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.
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.”