In 1812 Napoleon led a loose coalition of dominion states with a combined troop strength of roughly 690,000 in an invasion of the Russian Empire. Historians estimate that it was the largest army the world has seen since Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes, and as Alexander I commanded a comparatively trifling 150,000 men there was every reason to believe that the Russians would be easily defeated in any direct engagement. The Russians of course knew this and after a single spectacular defeat they refused to engage the Grande Armee directly for the remainder of the war. It is a sort of popular misconception that Napoleon was defeated because he suddenly found himself amidst the charred wreckage of Moscow in late September and only then realised that he had failed to anticipate winter. In reality Napoleon had never intended to go to Moscow at all, let alone still be mired in an intractable war against a phantom force come September; The Russians were supposed to fight, they were supposed to lose, and the Tsar was supposed to surrender. They preferred to lead Napoleon on a wild goose chase through thousands of miles of hellish Russian hinterland and in the end he returned to Paris alone.
More than a hundred years later another diminutive European dictator would try almost exactly the same thing: a mad dash into the vast Russian heartland, gambling everything on securing the resource that would allow the invasion to continue only to find on arrival that the Russians had burnt it. In late June 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarosa with almost 4 million infantry around a backbone of 3,600 Panzers and 4,400 combat aircraft. The plan was to take the petroleum reserves at Yalta, and if Hitler had been able to do so it is entirely possible that the Eastern Front could have been closed by mid autumn. People tend to think that Hitler’s problem was the winter also, but the real difficulty wasn’t the winter, it was the summer. When the snow melts Russia briefly ceases to be an unlivable arctic wasteland and becomes an unlivable festering swamp. There’s an old story that a peasant was walking down a muddy stretch of road one day when he came across a top hat. He picked it up and under the was the bald pate of the local aristocrat. He ran off to the village and came back with a crew of serfs to dig him out. Sure enough, under the pate they found the aristocrat, and under the aristocrat they found his horse. As you can imagine, a morass like would be inconvenient under the best of circumstances, and is downright embarrassing if your entire invasion plan depends on the continued mobility of 25 tonnes of steel. Hitler, like Napoleon before him was stymied, and like his predecessor he refused to cut his loses. Frost and famine cut them for him.
All in all, a classic proof of Santayana’s maxim about history, doom and repetition.
So, what’s the point? Why rehash High School World History?
I’ll tell you what the point is, damn it all! Speaking statistically you probably had no idea about any of this. You’re just as likely to think that Napoleon is a sort of striped ice-cream, and Russia is a plot device invented by Ian Fleming. In 2009 only 47% of American teenagers were sort of, slightly competent enough in history to score even a ‘Basic’ on the National History Test. By way of context, despite mothers and politicians everywhere swooning with the thought that American teens are being out scored in math and science by their international counterparts, 64% of them were able to muster a ‘Basic’ on the National Math Test. Despite this gap, federal education standards, including No Child Left Behind, and Mr Obama’s initiatives, have failed to take history into account at all.
The problem is worse, if such a thing can be conceived, at the state level. Many states teach history only once, and that in junior high, while others neglect the meat and bones of history in favour of ‘abstract concepts’ that presupposes an interpretation of facts that the students are not privy to. In Delaware for example, and I quote from the states official standards: students ‘will not be expected to recall any specific event or person in history.’ You read that correctly: Not a single specific event or person. George Washington, the Civil War, the Holocaust, Martin Luther King Jr., all of these are no more than examples of general principles, chaff clinging to the wheat of our impersonal ideals. And where the curriculum hasn’t been diluted to the point of inanity, its being outright poisoned. In Texas, students are urged to actively question the separation of church and state, and ‘evaluate efforts by global organisations to undermine US sovereignty through the use of treaties.’ Not only do these standards blatantly neglect and in some cases pervert the facts, but worse yet the students who are their victims are never given access to the unadulterated facts themselves. Taught like this, perhaps we should thank god that our students are so determined not to learn.
But why should you care?
Well I’ll tell you that too. It might not be easy to be a good worker without some math and science on your resume, but without some history in your past it is impossible to be a good citizen. History shapes the present day. It sets the precedent for our politics, foreign and domestic, patterns our relationships, from the office to the bedroom, and is whether we know it or not the unconscious bedrock of our beliefs, our principles and our national identity. History is the context in which all of these things make sense. More importantly, it is a context that is bitterly contested.
Unseen beneath the surface of the Culture Wars, in the divide between Democrats and Republicans, between Doves and Hawks, progressives and conservatives, there simmers an unrecognised battle over the right to interpret, represent and in many cases misrepresent historical fact. Democrats and Republicans alike wield a party-approved selective interpretation of history to justify a certain decisive understanding of contemporary times, and these cherry-picked, politically motivated, pictures of the past are most pernicious because the average American has nothing like the historical competence to judge for himself between fact and forgery, and this ignorance has very real consequences.
With a partial picture of Taliban rule to whet their appetites, Americans ate up the invasion of Afghanistan with a spoon and licked the dishes, perhaps if the place had been sold under its historical epithet ‘The Graveyard of Empires,’ someone might have taken pause. We’re only beginning to think of this debacle as a new Vietnam, but it might be more accurate to say that Vietnam was a new Afghanistan. Going back hundreds of years the British and Russian Empires poured men and material into the seemingly bottomless maw of Afghani guerrillas and hellish environments, and even Alexander the Great had the good sense to go around the damned place. And yet, with typical hubris and historical ignorance we fools rushed in where Kings and Emperors, Warlords and master tacticians feared to tread. We might as well of invaded Russia.
At home the situation is no better. We have Republicans fighting for creationism in school curricula, Tea Partiers using a blatantly false narrative of early American history to justify American Exceptionalism, bashing brown people, and a vision of this country as a lawless, taxless anarchy that would offend Ayn Rand, and Democrats surprised again every time any of these tries to pass off factual untruth as a legitimate difference of opinion.
And the American people know no better. It’s gotten so that Michele Bachmann can tell an audience of credulous thousands that the Founding Fathers ‘worked tirelessly until slavery was no more.’ Nevermind that most of the Founding Fathers owned slaves, many worried publicly that counting a black person as 3/5ths of a human being might be too generous, George Washington cut his teeth on a plantation in Virginia, and Thomas Jefferson fathered more illegitimate black children than Will Chamberlain.
The Tea Party likes to present themselves as the heirs of our tax-hating, freedom-loving, gun-toting, bible-belting Founding Fathers, when the only real similarity between them is that both created a stink about legitimate taxes (lower now than they’ve been at any time since the 1950s) to disguise ulterior motives that would embarrass their progeny.
Where does this leave us?
The sad fact is that virtually none of this, from Napoleon to ‘The Smuggling King,’ is taught in schools with any real dedication. It’s not terribly surprising that American schools are wary of painting the Founding Fathers as farcical pirates, but it seems inexcusable that they fail to give their students a view of the broad sweep of history that would put this sort of thing, and more importantly the longstanding debates in modern politics their proper context.
The Second Amendment was written at a time when the most advanced firearm on the market had a range of 500yds, fired once and took nearly a minute to reload. It was also a time when you had a halfway decent chance of coming home to find a bear in your living room.
We keep the Establishment Clause around not out of some inherited sympathy for atheism but because Democracy and Theocracy have been proven incompatible. It’s a matter of historical record.
We like to contort our history to justify some sort of American monopoly on Freedom and we like to forget that Cities on Hills tend to spark resentment in the slum-dwelling valley folk, especially if the city rose on their backs and is founded on their bones.
But we don’t study this sort of thing. American children to-day are growing up thinking that World War II ended when Hitler was machine-gunned by Italian Americans in a movie theatre, and that Vietnam is some sort of necrotic STD that leads to homelessness, heroin addiction and the mange.
Santayana aside, history may be no great predictor of the future, but when we as a people decide to simultaneously forget the facts of our past and invoke the mythology of it, we willingly invite exploitation and the very tyranny that we have been bred to reject.
 Rant: The government line on the revolution is that freedom loving American patriots threw off the yoke of oppression when the tyranny of unfair taxation finally became unbearable. It would be more accurate to say that profit loving American smugglers fomented rebellion when the British government threatened the black market’s commercial monopolies.
It’s a simple story. In 1754 Major George Washington of the Virginia Militia started a world war over control of the Ohio territory by massacring a French scouting party on French soil. The resulting war lasted seven years, sprawled across three continents and almost bankrupted the British government. Great Britain decided that it would be reasonable to expect the colonists to shoulder a small part of the cost of a war waged in their defence and began enforcing taxes. Mark that, they began enforcing taxes, they did not begin by levelling new taxes, they enforced existing taxes that up unto this point the colonists had simply refused to pay, and the Crown had never taken issue with that. (It should be noted that the full amount of taxes levied in the Americas, of which a minute fraction were paid, amounted to 1/27th of the taxes paid in full by British citizens at home. 1/27th. That’s right, 1/27th). The Americans responded by taking to the streets, burning customs offices and tar and feathering tax collectors (which despite sounding like some sort of a sticky pillow fight typically killed its victims). But that’s a proportional response; dislike taxes, burn property and kill civil servants. Simple. Rather than prosecuting the colonists, the British repealed the taxes. Take a moment to think about that – The British government repealed taxes vital to their national security based solely on the fact that the colonists preferred not to pay them. Is this some sort of volunteer tax code??
But the British weren’t about to give up on their fiendish plan to provide for the common defence and improve the lives of their subjects. Their next plan was the now infamous Tea Act. Most people think that the Tea Act was a tax on tea, and that this was why the colonists opposed it. In fact the Tea Act was a contract with the East India Company for the provision of high-quality, low-cost tea to the colonies carrying a small tariff that would go into government coffers. Up unto that point the colonists had gotten the bulk of their tea from smugglers working between the Virginia coast and Barbados. The East India Company’s tea was both better and cheaper (even with the tax) than the smuggled tea. (Also the tax was less than 1/4th of what native Brits paid in taxes for their tea). Seemed like a win-win, but just to be sure, the Crown presented the proposal to Benjamin Franklin, America’s REPRESENTATION in London and he approved it enthusiastically.
The only group that Britain thoughtlessly risked offending was the smugglers. As luck would have it that group included John Hancock (AKA ‘The Smuggling King’) and John and Samuel Adams. They collaborated on a smear campaign to paint the Tea Act as a covert attempt to wring taxes out of the colonies, and the rest is history.