Friday, December 4, 2009

The Lessons of History

We all know that history is underappreciated. It is variously described as boring, a waste of time, and irrelevant to everyday life. Part of the cause of this misconception is the way it’s taught – too many names and dates rather than good stories. But there is also a lack of respect for those that came before us – no sense among us that we’re part of a great line.

The quote, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” rings true, because when we ignore history, it costs us human talent and treasure. So why do we do we ignore history? Because truth dies when it flies in the face of the political winds.

Let’s look at a contemporary example. The United States is mired in a guerrilla war in Afghanistan which began as a response to 9/11. We went in there to get al-Qaeda, which took about a year, but then our mission lost its definition. No plan for staying, no plan for leaving.

To stay as long as we have, is to ignore geography and history. This geography is uncontrollable and of little value. Afghanistan is covered with mountains and only 12% of its land is arable. It's also landlocked and for centuries has been overrun by hordes passing back and forth through Asia. The current social structure is tribal because the geography cannot support a higher socio-economic system. In the classical anthropological model, clans become tribes which become agrarian societies and then industrial states. It can’t happen everywhere because of geography and other factors, but Afghanistan was never in the model – it’s stuck in the Neolithic Age.

We ignored history there too. The English fought two Afghanistan Wars in the nineteenth century and lost an entire army in the first. The Russians fought the Afghans from 1979-92 and gave up. We should know that the same can happen to us if we continue to ingore the history.

Let’s bring Greece into the discussion for a minute. After all this is an ancient history blog, so we need a connection. Greece is mountainous like Afghanistan, and 25% arable. Not much better, right? Oh, but what a difference being landlocked makes. Greece has the Aegean which has always facilitated communication to other cultures and the economic benefits of trade.

Greece could never be an industrial society, but its geography supported the agrarian model. It could incubate an advanced political/legal model because its mountains divided the people into small groups. Those groups, in isolation, were free to develop their own political systems, so there were hundreds of Poleis that influenced each other and pushed the model forward. In the end, two rose to the top – Sparta and Athens. Sparta developed a military society because it was landlocked. Athens developed a seafaring society because it was close to the Aegean.

Greece went on to be the foundation of western civilization. Afghanistan remains a black hole for those who forget history.


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

"too many names and dates rather than good stories"--yes, yes, yes! A litany of names and dates is useless without context, without meaning, without relevance. I write about ancient history for kids and I made a conscious decision to avoid extraneous names and dates in my kids book on Alexander the Great. Instead, I focused on the funny, outrageous, exciting, shocking and even disturbing stories related to his life and impact. I often talk to kids about what our politicians could've learned from the outcome of Alexander's "pre-emptive" attack on Persia before jumping into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At any rate, I'm glad I stumbled onto your blog...

Monkeyface said...

Graveyard of empires, right? The sun never set on the British Empire, but those scrawny mujahedin (sp?) with the outdated rifles handed them their asses in two separate wars "... roll to your guns and blow out your brains and go to your God like a soldier." RK had it right. Lovely place to conduct a military campaign, eh? I know it ain't ancient history per se, but it seems to me the only general to have any success there was Genghis. Sacked Herat and put a million people to the sword. I guess his idea was if you're going to engage in war, go all out... or go home. The gray area is where empires fall.

Geoff Carter said...

One of the first things the British 'liberated' in Iraq was the war memorial for the dead of the last British expedition, 70 years earlier