The Hollow Men

:::this is the way the world ends:::

Quotation Monday — Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

From a January 1, 2007 New York Times op-ed, Folly’s Antidote.  This is Schlesinger’s last published word on history before his death on February 28.

Sometimes, when I am particularly depressed, I ascribe our behavior to stupidity — the stupidity of our leadership, the stupidity of our culture. Three decades ago, we suffered defeat in an unwinnable war against tribalism, the most fanatic of political emotions, fighting against a country about which we knew nothing and in which we had no vital interests. Vietnam was hopeless enough, but to repeat the same arrogant folly 30 years later in Iraq is unforgivable….

A nation informed by a vivid understanding of the ironies of history is, I believe, best equipped to manage the tragic temptations of military power. Let us not bully our way through life, but let a growing sensitivity to history temper and civilize our use of power….

The great strength of history in a free society is its capacity for self-correction. This is the endless excitement of historical writing — the search to reconstruct what went before, a quest illuminated by those ever-changing prisms that continually place old questions in a new light.

History is a doomed enterprise that we happily pursue because of the thrill of the hunt, because exploring the past is such fun, because of the intellectual challenges involved, because a nation needs to know its own history. Or so we historians insist. Because in the end, a nation’s history must be both the guide and the domain not so much of its historians as its citizens.

2 Comments

  1. This is a really powerful excerpt from Schlesinger–who is certainly an apt voice to draw particular historic parallels between the Vietnam conflict and the current conflict in Iraq.

    I do find it interesting that one of the parallels Schlesinger seems to draw is that, as with Vietnam, the U.S. has no real knowledge of Iraq nor does it have any vital interests. I disagree on this point. I think we didn’t know certain important information about Iraq before we decided to incite military action–information such as the supposed whereabouts of weapons of mass destruction and the like. But I do think we knew enough about Iraq, considering we were at war with them twelve years before the new military operations beginning in 2003. What we knew is that we do have a vital interest in Iraqi oil, and that feels to me central to a large part of our current circumstances. We could back out of Vietnam because ultimately, Schlesinger is right, we didn’t have any real lasting interests there. But with Iraq, we can’t seem to pull out so easily (I realize by “easily,” one doesn’t mean easily at all) because we DO have these vital interests. And that creates the quandary we are now in.

    But those are merely quibbles and clarifications, and ones I suspect Schlesinger would ultimately agree with. This seems a really vital statement for our times. Thanks for posting it.

  2. I agree Shotts. We do have lasting interests in the Gulf and you’d think that we’d want stability there — sure have a funny way of showing it.

    Schlesinger must have had some support for this position but I can’t imagine what.

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