History Does Not Repeat Itself

There is an abandoned coal mine beneath the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, where a fire has been burning for more than fifty years. Sometimes it breaks through the surface and creates an event by setting fire to something before going back to its long slow burn underground. Before the town was abandoned to the fire, the event might have been recorded in local history.

If you didn’t already know, or if it never occurred to you that a fire could burn underground, you might go for quite a while without knowing it was there. Maybe your whole life (or more, since they say it could burn for another 200 years). And if you made a study of these events, without knowing about the mine, you might come up with a theory—the work of an arsonist, perhaps, looking for revenge or trying to scare people off the land.

What we take for history is often something like that fire, at least the part that we can see, events popping into view one after another for us to explain in terms of what people say and do. And we are largely oblivious to the rest, even the possibility of what is going on down below.

When what happens has bad consequences—pain, suffering, death, destruction, loss—we typically look for someone to blame and, if their intentions were good, we file it away in history as a mistake. And if it has happened before, especially more than once, someone invariably reminds us of the philosopher, George Santayana’s famous warning that those who fail to study and learn from history are bound to repeat it.

Every time I hear those words, I think, how obvious, that we are supposed to learn from our mistakes, and yet it seems almost a matter of routine that we do not.

One day, for example, I was listening to the car radio when the news came on with the story that since three months of bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria wasn’t having the desired effect, the United States had decided that the thing to do now was to bomb them even more.

I have lived long enough and read enough history to know that we have been here before, more than once, and with what result.

During World War II, for example, the Allies carried out a massive bombing campaign over Germany, figuring that unrelenting suffering and terror would beat them into submission. After the war, researchers were surprised to discover that it had just the opposite effect by stiffening the German people’s resolve to hold out as long as possible. The finding was no secret, especially in military and political circles, so there was no need to dig in some dark corner of history to know of it.

And yet, some thirty years later, the United States figured it could force the Viet Minh and North Vietnamese to give up by bombing the hell out of them, which, yes, made them all the more determined to hang on, which they did long enough to make the Americans give it up and go home.

And now, it seems, here we go again, and not for the first time since Vietnam. If a little violence doesn’t work, use more, and if that is not enough, give them Shock and Awe. Taken far enough, as a last resort, you would probably have to kill them all, which is what Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara concluded it would have taken for the Americans to win, and which is, in effect, the strategy of nuclear war.

In the inevitable post-mortem analysis known as history, we are told that mistakes were caused by some unforeseeable combination of miscalculation and bungling, faulty intelligence or a lie; or presidential ambition or fear of appearing weak; or what so-and-so said or failed to say at this meeting or that, or the weight of public opinion, or what the admirals and generals thought would be the best combination of weapons and tactics, or what the enemy decided to do that left the government in that peculiar position known as ‘having no choice.’ Or something else entirely, depending on who is writing the history.

Either way, the people who make these mistakes usually come out as neither stupid nor crazy, because, with few exceptions, they are not. And they do study history, and even those who don’t, have highly-paid advisors who do. So, it doesn’t make much sense that they would follow in the footsteps of those who went before and keep making the same terrible mistakes. Why—with our big brains and all that history to learn from—why can’t we get it right?

I have come to believe that the answer hinges on a failure to appreciate the difference between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing right.

Governments can decide, for example, that a particular application of violence did not produce the desired result because it was done incorrectly, that mistakes were made in the execution, which is what we must study history so as not to repeat. But all of that rests on an underlying cultural belief in violence itself as a legitimate and effective instrument of control, not to mention a measure of manhood and national power.

This is the fire in the mine that provides the fuel for what happens up above, whatever the details are in how it is done. The cause is not simply a series of ‘mistakes’ that can be isolated and analyzed in time and space, but also the culture and structure of society itself that was there long before particular mistakes were made and continues long after they have been dissected and understood as anything but what is bound to happen when you keep trying to do the wrong thing.

We keep going from one ‘mistake’ and ‘failure’ to another because we do not connect what happens on the surface with what is underground, because we do not see the present as a continuation of the past, the manifestation of a taken-for-granted worldview that is ‘happening’ all along, whether or not we recognize it in the choices we make and the events of the day that result. Even the observation that ‘this has happened before’ is misleading in the way it fragments and isolates ‘this’ particular happening from another, relegating each to its own unique place in the string of events we call history.

This is how deep continuing structures make something like recurring wars a path of least resistance, as something normal and predictable no matter how terrible and fruitless they may be. It is what propels the juggernaut of unlimited population and economic growth on a finite planet, and it fuels the capitalist greed and excess that cause panics and crashes in which millions of people lose their jobs and homes. The most recent financial collapse was no mere repetition of history, even though such things have ‘happened’ many times before. It was the predictable and recurring result of how our economic system is organized on its deepest level and continues to operate.

Beneath the surface of daily events, the next collapse, the next war, the next calamity, is happening right now, shaping what we assume to be reality, what it makes sense to do, gathering force, momentum, and direction, for that moment when it will break through into our awareness and our lives and command our attention, if only for a while.

History does not repeat. It continues. And no amount of study of its events will protect us from it until we go down into the mine and put out the fire.

When You Know Someone Is Dying

There is something about knowing that someone is dying, right now, while I’m doing whatever it is that I do—making a cup of coffee or tending the stove or writing this or the space in between—that changes things, a turning of the lens to bring into focus what is otherwise a blur, blending into the background of ordinary life.

I know that there is always someone, somewhere in the world, who is dying—almost one every second—but this is different. I don’t have to know personally the one who is dying for it to have this effect. It is enough to hear from someone who does, the small details that make it real, a name, that he has lost the will to eat, or the doctor has said she will not see another spring.

There is a kind of stillness about the knowing that comes with me as Roxie and I walk into the woods. It is sunny and cold, the sky blue above us and the crowns of oaks, maples, and birches empty of leaves. She goes out ahead down the familiar path but then I catch up and she is lagging, her nose working something of interest among the leaves. I wait but not for long before urging her on, “Come on, let’s go,” tired from a restless sleep and splitting wood for the stove and feeling just now unsettled by the latest news of the progress of someone’s dying, and she, in her eagerness to please, to stay with her pack, will do as I ask.

We do this dance of her falling behind and me telling her to hurry up, not to dawdle—I use the word—and I can tell she hears the impatience in my voice as she does her version of a shrug and catches up, loping past, her nose to the ground as if this is her idea and not mine.

I watch her go out ahead and then she stops and looks back at me, not a glance, but a real look, and we hold it between us long enough for it to occur to me what she is doing as she snuffles along, her 300 million smell detectors (compared to my piddling 3 million) mapping the terrain, following the story of who has passed this way and when and what direction. And, when you think of it, as I begin to do, she is following the story of her own life, which I would know if I knew how to listen which, until now, I realize, I have not, not really.

She watches me come up to her and then sits down to receive a scratch. I can hear the silence in the tall trees above us, the leaves scuttling across the ground. I look at her and she at me and then away toward something in the woods that she knows but I do not. There, she says, pointing her nose, and there.

I softly say her name and she looks at me. I read somewhere that dogs don’t like it when you look into their eyes for any length of time, but she has never heard of that. I’m in here, you know, she says with that look of hers, so steady and calm, and I know who you are.

She looks away to drink in the northerly breeze coming down the hillside through the woods. I don’t know why I hear it now and not before, what she is trying to say to me. Or maybe I have a hundred times, with other dogs, long dead and buried on the land, only to let it slip away. But it doesn’t matter. It comes when it comes.

And then I think, of course I know.

We stand on the path and watch the sun disappearing behind the trees, angling through the branches in fingers of light on the ground carpeted in faded yellow and gold with flecks of orange. She is halfway through her second year and yet still acts as if everything is new.

I say her name and she looks at me. What?

Nothing. Everything.

A gang of crows sets up a racket somewhere in the woods, chasing out a hawk. Roxie turns her face toward the sound and listens, stilled by a look that says, in this moment, that is all there is. We listen for a while before moving on down the path toward home.

There are a few hazelnuts and acorns still left from what has dropped from the trees, which she is happy to root out and gobble up between bursts of snuffling down the path. Until something else comes along to claim her attention. And, of, course, there is the way she has of attending to my whereabouts, checking in from time to time so as not to let too much space come between us.

Any other time I would probably have taken from this day something about attending to nature, slowing the pace of human life. But that isn’t what lingers in my mind as she lies sleeping beside me now and I write these words with evening coming on, what has lodged in my heart.

Be with me now. It will not always be so.


If you liked this post, you might also want to read “Fight, Flight, and Roxie’s Way” and “Collecting Silence.”


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