The past is no country at all
History teaches us how we got here, not what happens next
Everywhere I turn since Russia invaded Ukraine, someone is trotting out a version of the old saying: “Those who do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it.” What they mean, more often than not, is that Vladimir Putin is Hitler, Ukraine is either Czechoslovakia or Poland — and thus that World War III is already upon us.
It’s ironic that such a beloved paean to historical knowledge is itself bunk. Winston Churchill, who is often cited as the source of the quote, neither believed nor said anything of the kind. The most popular versions are a riff on a superficially similar quotation — “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — by the early twentieth-century philosopher George Santayana. Except Santanaya wasn’t talking about reading history at all, but rather what he considered the major developmental difference between infants and adults — namely that grown-ups recall consequences, and babies don’t.
Nothing is inevitable. There is no Great Force of History dooming nations for failing to consult the manual. (The other most popular “history repeats itself” maxim, from Karl Marx, was a joke.)
That is not to say, of course, that you can’t learn anything practical from history. You can learn a ton: how we got to such and such a point, what events other people might be remembering at any given time, etc. But history is a lousy guide to the immediate future, in large part because we often have no idea in real time which precedents apply.
This is especially tricky when it comes to war, a topic on which Westerners in general and Americas in particular can only ever seem to remember one part of one war that has ever happened — the aforementioned European theater of World War II.1 The association between Churchill and the fake quote above is surely not accidental, as the only “lesson of history” many care to learn is to always be like Churchill, not Chamberlain. This requires forgetting the many times when Churchill’s famous belligerence brought nothing but death on a massive scale, as well as the times that later leaders ignored hectoring comparisons to Chamberlain and in so doing refrained from blowing up the world.
Distracting as it is to play the parlor game of “which mid-twentieth century dictator is Vladimir Putin most like this week” (Mussolini in ‘35? Stalin in ‘39?), my answer is: None of them. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is really an unprecedented situation. We are confronted with the autocrat of a failing petrostate with a military that has revealed itself to be far weaker than analysts feared, but who nonetheless possesses the presumed power to destroy every major city in Western Europe and the United States within the space of about half an hour.
Forget Genghis Khan, Chandragupta Maurya, or Catherine the Great on one hand, or Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, or the failed Austrian art student on the other. There may be some parallels to Lyndon Johnson, Deng Xiaoping, Leonid Breshnev, or George W. Bush — each a leader of a nuclear power who embarked on a murderous and ultimately failed colonial war (the first two successively in Vietnam, the last two in Afghanistan, and Bush alone in Iraq). But in all those cases, those leaders and their governments took pains not to threaten, and in many cases worked actively to avoid, a great-power conflict against their imperial rivals. Putin is to my knowledge the only example of a leader whose army can barely take or hold new territory yet loudly and confidently keeps reminding everyone of his ability to obliterate much of the inhabited world.
(So, good news for the “say what you will about Hitler” brigade! You can stop now.)
“OK, Katz, great. So what do we do here?” you might be asking. The point is that I don’t know. And neither, as far as I know, does anyone else. Insofar as the course of events is in any way up to the United States (an open question to say the least), I think President Biden has largely had the right idea so far — supporting the Ukrainian government diplomatically and with defensive weapons, refusing to match Putin’s dangerously escalatory rhetoric, and constantly reminding his own boisterous caucus that the result of any U.S. or NATO military intervention (yes, that includes setting up a “No Fly Zone”) could well be an act of national (or planetary) suicide.
If we want to react — not to half-remembered scenarios from the past but the horrific tragedies unfolding in Ukraine and other warzones right now — we can provide all needed medical and other humanitarian aid and open the door to refugees. All the recent talk of war crimes also reminds me that this would be a good time for the United States to ratify the Rome Statute — the treaty that authorizes the International Criminal Court where Putin and his fellow war criminals could be tried, and thus show by example that this “rules-based international order” we are so reputedly fond of exists, and applies to everyone.
It should also be kept in mind that the warlike steps the United States and its allies have taken already — the crippling sanctions that in many cases amount to collective punishment, and lethal weapons deliveries above all — are themselves belligerent actions (“akin to a declaration of war,” as Putin said2), which could lead to unpredictable levels of retaliation. But rather than throwing up our hands and saying, well if it’s war already, might as well ready the nukes, I would much rather we stay grateful that a wider war has decidedly not broken out yet, and do everything possible to keep it that way.
Edited by Sam Thielman
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The great Gangsters of Capitalism tour continues. For those of you in central Virginia, a treat! My first in-person event is tomorrow (Saturday, March 19) at the Virginia Festival of the Book. It’s at 10 a.m. at the new CODE building off the mall. I’ll be talking about the legacies of U.S. imperialism with Albert Samaha (author of the new book Concepcion). It is moderated by the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie.
The event will also be live-streamed for those of you not in the area. More details here.
I also had a guest appearance on Jamelle and fellow Good Substacker John Ganz’s Unclear and Present Danger, in which we talked about my favorite reactionary director, John Milius’s, last directed film, 1991’s Flight of the Intruder.
Finally, and purely FYI, Substack now has an iOS app, for those of you who a) have Apple tablets and b) prefer to read The Racket and other newsletters in app form:
The U.S. Civil War is a strong runner-up among Americans, but we tend to invoke that only when it comes to domestic politics.