Friday, March 14, 2008

Past tense; Present tense; Future tense?

There has been a longstanding debate among historians, philosophers, and others, as to whether or not history repeats itself. Anyone who has pursued the study of history for any length of time will have encountered those moments of recognition that bring to mind a similar event in another time and another place and involving completely different individuals and told in a completely different language. Since I myself count in this number, I should offer my own conclusion that it isn’t so much a question of history repeating itself as it is a matter of human beings repeating themselves – that is that human beings frequently respond in a similar fashion to similar situations or circumstances, regardless of differences of place, time, language, etc.

So it is with no surprise that I am now seeing the return of “the winter soldiers,” i.e., veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who are recounting their experiences in these conflicts to justify their opposition to the continuation of these wars and in hopes that they will persuade others here at home to join in that opposition. The same label was adopted in the 1960s and 1970s by American veterans of the war in Vietnam who came home and campaigned for the end of that war, as many of you know thanks to John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. The name of “the winter soldiers,” of course, is taken from that advocate and author of revolution, Thomas Paine, whose most famous work “The American Crisis” referred to “the summer soldier and sunshine patriot” who would “shrink from the service of their country.” Unlike these the winter soldiers would stand by their country and deserve “the love and thanks of man and woman.” As a historian, I cannot resist pointing out that as the ultimate “winter soldier,” the eternal agitator Thomas Paine would die in 1802 at the age 72 after years of living with ill health, poverty, abuse, neglect, and even hatred from his fellow countrymen and would even be denied burial in the Quaker burial ground that represented his natal faith.

Perhaps some 200 years later, in the 21st Century, Americans are more intellectually curious, open-minded, and sophisticated about such things. Perhaps they can even willingly listen to people with whom they disagree or with whom they suspect they will disagree if they actually bothered to hear them out before coming to a firm conclusion on that point. Perhaps in this case they may think that out of respect for their service to this country, individuals such as this latest generation of winter soldiers deserve to be heard and to have questions about their patriotism or loyalty withheld until they have been heard.

For those who think they are up to this challenge, these winter soldiers are gathering in Washington DC from March 13-16 to present their testimony about what they individually saw and experienced in the ongoing conflicts. These four days will reportedly be closed to the general public, though they will be joined by panels of scholars, veterans, journalists, and other specialists who will try to put this collected testimony into a larger context. Video footage from these four days will be shown to the public in Baltimore March 14-15 and will reportedly also be available for viewing on line at, the website of The Iraq Veterans Against the War.

I would like to think that perhaps American today are capable of meeting this challenge, but so much of what I have read of history tells me otherwise. I will try to put myself to this test as well as this effort progresses and see what conclusions I might draw from the experience, and I will try to share them here. Let us see together how we stand this test.

"Nothing ever happened in the past, only in the present. The difference is it was somebody else's present, not ours." David McCullough