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History Unheeded

What does it take for peo-ple to learn from history?

Something convinced people that Verdun, where over 700,000 soldiers died, was worth the agony.

The author Robert Daley, visiting the massive concrete colossus, Fort Douaumont, wrote:

“The view to all sides is stupendous, which of course was why the fort was built there in the first place. Although clearly impregnable, Fort Douaumont fell to the Germans without a shot being fired. It was re-taken eight months later almost to the day, also virtually without a shot being fired. In between it cost the French 100,000 lives. All it ever was, was a symbol.

“How they did believe in symbols in those days. In that war men died for symbols by the millions. Verdun itself was a symbol—the German generals had mounted their offensive against the one spot in the 300-mile-long front that French honor would feel obliged to defend to the last man. And of course, the very war was a symbol. It was supposed to be ‘the war to make the world safe for democracy.’ And if that slogan didn’t convince you, it was also supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars.’ ”

What does it take to convince people?

Allen J. Frantzen, author of Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice and the Great War, makes the claim that, unfortunately, chivalry, as a medieval code of heroic sacrifice, is not dead.

“Chivalry reinforces group identity as it models heroic masculinity. Whether we are excited or disturbed by these avatars, we need to understand the medieval ideas, the moral and theological meanings beneath them, for these ideas, old though they are, help to explain violence in the modern world.”

What does it take for people to learn from history?

“In our opinion, and from our experience, there is nothing in South Vietnam, nothing which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America. And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom . . . is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart.”

That’s what John Kerry said to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 1971.

What does it take to convince people?

“Support Bush. Trust Jesus.”

That’s what I heard two pro-Bush marchers were carrying on signs when they ran into the cloud of witnesses gathered in New York to oppose his re-election.

If the foolish, misguided, widespread assumption is that the party for Christians is the Republican party, then the tenets of both Christianity and the United States’ political process are gravely misunderstood—and both undermined.

What does it take for people to learn from history?

e.e. cummings, unlike the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Desnos and Miklos Radnoti and Tadeuz Borowski—and on and on and on—was a poet who saw the war and lived to tell of it:

“next to of course god America I

love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth nnnoh

say can you see by the dawn’s early my

country ’tis of centuries come and go

and are no more what of it we should worry

in every language even deafanddumb

thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry

by jingo by gee by gosh by gum

why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-

iful than these heroic happy dead

who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter

they did not stop to think they died instead

then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

What does it take to convince people?

Garrison Keillor isn’t staying mute:

“Our beloved land has been fogged with fear—fear, the greatest political strategy ever. An ominous silence, distant sirens, a drumbeat of whispered warnings and alarms to keep the public uneasy and silence the opposition. And in a time of vague fear, you can appoint bullet-brained judges, strip the bark off the Constitution, eviscerate federal regulatory agencies, bring public education to a standstill, stupefy the press, lavish gorgeous tax breaks on the rich.

“Here in 2004, George W. Bush is running for reelection on a platform of tragedy—the single greatest failure of national defense in our history, the attacks of 9/11 in which 19 men with box cutters put this nation into a tailspin, a failure the details of which the White House fought to keep secret even as it ran the country into hock up to the hubcaps, thanks to generous tax cuts for the well-fixed, hoping to lead us into a box canyon of debt that will render government impotent, even as we engage in a war against a small country that was undertaken for the president’s personal satisfaction but sold to the American public on the basis of brazen misinformation, a war whose purpose is to distract us from an enormous transfer of wealth taking place in this country, flowing upward, and the deception is working beautifully.”

—Jo Page
You can contact Jo Page at

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