Learning painful lessons of history


Anniversaries always present us with an opportunity to reflect on things past, and try to learn lessons from history. It was British military thinker and historian B.H. Liddell Hart who said that, “The only thing you can learn from history is that you can’t learn from history.” However, he didn’t mean it seriously, otherwise he wouldn’t have written a book titled Why Don’t We Learn From History?

In that book, Liddell Hart teaches us that “(t)hose who read history tend to look for what proves them right and confirms their personal opinions.” Armed with this wise caution, let’s look at some of the anniversaries commemorated recently, and try to draw some lessons.

▪ Waterloo immediately comes to mind, that battle in 1815 that brought Napoleon’s empire to its end. Never mind the fact that in a ludicrous incarnation of the battle of Waterloo this month, Frenchmen dressed as Napoleonic soldiers “defeated” their English enemy. And dismiss the fact that in popular memory, Napoleon is the hero and the man who defeated him, Wellington, is almost unknown.

The truth is that Waterloo symbolizes the victory of reason and stability, which Europe yearned for after so much bloodshed, over the megalomaniac ambitions of Napoleon. Hitler should have learned the same lesson himself, except that he didn’t, so this May we celebrated the 70th anniversary of his fall.

▪ Next, Vietnam comes to mind. Forty years after the hasty withdrawal from Saigon, and with more than 58,000 names engraved on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, one wonders what kind of lesson can be learnt. Having Liddell Hart’s caveat in mind, then, those who opposed the war at the time will undoubtedly argue that they were right, and that it was a terrible waste of human lives and national resources. Those who have supported the war (and perhaps still support the use of American military power as a means of diplomacy), will probably claim that it was the weakness of the politicians that betrayed the heroic soldiers.

A more balanced reflection might put the Vietnam War in the broader context of the Cold War, a war between Capitalism and Communism. Capitalism eventually won the war, and one wonders whether the American resilience in Vietnam didn’t have something to do with it. History moved on, and then, 20 years ago, the United States and Vietnam have normalized their relations. Today, they are promoting bi-lateral trade and — believe it or not — forging strategic cooperation, which involves keeping a watchful eye on the South China Sea, where China, once Vietnam’s staunch supporter, has ambitions.

▪ Which brings me closer to home. Ten years ago, in the summer of 2005, Israel pulled out of Gaza. This was a traumatic move, which left thousands of Israeli evacuees bitter and the rest of us perplexed. Was this the right decision? I, for one, think it was, but many others differ. After all, we complied with what the world had demanded of us, and pulled out of Palestinian territory, but what have we gained in return? Barrages of rockets on our cities. This week we also commemorated the first anniversary of Operation Protective Edge, where, when our patience ran out, we went to Gaza in order to stop those attacks. The operation resulted in casualties on both sides, and left parts of the Gaza Strip in ruins.

While we are still in the midst of the historical events, lacking the perspective needed for a serious lesson-drawing, can we nevertheless trace the early seeds of change? I think we can.

Top military sources in Israel informed the Israeli government this week that according to their best assessment, Hamas, badly beaten after the last round, was ready for some kind of a truce with Israel. The same sources advised the government to consider moves that would alleviate the living conditions of the Gazans, so that they have something to gain by keeping the calm and a lot to lose if they return to violence.

The French and the British, the Americans and the Vietnamese have fought each other to exhaustion, only to find out that working together for a happier future for their respective next generations was a better alternative.

Time for Israelis and Palestinians to draw that history lesson as well.