“History is a cruel step-mother, and when it retaliates, it stops at nothing.” Lenin
History is huge, given that by definition it encompasses the story of the human race going back to before the existence of written records. We grapple with the challenge of history by parsing it into digestible lumps on the basis of time periods, geographic location, linguistic communities, etc. In order to understand it as something more involved than the simple accretion of facts in sedimentary layers, we use metaphors, such as the turning of a wheel or the flowing of water in a river, my own preferred image. The message in the metaphor is that change is the singular constant across history even as it may slow down or speed up.
“History is written for schoolmasters and armchair strategists. Statesmen and warriors pick their war through the dark.” Lord Esher Journal, 15 March 1915
Given the time spanned by human history, it is not surprising that people have long debated, and still do, whether or not history repeats itself. The English historian G M Trevelyan summed up the debate this way: ‘‘History repeats itself!’ and ‘History never repeats itself’ are about equally true… We never know enough about the infinitely complex circumstances of any past event to prophesy the future by analogy.” However, George Bernard Shaw offered an interesting observation when he pointed out that “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience!” For me personally, the debate is moot because whether or not history repeats itself, it is more than evident from history that people clearly do. Nations are often seen to behave like people, which might be at least in part attributed to the reality that they are made up of people and are governed or led by people. Thus nations, like individuals, can be perceived to be engaging in bad behavior which others then try to adjust through punishments and/or rewards.
“What experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” GWF Hegel
The violence engulfing the Islamic world over the past decade or more, with growing conflict between Shi’ites and Sunnis, long ago brought to mind the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) when the emerging Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church confronted each other across the courts, cathedrals, and battlefields of Europe. General Sir John Hackett, in “The Profession of Arms”, described the Thirty Years War as “A period in which fervent Christians were prepared to hang, burn, torture, shoot or poison other fervent Christians with whom they happened to disagree upon the correct approach to eternal life.” To me the parallel of a religiously fueled, politically complex expanding conflict is self-evident.
As Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus observed of Europe’s version, “all the wars that are on foot in Europe have been fused together and have become a single war.” A parallel conflict in the Islamic world today might reach from the Atlantic Coast of West Africa to the islands of Indonesia or the Philippines, and from Central Asia to the deep Indian Ocean.
Much has been made of the failure of the United States to show evidence of national strategy in recent decades, and I have been among those critics. A speaker at the Army War College earlier this year rightly corrected us by pointing out that the US today is a status quo power – and preserving that status quo has been our strategy. Unfortunately, such an approach places the US in the position of King Canute telling the tide to go out when it’s coming in – both are doomed to failure.
I bought a copy of Peter H. Wilson’s “The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy” to refresh my knowledge of that conflict. Wilson offers a thorough examination of the Thirty Years War, with excellent elaboration of its background and preliminaries. He promises to tell the whole story of the war right down to its ending (often only summarized). With some 850 pages of text plus some 75 pages of notes, I believe he will fulfill that promise.
Whatever happens today need not be an Islamic reenactment of the Thirty Years War, but the complexities of that past conflict resonate in the one potentially confronting us. They both reflect a complex interaction of religious and geo-political motivations for conflict. They are contests between both state and non-state actors. Individuals from around the world choose to join the conflict in service of one side or the other, often in contradiction of their own nation’s stance on the war. Co-religionists end up in conflict with each other for political and geo-political reasons even as they also fight others because they were not of the same faith.
The principal players in Europe’s war were Spain, Holland, France, the German principalities, the Holy Roman Empire and its Electors (both Protestants and Catholics), and Sweden – with Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics all pitted against each other in various and changing combinations. Many soldiers became mercenaries and fought for pay over religion or country. How might we look for lessons from their experience to determine which nations might possibly play which original roles? Is the USA in the role of France or Spain? Is Russia or China the Ottoman Empire? There is no papal style structure in the Islamic world, but perhaps Saudi control of the holy places of Mecca and Medina brings them close to such a role.
Reading Wilson’s chapter Pax Hispanica, it quickly becomes evident that Spain was then, as the United States is today, the principal status quo power – and almost the sole superpower by wealth and military capabilities, attempting to keep things the way they are. The challenges facing Spain then echo those facing us today. Both countries are the economic top dogs because of global reach and, for Spain, the influx of silver from the mines in its American colonies. But this wealth led Spain to neglect development of a balanced economy that promoted both manufacturing and agriculture, and it contributed to inflation.
The US is struggling to deal with economic challenges intertwined with philosophical battles over its social, economic, and even political future. These ongoing contests are preventing it from effectively applying almost any remedies at the present time. Both Spain and the US were also spending massive amounts on defense, fighting extended foreign wars, and debates over perceived threats and responses dominated each nation’s strategic thinking. And both countries were suspected by other nations of ambitious and expansionist intentions as they sought to shape the world into the desired form. However, the mere hypothesis that the US now is playing a role similar to Spain during the Thirty Years War must be tested against events in the real world and measured against the events of some 600 years ago played out for Spain. Spain began its decline as it failed to maintain the world order which it had come to dominate and failed to adapt to the new emerging world order.
The hard reality is that the American people have one choice to make (among many decisions facing them):
Will the United States remain the sole superpower and by definition the world’s policeman in pursuit of this imperial role as it seeks to shape the world in its own image?
Or, will the US concede sufficient authority and capability and autonomy to a supranational body that could act around the world without the US or US forces and with the inevitable result of shaping a world to some greater or lesser degree different from what the US might prefer?
“The future is hidden even from the men who made it.” Anatole France