The conservative philosopher George Satayana is one of several people who has been credited with having coined the phrase: those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it – the implication being that to repeat, at least, certain parts of history is to be an unlearned fool, reaping folly’s reward.
I cannot, here and now, furnish definitive proof we are living in a fool’s era. But what I can claim to have discovered are glimpses of the past in our present crisis.
Remember Lt. William Calley – the soldier who in March 1971 was found guilty of premeditated murder by a military jury for his role in the 1968 My Lai massacre? His eerily candid and hauntingly sad autobiographical account of the trial and his service in Vietnam, provides a look into the soul of one of thousands of soldiers U.S policy-planners sent half way around the globe to fight in a “war of liberation” against yesterday’s evil – ism.
(Yesterday, it was communism. Today it’s terrorism. What will tomorrow’s be – hater-ism? Mean-ism?)
In one very sincere passage, Calley recalls a repeated conversation he had with a South Vietnamese prostitute.
“Susie would say, ‘You know like VC. Why?’ I would tell her the VC are bad, and Susie would say, ‘VC no hurt me, VC no hurt you.’ Or say, ‘You nice to VC, he nice to you.’ I would tell her the VC are bad for the Vietnamese people, and Susie would say, ‘Same same! VC Vietnamese. Vietnamese VC.’ All right: I would tell her the VC are communists and Susie would say, ‘No bitt,’ ‘I don’t understand.’ She hadn’t heard of communism or of democracy.”
“What could I do about it? Tell her in a democracy the Vietnamese choose – no I couldn’t say it. What if she answered me, ‘I choose communism.’ Then what was I to do? Kill her? Capture her?â€¦If she’s communist, that’s what my duty was.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to substitute “Iraqi” for “Vietnamese” to see history repeating itself in the making. Let’s say a formal democracy can be imposed from the outside-in, top-down in Iraq. What if the next “elected” leader of Iraq decides what just about all modern western democracies, including ours, have decided to do – acquire weapons of mass destruction, arguing that such weapons are needed as a deterrent for its enemies, living as they do in a tough neighborhood of nations?
The stated purpose of the president and his advisers is that this is a war to liberate Iraq and therefore isn’t a war against the people of Iraq, only its leaders. If Calley’s story, like the story of countless other combat vets, can be trusted it seems a utopian fantasy that war can actually be carried out under the rosy Bush scenario.
Vietnam Vet Philip Caputo, in his book “A Rumor of War,” speaks to America still.
“America seemed omnipotent thenâ€¦Like the French soldiers of the late eighteenth century, we saw ourselves as the champions of a ’cause that was destined to triumph.’ So when we marched into rice paddies on that damp March afternoon, we carried, along with our packs and rifles, the implicit convictions that the Viet Cong would be quickly beaten and that we were doing something altogether noble and good. We kept the packs and rifles; the convictions, we lost.”
Caputo says that what made Vietnam different from past conflicts was its “absolute savagery” – savagery that “prompted so many American fighting men – the good, solid kids from Iowa farms – to kill civilians and prisoners.”
He then goes on to attack popular explanations for such behavior. “The evil was inherent not in the men – except in the sense that a devil dwells in us all – but in the circumstances under which they had to live and fight.”
The Vietnam conflict, Caputto observes, combined the two most bitter forms of warfare, civil war and revolution.
“Communists and government forces alike considered ruthlessness a necessity if not a virtueâ€¦Some men could not withstand the stress of guerrilla-fighting: the hair trigger alertness constantly demanded of them, the feeling that the enemy was everywhere, the inability to distinguish civilians from combatants created emotional pressures which built to such a point that a trivial provocation could make these men explode with the blind destructiveness of a mortal shell.”
Iraq will be qualitatively different? Well, I’ll be an April fool. When you consider weapons of mass destruction, Jesus, Dr. King and Gandhi’s prophetic proposition for humanity is even more relevant today: nonviolence or nonexistence?
The book of Proverbs says: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyesâ€¦A wise man fears, and departs from evil: but the fool rages and is confident.”
But apparently, history is repeating itself in more ways than one. Think guns and butter.
Under the cover of darkness, otherwise known as the 24-7 media obsession over war tactics and instant analysis of complex issues we won’t get a true picture of for years to come, pre-emptive strikes against future generations of America are being carried out.
Get your night vision goggles citizen soldier and journey back in time to the LBJ administration. Embroiled in a revolutionary war halfway around the globe, the Joint Chiefs of Staff tried to convince the president to raise taxes.
The reasons given didn’t have anything to do with economics but stemmed from a desire to get the country behind the war effort.
For different reasons, LBJ’s economic team agreed with the Joint Chiefs. Gardner Ackley, a Michigan professor who was the top dog on Johnson’s Council of Economic Advisers, told the president that unless taxes were raised it would be impossible to have inflation-free war and domestic spending initiatives.
Historian William Manchester’s acclaimed book “The Glory and the Dream” recounts LBJ’s response.
“‘I don’t know much about economics,’ he said to those around him, a confession that some of them later thought should be engraved on his tomb, ‘but I do know Congress.”
Manchester tells us that it was at this point that Johnson made the “ultimate blunder. He fooled himself. Everything would come out all right, he reckoned, if victory could be bought cheap.”
Ackley and his team of economists were adamant though, advising a 3 to 4 percent tax hike. Instead of following their advice, LBJ invited several key Congressman and business leaders to the White House to get their opinion.
They asked about the cost of the war. Johnson provided phony figures and they rejected the idea of a tax increase. Edwin Dale Jr., economic correspondent for the New York Times called Johnson’s financial shell game “the single most irresponsible presidential act in his fifteen years covering Washington.”
Manchester adds: “Johnson’s decision against a tax raise, made in early 1966, was a stupendous blow to fiscal sanityâ€¦Johnson’s legerdemain had brought the beginnings of runaway inflation.”
Even more sobering analysis was offered by the Swedish observer of American social problems, Gunnar Myrdal, in his 1970 book, “The Challenge of World Poverty.”
“Private and public consumption – in the case of the United Statesâ€¦the huge expenditures for armaments, and for the Vietnam War, moon flights etc. – are permitted to rise, without the nation undertaking corresponding increases in taxation. The result is inflation.”
Myrdal goes on to note that the failures of U.S. military adventurism in Vietnam, and particularly Latin America, left Americans with essentially two options.
“There will be those who will choose some sort of withdrawal into a Fortress America. But there will also be those who will see that what caused the disasters was the (U.S.) insolent claim to the right to police the world on its own terms – by virtue of might. This is what the Greeks called hubris, and they held that when it was not stopped it always led to self-destruction.”
“America has now joined the world and is tremendously dependent upon the support and good will of other countries.” Myrdal refuted the foolish notion “that financial and military power could be a substitute for the moral power of earning the good will of all decent people in the world. Without followers, the leader is no longer a leader, but only an isolated aberrant.”
Here’s where history repeating itself takes a turn for the worse. The U.S. Senate has cleared the first hurdle for a huge tax cut just as Congress authorized an $80 billion installment for the “war on terror.”
With mindless jingoism in the air, on the very day that the U.S. invasion of Iraq began, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., submitted an amendment to federal budget legislation to accelerate the repeal of the estate tax – a provision that would benefit less than 2 percent of the wealthiest taxpayers. It passed 51 to 48 on March 20.
“A tax cut for the rich during a time of war is unprecedented,” Chuck Collins of United for a Fair Economy told me last week (see www.responsiblewealth.org).
“This goes against the belief that everyone should share in the sacrifice,” he said, lamenting the dis-connect between the financial crunch on state budgets and federal economic policy. “No federal aid to the states but a tax cut for the rich? It’s astounding!”
In a forgetful nation, history repeats. And then some.