At Their Own Peril, Americans Are Fuzzy On History – OpEd


The nation’s observed birthday—July 4th—always brings forth what passes for modern day “patriotism”: prominent displays of the flag everywhere, celebration of the military, picnics, backyard barbeques, and of course fireworks. There is even an occasional tribute to the nation’s “founders,” those men who supposedly signed the Declaration of Independence on that date, and the genius of Thomas Jefferson who purportedly masterminded and wrote the document. Yet Americans, although a great people, are usually vacant on their history, and many really admit it, because history seems a like a dusty little hobby that is irrelevant to the “here and now,” which self-help gurus on TV tell us we need to focus on. However, comparatively, people in other countries usually pay more attention to their own history and those of at least their region of the world.

Because many people in the United States don’t value history very much, they tend to allow politicians to be selective in their remembering of historical events—usually to manipulate public nationalism (which now passes for patriotism) for their own dubious policy goals. For example, if Americans had focused more on the fact that historically, the Vietnamese had been fighting fiercely over the centuries to throw out foreign invaders—such as the Japanese, the Chinese, and recently the French—perhaps they would have demanded that their politicians think twice, even three times, about invading that country. And if Americans had known that the historically fractious Iraq, an artificial country that had been created by the greedy colonial powers after World War I to exploit the country’s oil reserves, they might have wisely rejected George W. Bush’s attempt at military social work in one of the most unlikely places in the Middle East for democracy to flourish.

Similarly, if most of American public had been more aware that the mighty British Empire had failed three times to subdue Afghanistan in the 1800s and early 1900s, and that the Soviets had ignominiously withdrew in defeat from that country just over a decade before, perhaps they would have pressured George W. Bush to be more selective in his military response to 9/11, thus avoiding the current quagmire in that warlike and xenophobic country, which especially hates foreign invaders.

In fact, the vast majority of Americans would scratch their heads when asked about the causes of even traumatic events in the nation’s history. For example, they wouldn’t be able to tell you what motivated the British to burn Washington, D.C. in the War of 1812, the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor to begin World War II, or Osama bin Laden to launch his terror attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centers on September 11, 2001. Yet only in the new physics can we have uncaused events. Americans just ignore such causes because they don’t like to complicate the story of their government heroically battling the forces of evil.

Americans are not the only country to distort history to their liking, but they do seem far too fuzzy on historical details, thus allowing their politicians to manipulate them into usually disastrous adventures at home and abroad. Let’s take a current example. The Obama administration just patted itself on the back by disclosing that since the president expanded Bush’s drone wars against terrorists to at least seven countries on two continents, this modern technology has allowed the killing of between 2.372 and 2,581 “combatants” from 2009 to through the end of 2015, but only between 64 and 116 civilians during that same period (most independent groups tracking such civilian deaths put the total about two-to-three times higher). All of these killings, however, were only “outside areas of active hostilities,” such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, not in the designated war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

In a republic, there are several problems with these secret (well, not-so-secret) wars. The first is that the killing of any civilians by a foreign attacker is used as a propaganda tool by Islamist militants, thus helping to recruit more terrorists. In Yemen, documentation by journalists on the ground has shown that U.S. drone strikes and air strikes have motivated the angry Yemeni population to significantly swell the ranks of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula there. Second, and even more important, Americans have forgotten that their Constitution (much more important than the Declaration of Independence, because it is supposed to be a legally binding constraint on adventure-happy politicians of both parties) requires that Congress, the representatives of the American people, approve wars, which has not occurred with the secret drone wars. (Even the congressional resolutions approving U.S. military action in the three designated war zones are way more than a decade old and out of date (in Afghanistan and Iraq) or nonexistent (in Syria). The arrogance of the modern executive branch in conducting such constitutionally dangerous secret wars was brought forth by an unnamed administration official when defending the data release on drone war killings (which conveniently didn’t provide enough details to allow the media or private organizations to match it up with their higher totals), “We didn’t have to do this in the first place. We do believe we’re trying to go the extra mile here.” At least go the extra ten miles and make these illegal wars legitimate by getting congressional approval or, even better, go the extra hundred miles by ending such counterproductive adventurism.

But Americans don’t pressure their politicians to follow the Constitution, because most regard it as a dusty old historical document, which has become less important as people began excessively worshipping the American flag, the alleged signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 (it was not, and only became an important document many years later when its lead plagiarizer, Thomas Jefferson, became a prominent national politician), and the U.S. military (the anti-militarist founders, who didn’t even allow a standing army in the Constitution, would pass out on this one). Rather, Americans should probably instead celebrate September 17, 1787—the date the newly signed Constitution brought forth the resilient system of popular government Americans have enjoyed for well over 200 years—even over July 2, 1776, the important date on which the Continental Congress voted for independence from Britain. That Constitution was designed to make the country a peaceful republic, not a voracious globe-girdling empire, which it became only after World War II—because its citizens sought imperial glory, because they had the power to do so, rather than remembering the history of why the country was founded. True patriotism demands more work from the American people.

This article was published at and reprinted with permission.

Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

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