231 Years Later, History Repeats Itself


“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana

George Santayana’s words have been paraphrased in many different ways, but the meaning is still the same: Leaders who do not know the lessons of history often repeat the lessons that history teaches us.

It’s too bad President Bush and his advisers didn’t read David McCullough’s “1776” prior to committing to war in Iraq, but then Professor McCullough hadn’t published it till 2005. Yet that’s not an excuse, since the information he has condensed into a fascinating tome has been available in one form or another for 230 years.

Just what is the lesson that the events of 1776, as well as the American Revolutionary War, which didn’t end for another seven years, teach us? It is quite simply this: No occupying force can prevail in a country where it is not welcome.

McCullough’s book makes it clear that militarily the year 1776 was for George Washington’s ragtag army mostly an unmitigated disaster. The soldiers were outnumbered, outgunned and outdisciplined. There was no navy to support them while the British forces could count on a fleet of hundreds of ships. The American forces were ill-clothed and ill-fed. Often they were not paid. Many were teenagers. Most had no military training. Clean water was not available. Personal hygiene was impossible. Up to a third of the army was sick at any given time with smallpox, dysentery or any number of other diseases.

Yes, there were a few notable successes that have been played up in our history books: the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British withdrawal from Boston, and finally the Battle of Trenton, when Washington and the bulk of what was left of his army crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night and routed 1,500 unsuspecting Hessian mercenaries.

Yet the British victories were far more impressive: the lightning march across Long Island, the taking of New York City with hardly a shot fired, the surrender of Fort Washington and 2,837 Americans who then became prisoners of war. Compare this to the famous Battle of Trenton, in which 21 Hessians were killed, 90 were wounded, and 900 were taken prisoner — a third of the Fort Washington numbers.

How many times did the brothers Howe — Gen. William and Admiral Richard, who commanded the British forces at the time — essentially declare “mission accomplished,” only to be surprised by the perseverance of the American patriots?

It is true that the situation in Iraq is hardly a direct parallel. For one difference, the Iraqis often seem more intent on fighting each other than on trying to expel the American forces. And indeed a sizable number of Iraqis would prefer the Americans to stay. But the same was true in the American colonies in 1776, when as many as a third of the population opposed separation from England.

No matter what the United States does in Iraq — be it increase forces, maintain the same strength, withdraw slowly or withdraw all at once — killing and human tragedy will continue. It is too late to go back and close the lid on the Pandora’s box that the U.S. ruling elite opened nearly four years ago. But if the United States didn’t learn from the errors of the past when it initiated this war, can it not learn from other events as a means toward ending this fiasco?

It is a fallacy that war ends with absolute victory or defeat; history teaches us that war often ends based on attrition. People simply get tired of it. The war in Iraq has gone on for nearly four years. If American citizens are finally getting tired of it — and the vast majority of them are not even suffering — imagine what ordinary Iraqis think.

Sometimes change is good, and just the creation of change, even though its results are unpredictable, yields positive results. In other words, if things can’t get much worse, then any significant new direction will create an improved situation.

The British finally learned this in 1783, seven years after the beginning of the American uprising, when they abandoned their attempts to reign in the renegade colonies and pulled their armies out. This is the lesson that this country can still learn today. A U.S. pullout from Iraq is inevitable. Whether that occurs in 2007 or in 2010 is a simply a matter of choice.