What good is studying the past if we refuse to learn from it?

Image above from Wikimedia Commons.

Guest post: @Tommywasright, a SFC with 28 years of service, is an adjunct instructor at a small college in Maine. Point of Decision will host several upcoming posts on the schoolhouse and soldiering in the coming weeks, of which this is the first post.

I love history, always have. In seventh grade I was always paying attention when Mr. Delong was talking about the different townships in the county which I lived in up in northeastern New York (that’s a couple of hours driving north of Albany for those who think northern New York is Poughkeepsie). I haven’t a clue what the Math or English teachers were trying to drum into my thick skull in seventh grade. Hell I can’t even remember their names right now (I can see a quick glance at the yearbook later tonight is in order). As I have aged that love drove me in earning my Masters in History and that, along with some fortuitous networking, led to a position as an adjunct instructor (Modern Western Civilization, World Geography, U.S. History, and Maine History) at a small business/liberal arts college in Maine.

So anyway, last week during a class in geography we were discussing Russia and the Trans Caucasus. The discussion ended up going west, as in the Crimea Peninsula and Ukraine. One of the students who I had last semester in the Modern Western Civ course posed the question “isn’t what is happening in Russia and the Ukraine now kind of what happened with Germany right before World War II?” A couple of things went through my mind at that point — chief amongst them being ‘smart kid’ followed very closely with ‘validation is mine!!!’ (Maybe those were reversed but it is the thought that counts isn’t it?) So we jumped in the way-back machine and discussed the rise of Nazi Germany outside of Germany’s borders, by taking a quick look at Alsace and Lorraine, the Anschluss, the conceding of the Sudetenland and the Spanish Civil War.

As our discussion progressed, boring half the class and captivating the remainder, we tried to link events in our world today with their equivalent, corresponding events of approximately 80 years ago. Notwithstanding the caveat that you can’t walk in the same stream twice, there are some interesting similarities: Chechnya, Georgia, the recent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and now a civil war in Ukraine. Let’s not forget to toss in a recently negotiated cease-fire that appears to be ceasing no fire, some international sanctions that, while painful, haven’t been tremendously effective in stopping aggressive Russian action and have given Putin a rallying point, an ineffective UN playing pretty much the same role of the League of Nations and the US, along with the rest of the Europe, coming out of a prolonged period of economic upheaval. While I was (and still am) hesitant to equate Angela with Neville, I advocated at least paying attention to the fact that international agreements on paper are only valid if all sides agree to them.

That same sharp student then asked what would happen if Russia doesn’t abide by a cease fire and continued to supply the Ukraine separatists with men, money and munitions, and then wanted to annex more land with strong ethnic Russian ties. Not really having a worthwhile answer I went Socratic on him, asking him and the rest of the class what had finally stopped Nazi Germany’s expansion. Various answers were provided, all relating in some form or fashion to World War II and bodies in coffins. This in turn provoked a little discussion about the beginning phases of World War II and led up the involvement of the US, at which point the atmosphere in the classroom became a little heavier. All of the students are aware I am a full time Soldier, in the Maine Army National Guard. Its part of my introduction to the class during the first session when we do all that standard college stuff.

This in turn leads back to the question at the beginning — what good is studying the past if we don’t learn from it. I don’t have a crystal ball and Lord knows there are smarter people out there but the vantage point from mine in the cheap seats indicates that events happening now are eerily familiar to those in central Europe in the 30’s. Is NATO going to wait for a Russian invasion of a former satellite nation before it decides to deploy NATO forces to those nations? Yes, sending NATO troops to Lithuania or Estonia or Latvia or Belarus or Moldova would be expensive (and those troops would need to be requested, of course) and it might spark a localized conflict but we already have that going on in the Ukraine. However, the alternative appears to be bodies in coffins after the invasion starts.

How can I legitimately stand in front of students and urge them to pay attention and learn the lessons of the past when it appears no one else has?

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