One afternoon in the not too distant past, I was strolling with a gaggle of friendly strangers up a hill known as Little Round Top listening to a venerable tour guide pontificate on the Battle of Gettysburg. He asked if anyone had any questions and one earnest young woman raised her hand. "How come they always had the battles in the national parks?" she asked.
I covered my laughter with a cough when I realized she was serious and the rest of the group was actually waiting for an answer. Our tour guide - a 32-year veteran of the National Parks Service who seemed to know everything there was to know about the Civil War and then some - gasped, stared wide-eyed and opened his mouth. But he could not bring himself to speak. I stepped forward to diffuse the awkward moment.
"It was an incredible coincidence," I announced. "All those battles in the national parks were just a coincidence and very convenient." Everyone seemed satisfied at that. I turned, placed my arm around our tour guide and nudged him forward. In a few seconds all was back to normal.
As a history teacher, I am the first to admit that many of America's young people are horribly confused about the past. Many adults aren't much better, otherwise they would not be so befuddled by the events unfolding in Iraq. The chaos, the anger the Iraqis feel toward their American "liberators" and, most of all, the deadly guerrilla-style resistance. Anyone who knows our nation's history could have predicted it. It has all happened before.
Following the Spanish-American War in 1898, which Secretary of State John Hay called a "splendid little war," the United States replaced Spain as the colonial master of the Philippines. Voices that dared to inquire what occupying the Philippines had to do with the stated purpose of the war - liberating Cuba - were drowned out by victory cheers when formal hostilities lasted only a matter of months. Native Filipinos fighting the Spaniards had been grateful for American help, but they soon realized they were still wearing a Western yoke - this one colored red, white and blue.
President William McKinley was in a quandary. The Filipino people, having no experience with democracy, wouldn't be able to create a stable government on their own. Worse, he thought, they might fall under the domination of some conniving foreign power like Germany or Russia. Besides, there were economic incentives to stay - the sugar trade. So America stayed. And the millions of dollars spent to improve sanitation, infrastructure and education did little to salve wounded Filipinos' pride. They had long craved freedom and no amount of American humanitarian aid could satiate them. Filipino freedom fighters waged a vicious guerrilla uprising that lasted far longer and caused many more casualties on both sides than had resulted from the original war. Ten thousand miles away, Americans were aghast at the lack of appreciation for all the new schools and hospitals that were built.
The United States occupied the Philippines for nearly 50 years. That does not mean Uncle Sam will be running Iraq in 2053, but substitute Iraq for the Philippines, Syria and Iran for Germany and Russia, and oil for sugar, and then maybe this historical flashback should give us pause.
President Woodrow Wilson (a former history teacher who should have known better) did not learn a lesson from what for him was recent history. In 1914, the Mexican Revolution was hijacked when reactionary Gen. Victoriano Huerta engineered a violent coup d'état. Outraged at the immorality of it all, President Wilson ordered the U.S. Navy to seize the Mexican port of Veracruz to prevent a German merchant vessel from landing arms in support of Huerta. Naively, Wilson believed it likely that the American forces would be welcomed in the name of political and agrarian reform. But all Mexican factions were Mexicans first, and they fought back tenaciously before falling back; in the fighting 19 American soldiers were killed along with more than 400 Mexicans.
There is a pattern here, but do not look to the American press to clarify it. Most embedded reporters in Iraq may have remembered their Banana Republic wardrobes, but they seemed to have forgotten their history, assuming they ever knew any in the first place. In the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing wrote that one flak-jacket-clad correspondent in Iraq declared over the phone, "We are about to cross the Ganges!" Didn't he really mean the Tigris? "Yeah, one of those biblical rivers or other."
The Bush administration is now part of a long American tradition of failure to appreciate the importance of history's lessons, especially in regard to the Third World. Why else would American forces secure the Iraqi Ministry of Oil while neglecting to protect the National Museum in Baghdad? Why else would the White House fail to understand beforehand that an indigenous population (even a factionalized one) would collectively view American forces as occupiers rather than benevolent benefactors?
President Bush and his minions in the Defense Department in particular - and most Americans in general - need to remember the critical importance of history, study it and learn from it, and in so doing better predict the future. Ironically, it was Woodrow Wilson who said: "A nation which does not know what it was yesterday, does not know what it is today, nor what it is trying to do."
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