"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be."
-- Thomas Jefferson
Amid the hand-wringing over a thimbleful of unruly Americans in Iraq, I am struck by two thoughts: Year after year we learn less and less about the past; and day after day we absorb history in the making with blinders on.
In horse-speak, blinders are the flaps on each side of the bridle that curtail the animal's side vision and prevent distraction. In human terms, however, and the dictionary's secondary definition, blinders are, "anything that obscures clear perception and discernment."
If I hadn't spent the past few years researching Columbia County's past and, of necessity, the wider history of the nation and the Southeast, I doubt I would be far from that ignorant state Thomas Jefferson once described (see above). But now, when learning of shocking events, I'm more apt to ask where I've heard this story before than to wonder if humanity has reached a new low.
Not that events in the Abu Graib prison or the sickening deaths of Americans at the hands of terrorists aren't worthy of our sympathy and scorn, but by enlarging our focus beyond the small screen of single events, we learn how to solve, endure and perhaps avoid some of the problems we are facing now.
Today, as we analyze the prison debacle and the wider Iraq War, I think back to another troubled time: Vietnam.
Though I wasn't on that war front, as a student at the University of New Hampshire in the spring of 1970, I endured a battle of another kind. With my husband and brother both in Vietnam, I supported America's efforts in the war, while many of my classmates joined the anti-war crowd. Though shaky at times, my idealism held fast even when other students were kidnapping -- they called it liberating -- whole college buildings from a faculty and administration they believed were holding them captive to their outmoded ideas. The protesters took their noisy bullhorns to the streets, refused to take their final exams and, for a few days, essentially shut the university down.
Students on our side of the issue didn't know what to do. Should we go home? Would we get credit for the semester?
Many who went to Vietnam didn't know what to do, either. The war was too ill-defined, the enemy too difficult to distinguish from the friendly Vietnamese and, for every young lieutenant who mistook a civilian for the enemy, another exchanged his trust for his life.
Several years ago, during a lecture on the Revolutionary War, University of South Carolina historian, Dr. Walter Edgar, received this question from a woman in the audience: "Is it true that South Carolina patriots killed whole families of British loyalists when the war was over?" It was obvious the questioner wanted the historian to tell her there was no such blight on her ancestors' reputation.
"I'm afraid it is true," Dr. Edgar replied. "But the loyalists committed atrocities, too." Then, as if to soften the blow, he said, "When viewing history, we must remember that every age is a product of its time."
I often think of Dr. Edgar's words, especially now. As the presidential race between two Vietnam-era candidates heats up, the conflict over that war has resurfaced, and with the perennial battle over the Confederate flag, etc., Civil War hindsight continues to be a favorite pastime here in the South. A generation from now, I wonder what our descendents will say about the war on terror and its sub-plots in Afghanistan, Iraq and a prison where the captors were as guilty as the criminals.
Dr. Edgar had some advice for a crestfallen woman that applies to all questioners now: "Always remember that this place (South Carolina, America and now Iraq) was fought for by human beings. Also, don't try to judge the past through 21st-century eyes."
Today, with fewer and fewer Americans having any war experience at all, and the rest of us numbed by tolerance and an aversion to violence of any kind, we would do well to heed Dr. Edgar's advice. War, he might tell us, is not a giant super bowl between opposing teams. Neither do those who fight them do so with perfection, even those from the side we proudly call our own.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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