came the U.S. post-9/11 revenge wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter which was the result of lies we were told (weapons of mass detruction). We should’ve known better just a decade after the Soviet Union called it quits in Afghanistan, fighting a war in country “where empires go to die.”

Now comes the news that we were lied to about Afghanistan and why we sent troops to die for a lost cause there.

We now know that 15 of the 19 nuts in planes that hit the Twin Towers were from Saudi Arabia and the other four were from Egypt. We didn’t retaliate against those two countries. In fact, they both are regarded today as allies.

My historical theory, and I’m sticking to it, is that no matter how powerful a military you have, you eventually will have to pull out of the country you’re occupying, because you don’t live there. So Joe Biden’s decision to get the hell out of the Middle East after 20 futile years and take care of more pressing business here in the U.S. is welcome. We’ve been over there for two decades, and we’ve got nothing to show for it, except dead American soldiers, dead Iraqis and Afghans, and too many service men and women with PTSD.

Georges Santayana

Just as Hitler found out too late almost 80 years ago when he decided to invade Russia, that Napoleon had failed in the same effort in the previous century.

“Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

I have often told friends and enemies that if someone erects a tombstone above my remains, I want it to say, “Dave tried to tell us the truth… We didn’t want to hear it.”


  • Excellent summary except it wasn’t Biden’s idea to stop involving us in endless wars and get American soldiers off of foreign soil. It was Trump’s idea, he ran on it and followed through.

    90% correct.

    • Thank you MacDougal for setting the record straight. The editor only likes to praise Lefties/Communists/Marxist politicians. The draw down was Trump’s initiative started long ago. Dementia Joe gets the credit in the media.
      And Mr. Young, your historical perspective is sometimes muddled. Dementia Joe isn’t affecting you?

      • Dear apron hider. It was Trump’s idea to draw down troops. He just never did it. So when President Biden finally did it, he deserves no credit? You nameless commenters with big mouths mean nothing. Close the curtains and hide under the bed. You will be safe.

        • Seeing as Pedo Joe hasn’t done anything except violate the agreement reached under the previous administration and push the process even further out, no. He deserves nothing as he has done nothing.

        • Mr Longstreet,
          President Trump did start the draw down of troops. You don’t just pull out without thought to your allies and those native people helping the troops. I hope all those putting themselves and their families in harm’s way were also given entry into this country if they wanted to do so.
          But Democrats, especially dementia Joe, don’t give a damn about collateral damage to those helping our troops. I’m sure he ordered quick and complete withdrawal. Such is the way of warfare by Americans the past 70 years.
          As for hiding behind an apron, I’m pleased to do so. I like women, unlike so many of you Marxist Liberals.

  • When asked by my children about joining the military and why I didn’t in my day my response was, I don’t feel this country has any business telling other countries how to run their business 80% of the time but if another country decided to invade American soil to change our way of life they would have to race me to the front lines to defend our freedoms and liberties. Don’t you think the other folks in other countries might feel the very same way.
    That being said please don’t think for a second that I don’t have the utmost respect for those who have served in the military because I do. It just was not my calling.

  • Ah! Yes history is the “ugly truth”.
    As once said in a movie ” you can’t handle the truth”. Alas, statues, monuments, flags, etc all the horrors of how the United States has developed are now destroyed. Just because noone wants to remember. Many are trying to “rewrite ” our history so future generations will never know the truth.
    History in the minds of many is best left in the past, to be forgotten forever. One can not change history, but surely can learn from it. That scares many today, it hinders their ideologies that would no longer allow the United States to be a “free country “.

  • The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan said: “We must not be seen as rushing around the world looking for arguments…Nor should we let ourselves be seen as ignoring allies, disillusioning friends, thinking only of ourselves in the most narrow terms. That is not how we survived the 20th Century. Nor will it serve in the 21st.”

    Senator Moynihan also said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

    As a country, we were heading down the road of turning on longtime allies and returning to the days of selective isolationism championed by longtime U.S. Senator Arthur Vandenberg from 1928 until 1945 when he announced his “conversion” and promoted the US being part of the United Nations.

    Almost on cue, loyal Trumpites like McDougal and DTOM are quick to remind us that their political hero brought up leaving Afghanistan. That is true, but that falls into the same category as the former President’s promises to replace the Affordable Care Act and present a comprehensive plan to replace America’s aging infrastructure. Lots of talk and and no action.

    There was ample time with GOP majorities in the House and Senate between January 2017 and December 2018 for action on both, as there was time to pass the 2017 Tax Act that was passed and signed in November 2017.

    History shouldn’t be forgotten or rewritten, but it happened 100 years ago in Tulsa and for nearly 80 years it was only spoken of in whispers. History should be recorded and be readily available to proceeding generations. Civil War monuments removed monuments are being stored, not destroyed.

    I won’t wring my hands or lose sleep over removal of Civil War monuments honoring Confederate leaders, its military leaders or soldiers. Those folks weren’t American heroes. They were enemies of the U.S. who took up arms in a war of secession. A war confederacy. They didn’t want to be citizens of The United States, which is why they created the Confederate States of America.

    Why does Wildcat 148 speak of “Pedo Joe?” Is that some sophomoric put down he read? Does he still believe the QAnon-generated social media nonsense about the pizza joint in DC too?

    Time to grow up and present evidence if you are going to make such a charge in public discourse.

    • Maybe you spent too much time staring at his hairy legs and admiring the scent of children. Lots of talk and no action? You mean the agreement that the previous administration signed stipulating our withdrawal from Afghanistan? The one that the current administration immediately violated?

    • Couchman
      Your point on Civil War monuments is a prime example of what I’m saying. Lock them in a warehouse where none of the future generations will have any idea who or why the Civil War was fought.
      One can not learn from history if it’s locked away never to be seen or taught. If we had been exposed to the horrible atrocities the Native Americans had to face as this country was being settled. It might just be possible the racism and discrimination of ethnic groups may not have reached the level it has.
      We can only hope history will but taught without political prejudice…..which to this date it has not been. We want to only know the history that makes us feel good. All the horrific, ugly parts must be locked away and forgotten over time.

    • I don’t know about Pedo Joe or references to a pizza joint, but he is “Dementia Joe”, which is self-evident. If you argue he’s not, you are delusional.

  • Mr Smit,

    Nowhere did I say ugly parts of history should be forgotten. In the future, those monuments can be seen in museums where they can be presented in the context of the Civil War and post-Civil War where it can be explained how the vast majority of the statues were erected between 1890 and 1960 during the Jim Crow era of segregation. Though there were only 11 Confederate states, there were statues honoring Confederates in 31 states.

    Its no coincidence that the organizers of the Unite the Right rally chose Charlottesville VA in August 2017 and the park that was home to the Robert E Lee statue as its gathering area prior to the planned march. The statue was commissioned by the wealthy NYC investor son of a former Charlottesville mayor who returned home after retirement. When it was unveiled in 1924 McIntire (the donor) chose the Confederate Veterans, Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy to plan and be the managers of the statues the unveiling ceremony. The theme was a tribute to “the lost cause” because in their view the war was fought to disrupt the Southern state’s way of life.

    That Charlottesville march held in August 2017 was attended by self-identified members of the neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, militias and various far right-wing groups. That was hardly a collection of people seeking unity.

    We will agree to disagree. I won’t celebrate traitors who chose to fight for the Confederacy or those groups who seek to promote the Civil war as “The lost cause,” War of Northern aggression or other euphemisms to soften the facts. I don’t want the statues destroyed or hidden, just not in public parks where most if not all were placed to send a message.

    As suspected, Wildcat148 has no basis of fact for his disparaging accusation about President Biden, so Wildcat148’s response is more insults. But directed at the person who asked to substantiate his claims about President Biden (me). Such is life in some folk’s alternate universe based on alternate truths.

    • As expected, coachman can’t refute anything. I mean, she totally looks like she’s 19 years old. If using his own words and televised actions is apparently not good enough for you, then you are willfully ignorant. But then again if you actually support that level of creep, you probably belong (or already are) on a registry.
      Talking about not addressing facts, once again, how about that agreement he violated, giving the Taliban a legitimate case for attacking our personnel. I don’t recall them agreeing to an extension of the process, so if you have that evidence, you need to show it.

  • This is only intended as a “for what it’s worth” observation. I recently heard someone say, in response to complaints that Confederate monuments were being removed from public squares, “When’s the last time someone said, ‘Hey, let’s go find some monuments and learn some history.’ ”

    And my own observation: we don’t learn from monuments alone. Monuments are isolated advertising for moments in time, not items incorporated into any historical curriculum, biased or otherwise. Even the hundreds of monuments contained within the Gettysburg National Battlefield require proper interpretation by park rangers and other historical interpreters. And that’s one well-operated historical outdoor museum. If you want to get history, find a great curriculum, a college class, a wonderful and critically acclaimed author on any given subject. Don’t count on monuments to make you a learned scholar. My two cents.

  • Ms Mandaville:
    Monuments may not make learned scholars, but they surely do make the inquisitive mind do further research.
    If monuments aren’t important, then why are streets named after persons killed by law enforcement, highways named after political officials, airports after presidents? It’s a starting point to further investigation into who that person was, what they achieved, or why they died.
    So you are saying in all your travels since childhood, you never saw a statue, monument, placard of a historical site, that piqued your interest into finding more information about that person, place or achievement?
    Ms Mandaville, just like there are people who try to see a football game in every NFL stadium, attend a ballgame in every MLB stadium, etc. There are those history and Civil War “buffs” who search out monuments and statues.
    Many may not approve of them, but all these symbols representing the history of the United States showing the good and the bad do have a place. It certainly isn’t in some storage facility until someone has the courage to bring them back into public view.
    Make all the excuses one wants, the truth is no one can handle the truth. So we remove it, lock it away, and believe it never happened.
    Is history taught at the high school level today? (I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking). Back in my day ninth grade was Michigan history, 10th was European history, 11th was American history, 12th was government and economics.
    Times are changing, and most everyone wants to leave the past in the past. Hence, many of those previous mistakes will once again be made. History does repeat itself.

  • Mr. Smit, Harry, you aren’t wrong that monuments can spur interest in inquisitive minds. But most people, I venture, are not inquisitive enough to follow up after spotting a monument or street name or historic marker.
    That said, my husband and I have been known to stop for markers on our travels. We’re weird that way, not like anyone else we know. It is rare to see other people stopping to read placards at monuments where we pause.
    The folks you allude to, who might be spurred on to learn more about a given site, event, or person, are few in the bigger picture, and would probably seek out the knowledge without the monument.
    History is incredibly important in any civilization, but experience tells me that most people don’t care to pursue history. Those who “have to” learn it in high school are quick to forget it all after the fact. Those who “had to” learn civics are equally quick to unlearn it. And no amount of monuments or street signs will spark what you and I embrace readily, with enthusiasm and curiosity, every day.
    As for “the truth is no one can handle the truth,” that is an erroneous assumption. In my experience, most people not only can handle the truth, they WANT the truth, even in its ugliness.
    And we can rekindle interest in the past if we can make it relevant to the everyday folk. I dare say that monuments alone won’t do that. Quite the opposite, in their isolation they make learning history a chore if one desires to establish context.
    So it falls to us who value history to make it relevant, and we started with our own kids, who are both history buffs now in their middle age. And we are all working to instill that in our grandsons at their tender ages.
    Making people eager, lifelong learners needs to be one of the goals of public education, and society needs to support that.

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