The ex-general Petraeus has weighed in with his expert opinion on today’s hot issues. “Robert E. Lee was a traitor,” he declares. This managed to get him a little news attention for the first time in a long while. After all, this is the general who botched occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, is an adulterer, and violated military security.
Where did our General learn about Lee? I may be wrong, but I don’t think he learned this at West Point. We have here someone who has commanded American armies who is seriously ignorant of the complexities of history. That such a person has risen to the top of our military, I suggest, explains a lot about its performance in recent years.
Our top leaders, military and civilian, are prime examples of the “Kevins” I wrote about in another post. People without any genuine achievement but who nevertheless have slithered up the promotion rope by stepping on others, ass kissing, and back-stabbing. I repeat, someone so flippantly and self-promotingly ignorant of the complexities of great historical events has no business in high office, much less commanding an army.
Our Founding Fathers knew history well. If men like Churchill and DeGaulle had not been deeply versed in serious history they may not have done what they did and we might all be wearing swastikas. And lorded over by such opportunists as I have described, who flourish under any regime. Hitler failed in the long run because he viewed history in a distorted and rigid ideological lens.
If George Bush the Lesser had known any history, would he have allowed his handlers to launch a war to conquer and reform the Middle East and Afghanistan?
History seriously considered tells us usefully where we human beings have been over a long course and helps us to understand where we are and what to do. It does not provide perfect answers but it is helpful, a necessary form of wisdom for leaders when important things are at stake. The kinds of shallow views of the past held by the General and the mobs in the streets is one evidence of the sorry state the former democratic America manifests today.
Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews