RUMBLINGS AND MUMBLINGS ABOUT HISTORY

Here I am, up at 6:15 in the morning, thinking about history. Where’s the justice in that?

Back in the days when I taught Russian History, I used a textbook written by Nicholas Riasanovsky, called simply A History of Russia. I considered it, if you really want to know, a “meat-and-potatoes” kind of text, lacking the bold sweep or imaginative vision of a Jesse Clarkson, say, or the prodigious detail of Michael Florinsky. But it ended with a paragraph I have never forgotten. After doing his best to sum up the Soviet Union (this was back in the seventies), and the society its government reflected, Riasanovsky said: “It would thus seem that the Soviet Union is neither a stable nor a happy country. . . . [T]he Soviet system is not likely to last, not likely to change fundamentally by evolution, and not likely to be overthrown by revolution. History . . . has a way of advancing, even when that means leaving historians behind.”

Well, I feel pretty left behind at the moment.

I think about Alexis de Tocqueville, about his predictions that Russia and America seemed destined by history to each hold sway over half the globe. He wouldn’t even have known about Communism, of course, but in the days of the Soviet Union, those words seemed very prophetic. And what about Nicholas Berdiaev, the man I wrote my dissertation on? When he examined the threads and trends of Russian history, he explained the emergence of the Soviet state in Origins of Russian Communism in a way that I find even more convincing now than I did then. So what? you say. Communism has come and gone; there is no more Soviet state. Yet the society he saw as inevitable has returned, in a good many of its features, even though “Communism” has been defeated and forgotten.

What I’m talking about is the continuation of historical patterns, patterns we can’t seem to crawl out of even when we try.

Look at us and Iraq. Is there something ineluctable in all this? I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of history, to be sure, the micro level – how action A led to action B, and so on. But I’m also interested in what you see of the big picture when you step back. We swore we’d never get into another Vietnam and yet look at us! O, then it was a jungle and now it’s a desert, but so what? As big a “quagmire” now as then, and for reasons that make as little sense now as the reasons given then did.

For what we are doing right at this moment in Iraq strikes me as a kind of containment, like keeping sheep in a pen because you’re afraid they might get out and hurt themselves and others – or – they might hurt and destroy each other if they’re not watched. And that may be true. But what does it have to do with bringing democracy to the Iraqui people? Or making it more likely that Iraqis – now or in the future – will live happier, more fulfilling lives?

Why did we get into Iraq in the first place? Oil? Vengeance? WMD? The fact that we fought a previous war with them should not be overlooked. World War II was a continuation of problems that were excited but not resolved by World War One, and there’s a very strong argument for seeing them both as a continuum. One war with a brief interregnum. One pauses to catch one’s breath. And mightn’t the same hold true here? Remember the Gulf War? Why, here we are again!

If you think about it, the model of the Crusades has a certain appeal. Then we were supposedly bringing Christianity to the Infidels. Now we’re bringing democracy. It’s the same thing. We’re a superior civilization. We know best. And if we can’t convince you, we’ll ram it down your throat. (And if we can carry a few buckets of oil back with us, well, where’s the harm?)

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