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David Bouchier: We must remember this

Edward H.G. Farthing, New York State Archives

The idea that history moves in circles has been familiar since the time of the ancient Greeks. We have the illusion of moving forward from ancient times because we have technological wonders like smartphones and intellectual wonders like TikTok, but we seem to repeat the same mistakes again and again. The reason is that human nature doesn’t change, even as everything else does. A modern warlord with the latest smartphone and a rocket launcher, is still a medieval warlord, with the same primitive mentality as his ancestor in the year 1100, or indeed 300 BC.

Armies are mankind’s oldest institution — and I mean mankind, not humankind. In the third century BC, Alexander the Great came roaring out of Macedonia, for no special reason, and conquered practically the whole known world. Millions died in his campaigns, many more were enslaved, and there were untold numbers of refugees. When he died himself at the age of 33, his empire vanished. Alexander has been described as the greatest military mind in history, and this kind of devastation seems typical of what we can expect from great military minds. Now we have armies beyond imagination, and weapons beyond comprehension. But it’s still the old, primitive drama down there on the battlefield — scared young men sent out to fight by brave old men who just happen to be somewhere else at the time.

Every generation of political leaders claims to want peace and has the same idea for achieving it — more, bigger and better weapons. It’s the old familiar argument that more guns will make us safer from guns. As Aristotle put it: “We prepare for war so that we may have peace.” This theory has failed to stand the test of time for several thousand years. Having engaged in war almost continuously — almost 200 armed conflicts since 1945 — we have accumulated vast armies, and monstrous weapons, and soldiering has become a profession. As long as there are armies there will be wars. What else can you do with them?

Hitler is much closer to us in time than Alexander. I was born a few months before Hitler invaded Poland and started World War II, and I couldn’t imagine seeing the same madness again in my lifetime. That taught us a lesson about dictators, I thought. But I was wrong. Russia’s pre-war playbook this year was so similar to the catastrophe that unfolded in the 1930s that it was almost like a bad joke, or a deliberate provocation. Perhaps the very obviousness of it paralyzed the world’s politicians.

There is a saying attributed to Santayana, almost a truism, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But the fact is that we remember the past perfectly well and repeat it anyway. Russia suffered terribly in both world wars, and in Afghanistan, and for that matter in the Napoleonic Wars, but can’t resist having another one. I’m told that there’s no such thing as human nature, but history says there is. War is not fate, like a flood or a forest fire. It is the result of somebody’s deliberate choice, which means that somebody must want this, or how could it possibly happen?

If there is good news, and I think there is, it is the almost universal outrage that has greeted this present conflict. Perhaps, at long last, we will learn something from history.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.