you think you understand and that’s great. but here’s the real question — can you teach it? there is an old saying. “those who can’t do teach.” it’s sadly true in many cases but the truth of the matter is actually on a totally different axis. those who teach understand. no, not that those who are teaching things have the deepest understanding — those who have taught them understand them better.
and i don’t mean people in the education system. i mean students. when you’re learning, the hardest thing is often to take the things you understood when you were told, listening or reading them in a theoretical sense, and turning them into practical, useful knowledge. i’m sure you’ve experienced this disconnect. you sit in a classroom for hours and everything makes perfect sense. you’re shocked how much you got. and you’re even more shocked by the fact you didn’t automatically know it before. it all seemed so easy and comprehensible and obvious. now you know. and as soon as you go to your friend’s house after the lecture and they ask you what you were studying, you start to tell them. they’re excited and ask questions and you … simply draw a blank. you have no idea. what seemed clear only an hour or two before is so far from your grasp you can’t even give the most basic explanation.
what’s happened? has your memory failed you? are you really that bad at trying to remember basic information in context that you don’t know what was explained not days but hours earlier? not in the slightest. i mean, your memory might be absolute shit but that’s a whole other matter. what’s really happened is that the information has never truly solidified in your mind and that’s an easy problem to solve. instructors have spent centuries trying to crack this problem. they ask spontaneous questions, give in-class quizzes and drill people repetitively in front of their peers, usually leading not to better understanding or deeper memory-penetration but embarrassment for students, which is, even more painfully, exactly the reason many instructors continue to do it, despite it simply not working.
why doesn’t it work? because memory is write-only. when things are taken from outside, they’re written in our memories but they don’t get reaccessed until the next need to write them — read isn’t really a thing for memory unless we’re dreaming. as much as this is difficult to understand, this example might help.
you can’t remember something. a detail. someone’s name. you try and try and minutes go by. a few hours later, you still haven’t remembered but your friend asks you who you were thinking about earlier and their name immediately comes as you are speaking your answer. you had to “write” the information and it has been retrieved by your memory-on-demand system. that’s how it works. if you request the information, you’re not going to get it. but if you need the information for a practical purpose — like communicating it or forming a dream — it will be there. there’s a side-effect, though. the next time you remember it, it will be written to your memory again. this is why memory drills are so useful — rote learning really does work, though it’s often a slow way of doing it because the same information repeated is less useful as a storage method than information with its context.
but what does that mean for practical learning? we’re not going to be there in front of a class teaching the entire introductory organic-chemistry course we’re sitting through. unless we become professors. and that’s a long way off and we’d better have learned it long before that point or the rest of the courses in the degree aren’t likely to make much sense. there has to be a better way.
well, there are several ways. flashcards are probably the most obvious triggers for memory and they’re incredibly-useful. but there’s a far better way — a way that doesn’t require someone to ask you questions and interpret your answers. what’s the simplest way to get thorough understanding of information? blog about it.
i know that’s going to sound really strange but hear me out.
it doesn’t have to be the place you share your darkest secrets — if you have such a place, this might need to be a different place. you can get a free blogging account from many sources, though i recommend wordpress because it’s simple and has been around for years and just works without problems unless you’re trying to do something complicated. and it’s free for this. sure, you’ll have to pay money if you want to do something more public and involved and get a domain and custom graphics and stuff. but this is for learning. don’t get fancy. just shut up and write.
so start a blog for each course you’re taking. let’s say you’re taking a basic course in modern history. i’ll use it as an example because it’s my favorite course to teach. so you go to wordpress and you log in (cause you probably have a wordpress account already and if you don’t i have no idea where you’ve been living without wanting to write before — put down the fucking pen and join the twentieth century a few decades too late) and tell it you want a new blog. it’ll take you a few minutes and you can play with a few visual settings and get the thing to be nice and pretty but you really can just start immediately with the basic blogging interface and write your first post. it’ll ask you what you want and you can literally just type “jean’s history 1000 notes”. or you can get creative. “exploring first-year history with shannon” or “dive into the recent past with kirstie”. be as funky as you like but start the blog. then you end up staring at an empty screen. you don’t know what to write.
but wait. you took notes, right? if you have a good instructor, they didn’t let you take notes. i don’t. i give the notes printed in point form and provide detailed ones online. and that’s great. but i don’t expect students to read them. i expect students to write them. no, not copy them verbatim. that would be stupid. i’ve seen people who want to be novelists do that. take whole books written by other writers they want to emulate and copy them completely by hand. it’s a ridiculous practice. sure, it’ll work. but it’s a bad way to use your time when there’s something far more beneficial and no more time-consuming. write your own version.
let’s take the first class of an introductory history course and write a short blog article. copy the entire contents of the first class’ notes into your article then start at the top rewording it. it will feel strange taking something that’s already, in theory, written perfectly-well and turning it into something else. but the point is you’re stimulating your memory by forcing it to write the information again after you’ve already written it once. you’re guaranteeing long-term storage in your memory this way in a way reading or listening simply can’t do. you can do this for any course, of course. but we’ll start with this one. here’s the basic outline — you should make one if your instructor hasn’t given one for the class before you take their paragraphs and reword them.
by the way, keep your answers short. don’t try to write two or three thousand words about a single idea. divide it. never write more than a few hundred words on something without shifting to a new question. if the question requires more than that, split it in pieces — as many pieces as you can. if you can get detailed enough to write only three or four sentences then go to the next thing, it will flow far more easily. this is a good way to do all your writing but especially writing about topics you haven’t mastered yet. you won’t drift off-topic. and you’ll be able to focus more easily on communicating the information rather than getting sidetracked into self-delusion or opinions.
this is an example from the most recent version of my introductory contemporary-history course (generally called history 1000 or something similar at most colleges) that starts about 1900 and goes to today. this is, of course, only the introductory lecture so there’s not much detailed historical knowledge in it. you’re welcome to browse through the rest of the course notes for this or any other course i teach. they’re not restricted only to my students. i don’t see any reason to prevent knowledge from being shared. i get paid exactly the same amount to teach it regardless of how many people read the notes and i put in exactly the same amount of effort — for greater reward with each pair of eyes.
i’m going to do exactly the exercise with my publicly-available notes that i suggest you do for every class of every course you take from now until the end of time. it’s worth it. you won’t have to study nearly as much. or at all. while you might be able to remember the information well-enough for an exam if you can’t teach it, if you can teach it, you’ll know it far more intimately and that memory won’t fade the way batch-learning as a recipient does.
let’s begin with that outline.
- why study history?
- what is history? can anything be true?
- what is revisionism and is it always bad?
- what’s so important about the contemporary period?
- why is the last century (or so) different from the rest of the human past?
- why do we go to war?
- why do wars end? do they ever really?
- how do we determine who was on the right side of a conflict?
- what’s the difference between history and current affairs?
- what can history tell us about the future?
i generally split all my lectures into a series of short sections that last between ten and fifteen minutes — for a three-hour course that happens once a week, this works out to be about ten or twelve point. for a one-hour lecture, that’s probably five. each one can be subdivided but it’s a good place to start. given how useful this is as a way to organize, i think everyone should start their writing this way, especially if they’re writing something like notes or nonfiction. fiction can be far more fluid and flexible. but notes are meant to be organized. without organization, they’re not notes. they’re just a verbal cluster-fornication. and that, despite its name, is no fun at all.
if you’re not interested in history, this might get a little boring for you. but if you’re not interested in history you should be ashamed of yourself. and of your teachers. because history is nothing but the story of humans. and if you’re not interested in what humans are doing what exactly is happening in your day? if teachers have made history boring with detailed, meaningless facts and numbers (dates, populations, distances, casualties), that’s not history. that’s just knowledge-gatekeeping. tell them to fuck off. history is about telling stories and understanding the past as a way to prepare for the future. the details are fine but they’re only useful once you already understand. they’re not the path to knowledge. only the side-effect of having so throughly understood you want more. more history has been hated by students learning from teachers who want to share statistics than by any other purpose — likely including those who have lived through some of its darker periods.
with your outline created, turn each of those into headings and work your way through the provided notes. just keep moving and turn each new paragraph into one of your own explaining the same information in your own words. you don’t have to be creative but you certainly can be. if you find something interesting, make a little note to yourself to come back and add more details later. it wouldn’t surprise me if a few of these topics become populated with five or ten or more subtopics and you go diving in wikipedia or other sources to find more details to add simply because you’re interested. but don’t do that during the initial transformation process. you want this to be relatively fast and unencumbered — if it takes you ten hours to complete it, you’re going to stop doing it. separate your research-from-personal-interest-time from the process of solidifying your memory after class and it will be much easier to see the positive results.
what follows here for the next few pages is actually a notes summary like i would suggest you write for this class. i won’t comment throughout on how to do it. just write whatever you think best communicates what you heard in class and read on the screen in the existing notes. imagine your audience is your best friend. be generous with the information but don’t assume they’re stupid. just be accurate and talk to them like someone you know well. i will, of course, write this as if i’m speaking it in a classroom situation. so should you. go off on asides because they’ll help you remember. don’t be afraid to wander. just make sure you get all the information from the source paragraph and all is good. when you’re finished, you can even come back and read it — make your own recordings and listen to them later or share them with someone else who might be interested. now you’re learning by teaching.
why study history?
there are two reasons history is a useful thing to study — enjoyment and practical knowledge. the best part about history is that it’s both the expression of searching for real information and a narrative. if either is missing, it’s not history. as humans, we love storytelling. we share what happened in our days and what we hope to have for the future. we talk about others (gossip) and ask about our friends and their families. we want stories — humans have an insatiable desire for narrative detail. while we may not be interested in how many, how long, how much or precisely when, we simply can’t get enough of “what happened next?”. every movie you watch, show you stream and novel you read is an exploration of a human story. even if the characters are cute animated kittens. it’s all about how human life unfolded and you’re watching with rapt attention, waiting for the next thing to occur. this is history. the stories of the past we tell in historical exploration are no different from those portrayed in novels and movies and drunken-retellings all over the world every day. the difference is actually quite subtle — we do it not just for entertainment but with a second purpose, perhaps a more-important primary purpose and this is the side-effect.
the other purpose is predictive. you might be told it’s not, that history is meant to be an objective exploration of the past for no purpose other than awareness. that’s nothing more than bullshit academic garbage and anyone who says such a thing should be repeatedly shot then encouraged to swallow their own words. we might study because the information is interesting but if that’s all we’re doing we might as well just watch a movie. it’s far easier and the story will probably be far easier to understand. no. we study history to learn how to face the future. what? history? in the future? of course. we don’t look at hitler and think “wow that was sad” — well, we might but there’s more to it than that. we look at hitler and think “how do we make sure that never happens again?” — we look at the mistakes made in the past and use them as determiners for how to avoid them in the future.
there is a famous saying — “those who forget the past are destined to repeat it”. there’s a debate about who said it first but, given how old his teachings are, it’s likely to have been laozi. maybe someone said it before him. hard to tell. but it’s very true. we will continually make mistakes the past has already seen and recovered from (hopefully) unless we are aware of them and see them coming the next time. how do we stop antisemitism? we see the warning signs before yellow stars and broken windows replace snide comments and bitter asides on the street. how do we avoid plagues? we see them coming, assume there will be another every few years and make sure we teach people about personal responsibility and protective equipment.
these are concrete examples of things we have collectively ignored from our recent past — the rise of nazism in the thirties and the spanish flu pandemic of the earliest decades of the twentieth century are cautionary tales that could easily have prevented much of the suffering and misery of the rise of populism in the early twenty-first century and the novel coronavirus pandemic it spawned. people chose to forget history and it came back to bite them not only in the asses but in the genitals. and they pretend it’s the first time — there’s nothing new in our lives, practically-speaking. just slightly-modified things from the past. indian culture talks about karma but it’s a simple equation — everything we do has many causes and many consequences. nothing that happens happens in a vacuum and whatever we do was influenced by thousands, millions of events in the past and will at-least-partially-cause millions, even billions of events in the future — something as simple as the decision between fruit and oats for breakfast might have knock-on consequences for the rest of your life — leaving five minutes earlier could be the difference between saving someone’s life on the street and being hit by a drunk-driver or falling off a bridge in a sudden windstorm or randomly seeing an ad for your next job, your biggest life-changing event. history is being prepared for the future so we know what to do when it comes.
and it’s good if you ever want to be on jeopardy, of course.
what is history? can anything be true?
history is an understanding of the past. no. it’s not the understanding of the past. it’s not the sum of all things that happened. it’s not the truth about the past and it’s not objective information from past times. it’s what we think happened combined with why we think it did. objectivity is a myth. all information is biased and subjective but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to make sense of it and construct a coherent narrative. but it’s important we remember history isn’t about truth. it’s not about discovery. it’s about building a story from blocks that may be real but whose veracity isn’t important. it’s the lessons it teaches us about the future that are significant. does history have to be true to be useful? not at all. actually, modified, theoretical history is often far more useful in figuring out what to do — “what if” history is something many historians mock but, remembering why we study history — to teach us how to react to the future — it makes perfect sense.
an example to illustrate why details don’t matter and truth is irrelevant to the lesson it teaches.
there is a story about a girl and her family. her name is rachel (later other things but we’ll just call her that) and she lived in paris with her parents and sister. when war began, she suddenly became aware she was jewish. she’d never really thought about it before because she was only six — her older sister, a whole eight, hadn’t really noticed much about it, either. her parents thought they were fully-assimilated and it wouldn’t matter but french society soon shifted as the germans poured in and paris was falling around them. her father, a strong member of the community, thought he would be safe and didn’t escape to america as many of his culturally-aligned friends were doing. it was too late. the roundups were beginning in paris and there was no way onto a ship. taking his gold to a friend at the bank where they worked, he arranged to leave his home and bring his three female family members, too, taking up residence in their attic. it was a huge risk for them all — both families could be sent to the camps. but it was a good investment on all sides and it began.
after a year of close-quarters living, rachel and her family were suffering from malnutrition and the side-effects of staying locked in an attic twenty-four-hours-a-day without escape or fresh air or, in most cases, real light. there was a tiny window in the attic and on this particular evening rachel saw snow for the first time in a year. it was the middle of the night and she couldn’t sleep because she was so hungry — rationing for a family of four was hard to share with a family of eight and it wasn’t even enough for four. she was entranced by it as she crawled down the ladder from the attic to go to the bathroom — something she did as slowly as possible to allow herself to escape the confined space. she didn’t understand why she had to stay there and why she couldn’t see her friends. but she knew she had to be quiet. seeing a cat on the roof just outside the bathroom window shivering in the cold, she remembered her mother’s lesson about always helping those weaker, that this is the duty of all life. she opened the window and crawled out on the roof, cradling the frozen kitten in her lap as she sat on the frozen ledge.
unaware of the light in the house across the alley, she was a malnourished ghost-girl in the moonlight holding the kitten and speaking softly to it in hebrew as her mother had for her when she was scared in the night. there was a sudden noise and the light went out. the cat jumped from her hands and landed on the ground, finally warm and able to run. she knew she had made a mistake but wasn’t sure what it was, crawling back in the window. she hadn’t gone outside. not really. the roof had to be safe and she climbed the ladder and tried to sleep. the whole next day she said nothing but couldn’t even eat the tiny portions she was given, complaining of pain. that night, she knew something would happen. the noise from the neighborhood that came with darkness, people being rounded-up and taken away to a constant background of screaming and yelling in multiple languages and usually passed in the streets in a few hours got closer and there was a knock on the door.
her father’s friend opened the attic and told them it was too late. the germans were coming. they might be able to save rachel but the others were impossible. they pretended she was their own child but the german soldiers dragged her parents and older sister to a processing facility. that was the last she saw of them. they likely never knew why they were found after so long safe in hiding. her family was torn from her because she had been kind to a helpless kitten on a frozen night.
this story is history. it teaches us a huge amount about how the holocaust happened in france. but is it true? no. does that matter? absolutely not.
nothing is really true unless it’s logical. really logical. 1+1=2. this is true. gravity pulls things together as a function of mass and distance. also true. what happened yesterday is a matter of perception. history is our personal best-guess at what happened and why. we can use this to create a narrative of the past and learn better ways to deal with the future. whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter. it just has to do two things to be functional history — it must be logical and it must be a useful lesson. historic truth is imaginary. but useful history doesn’t have to be true, only feel possible and sensible to teach us about our future.
what is revisionism and is it always bad?
revisionism is taking things from the past and pretending they didn’t happen — or that they happened differently. the common target for this is genocide. groups that wish to imagine genocide didn’t happen often create new narratives. and it’s important to remember that, while history isn’t objectively about truth, it is important to base history on logical information. if someone died, they died. if someone didn’t die — well, they didn’t die.
the point about history not being truth isn’t to ignore facts. it’s that the facts alone tell us nothing and we have to have the narrative. we must take the facts and build something that teaches us understanding and a useful lesson. in the case of the story, we know rachel was a real girl and her family was taken to a german death camp in 1941 where her parents were gassed on arrival and her sister eventually died of disease. the germans were meticulous record-keepers if not good humans. we know she continued to live and spent most of her life known by the family name of her father’s kind-hearted friend who sheltered them and eventually treated her as one of their own children — the neighbor knew she wasn’t one of theirs because they only had two boys, both much older.
if you don’t know something, you’re not pretending. but if you know something is true and try to mislead yourself and others, that’s lying. it’s dishonesty. and there is no greater human evil. turning dishonesty into history is “revisionism” — a fancy word because putting a fancy word on something makes it sound more respectable. revisionists pretend the holocaust didn’t happen despite there being myriad records. they pretend the crusades were about religion rather than greed. they pretend koreans weren’t forcibly made prostitutes for soldiers in the war, that they actually worked in factories for the invading army. they pretend genocide was actually war with both sides fighting and one losing more heavily despite them being mostly unarmed civilians, children included.
accepting that history is a combination of objective fact and “our best attempt at truth” is necessary. pretending the fact that history isn’t true justifies dishonesty about the things we truly do know is manipulative and wrong.
making a mistake about the past isn’t necessarily a bad thing. intentionally rewriting history to make it sound more like you wish it had been teaches you nothing about the future and destroys the potential benefit from studying it. sometimes we need to ask questions about “what if this was different” and question the sources. but ignoring information and basic statistical facts is never good.
it’s important to remember revisionism occurs in all periods and from all sides. often at the same time. you will hear revisionist palestinian history saying “the jews destroyed our homeland where we lived since the beginning of time” — no. it’s not true. they weren’t there that long and most left hoping to escape a war zone, not because they were driven out. they knew armies were coming and didn’t want to get trapped in the middle. on the other side, some jewish revisionists tell another story, “no palestinians were forced from their homes and they all left voluntarily” — also completely false. as with most things in history, the real story is somewhere in the middle with both sides doing terrible things and pretending they weren’t. most people on both sides of the conflict were innocent and did nothing wrong. but so much pain was caused in both directions. it doesn’t help anyone to pretend about it, though. knowing the truth teaches us important lessons. ignoring the truth is why the problem is still ongoing all these years later.
what’s so important about the contemporary period?
human history has accelerated through its entire existence. from the dawn of human existence, tens of thousands of years ago, to the rise of urban social culture in the last five thousand to industrialization and globalization in the last few hundred to the rise of technology and ubiquitous connectivity in only the last few decades, what once took millennia to change now takes years or even days. what took months to walk takes days to ride, hours to drive, minutes to fly and seconds to experience on a videochat. the world was once slow because it was disparate. it’s not tiny because any distance is only a few seconds to cover in our minds and with our words and eyes. the contemporary historical period, from the beginning of the twentieth century to today, is when we experience the rapid acceleration of the birth of modern communications technology and its impact on the world. from the rise of the telegraph through radio, broadcast-media and telephony to the birth of the internet and dominance of social-media as a replacement for culture, we have seen a greater shift in earth and its human population in the past 120 years than in the previous 120 000. we may be the same species as our great-great-grandparents but our daily lives are as different from their as theirs were from their primate ancestors of a million years before. nearly our entire existences are composed of tasks and thoughts that would have been unthinkable and incomprehensible to even those three or four generations ago — it not magic, certainly scientific-impossibility.
beyond the sheer volume and scope of change, studying the last century gives us most of the useful lessons from history without having to go deeper into the past. we see wars of conquest, greed and hate. we see racism, fascism, totalitarianism, control, revolution, manipulation, deceit, conflicts of ideology and religion as an excuse for everything. we see nations rise and collapse, cold and hot conflicts, proxy wars and intelligence services using information as weapons. we see pandemics and genocides, natural disasters and great discoveries. everything that’s happened in human history can be understood from the perspective of studying only the last century. the previous ages are absolutely useful. but you can get a solid foundation and coherent set of lessons for the future from this period and no earlier period has such a wealth of experience to share.
why is the last century (or so) different from the rest of the human past?
the last century is different because it is the last century. the next century will be different for the same reason. history is progressive. that doesn’t mean the future is an improvement on the past. it simply means the future is the result of the past. history accelerates over time. each new development makes more developments possible. building a car was hard but building millions was easy. the first guns were primitive and far-less-effective than swords but they were perfected over time to become the feared weapons we know today. computers were primitive at first but now the cycle of development has accelerated to the point where last year’s technology is nearly worthless in the minds of most young people who desperately desire new phones and tablets.
there are other things we acquired in the last century that are fundamental shifts in history. it is the first time the majority of people stopped having to rely on religion for the source of information and knowledge about the world. science isn’t a new concept but bringing education and science to the masses is a revolutionary idea that shifted so much of human experience and it happened in the last hundred years.
the rise of virtualized experience is hugely-important — information is no longer something that takes paper and can only exist in one physical place. we live in a world of information where only a hundred years ago we lived in a world of paper records. the significance of a data-driven society can’t be understated.
the nuclear age appeared in the middle of the twentieth century and changed the nature of conflict. while damage had been done to the environment for thousands of years, the scale of the damage and its impact on humanity became decisive in the last hundred years in a way it simply wasn’t.
these aren’t things that will go away in the next century of human existence but they are fundamental changes in the way humans lived, movement from how they lived for many thousands of years to how they will live for the next thousand or more. information as a way of seeing the world is a whole new approach to human interaction. science and technology were always important but before the twentieth century most people lived lives barely different from their ancestors in the times of ancient egypt and mesopotamia. warfare was, before the last hundred or so years, something fought between military groups and shifted to something including the whole population with disastrous impacts for everyone involved. these aren’t shifts that can be done more than once. whatever changes in the next century, these are already done and can’t be repeated. will the next century see larger shifts? it’s very likely. but it’s impossible to predict what they will be — it will likely involve technology, discoveries and social elements that simply haven’t even been thought of yet. for now, we can look back a hundred years and learn all we need to know if we pay attention.
why do we go to war?
there are two reasons to go to war — hate and desire. it has become popular to talk about the sanskrit word for war (there are actually two — yuddham, loosely meaning “fighting”, and “gavisti”, a desire for cows) and how understanding it teaches us myriad lessons about the nature of war. they usually mean “a desire for cows” when they say this but both words say a lot about why war happens.
sometimes we go to war because we hate people. for example, most of the battles of the cold war were about a generalized hatred between america and russia, though this is far too simplistic and most of those conflicts were about desire for power. but the reason many of those conflicts started was simply about hate. many tribal conflicts began for this reason, too — more than being about control or land, they came from one tribe hating another. this isn’t something historically-irrelevant. twentieth-century wars in croatia, bosnia, cosovo, sudan and congo are only a small sample of war from hate. these people didn’t just want to conquer others — they wanted to exterminate. while it’s never quite that simplistic and the desire for land and control is always present in these situations, it sometimes becomes secondary to a desire to hurt and destroy. this can be seen as analogous to the bully in the playground looking for a fight to cause pain and drive away others. this is the “yuddham” side of war.
the “gavisti” side of war, though, is far more common. it can be thought of as desire, greed or dominance. it can be aggression or belligerence, even colonialism or imperialism. these are all realistically the same thing, though. someone else has something i want so i will take it. i could ask them to give it to me but they won’t because it’s valuable and they want it, too. like a child desiring another’s ice cream, i will punch them until they give it to me. this is what the vast majority of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries looks like — a classroom fight over desserts between two children unwilling to share. taking a look at the major wars of the last century or so shows us an obvious pattern…
the first-world-war was about a desire for control, mostly control of europe. who would be powerful? england or germany? would russia regain its respect from the european community or forever be seen as weak after being defeated by a non-european power (japan)? could the ottoman empire take more territory or simply fall apart or would the austro-hungarian empire rise to be the new roman, trans-eurasian power? these were colonial powers fighting for more territory and power. they didn’t want more land in europe, realistically. but they wanted more european power and more land everywhere. actually, they wanted all the land. the war, practically-speaking, was mostly a conflict between the germans and the english with everyone else picking sides. that’s not how it appears it began but that’s what was really going on and that’s certainly how it ended up being divided. this can be thought of as the conflict between the old, established power of england with vast overseas territory against the newcomer, germany, lacking territory but willing to fight to take whatever was possible to gain and make up for lost time.
the second-world-war was partly about payback. but it was mostly about greed — germany wanted land. lots of land. it had a pretty-good reason for wanting it but other people wanted the land, too. and england wanted to have power over germany. america wanted to prove to everyone it could rule the world (mostly russia) — and its gamble succeeded for the sixty years that followed the war and its decision to use japan as a testing ground for the first modern weapons-of-mass-destruction, demonstrating its willingness to fight in ways others were simply incapable of emulating yet. but it really just comes down to different countries wanting to take what other people already had and demonstrating their power. desire, pure-and-simple.
the korean and vietnam wars were about two sides who wanted to control their entire territories. neither side in either case was particularly ethical or good. whichever side won was going to mean a lot of pain and death for everyone involved. but when larger countries decided to use these local conflicts as proxy fights (primarily america, russia and china), the greed involved became far more obvious. it’s unlikely the north koreans were particularly interested in the land in the southern third of the peninsula but the americans were certainly interested in creating a buffer against china and russia. did the vietnamese truly care if their country was communist or profit-seeking? not likely for most of them but the russians and americans were more than happy to pick their favorite sides as a way of trying to acquire more power on the international stage.
of course, some more recent wars are more obviously about greed. iraq invading kuwait or russia annexing territory in crimea aren’t ideological even in the abstract — they are about a desire for more land. america’s threats against china in the last twenty years have little to do with national politics and everything to do with greed for power and the natural resources and trade china represents.
we go to war for the same reasons young children fight. we either hate someone or want something. what we want, unlike the children, is usually either power or land. but what happens on school playgrounds and battlefields is no different except in scale and consequences.
why do wars end? do they ever really?
wars end either because one side decides it’s no longer worth fighting or because one side simply ceases to exist. the end of war is never a compromise or an agreement. that’s just how it’s talked about. it’s always about someone giving up or someone dying.
this, of course, brings up the question of whether wars actually end. practically-speaking, if two sides still exist, the war never really stops. there can be a temporary cessation of conflict and fighting can be postponed. but there are few examples of the animosity ever really disappearing. walk through the streets of europe today and you will quickly discover how much hatred there is between england, france and germany. these three countries haven’t openly been at war in more than seventy years and they still treat each other like enemies — if there was even the slightest excuse for armed conflict, it is doubtful open warfare could be avoided for more than a few months. north and south korea have spent more than sixty years continuing to train armies to fight each other in a war that has been over since before most people on both sides were born but it continues in the minds of both countries as if the fighting only ended yesterday. america and russia have never (truly — never) fought a real war against each other and they treat each other as enemies and have spent the better part of a century massing military forces and aiming missiles and strategic assets at each other without actual fighting breaking out. are america and russia at war? it’s impossible to tell.
looking at the present and future, who is america fighting? well, china, of course. is this a war? there’s no open conflict in the military sense but a trade-war has been ongoing for decades, warships sail through the taiwan straight to intimidate and land is claimed, defended, debated and fought over in international courts and on the internet where voices are raised and open conflict is always a moment away. these countries are actively engaged in cyberwarfare and information-war. their companies fight each other for money. it’s a war mostly based on american greed and desire and they have dragged the rest of the world into the conflict — especially japan, south korea and most of the rest of their asian trading-partners. did the war start? did it end? is it even a war?
there was a time when wars had obvious beginnings and ends. that time ended with napoleon. the first world war didn’t begin in 1914. it started with the russo-japanese war and the rest was just a spillover. it didn’t end in 1919 — it was simply postponed a few years while germany rearmed and everyone took a break from fighting. the second-world-war might have ended in terms of battlefields but conflict just shifted from europe and japan to korea, vietnam, afghanistan and the middle-east where open conflict still rages between the same ideologies and people — only the scale has changed and the type of weapons used.
we pretend wars end because it’s easier to quantify and study them that way. practically-speaking, there has been a single ongoing war since the first few years of the twentieth century with no end in sight, shifting between open conflict and digital (perhaps biological and cultural) battles. it’s unlikely war will ever end. if this one does, it will only be because one side ceases to exist — none of the current factions will ever give in or compromise in the slightest.
how do we determine who was on the right side of a conflict?
there’s a simple answer and a complex answer to this. the simple answer is this — if you fight, you’re wrong. it takes two people to have a fight. if someone attacks you and you fight back, you’re wrong. letting them win might cost you but fighting back will cost you more. always.
the complex answer is similar but a bit more nuanced. it usually comes down to figuring out justification for conflict and inequality. looking at who was being oppressed is a good way to see who was on the better side of a conflict but nobody in war is ever right. just less wrong than the other side in some cases.
the best test for less-wrongness, though, is universal good and equality. if you look at the situation both sides want and ask the question “what would mean something closer to equality for all the people involved?”, it’s likely to give you a sensible way to determine which side is the better potential winner. this side rarely wins, though.
if we look at world-war-two from this perspective, overpopulated germany expanded against financial and territorial oppression from england and france mostly resulting from the defeat in 1919. japan felt threatened by america (legitimately in many ways) and was being pressured by countries from all sides and fought to become a self-sufficient world power. both were, after years of fighting, absolutely crushed by american military power. this is complicated by the fact that germany also attempted to exterminate whole races and japanese military leaders committed horrific war crimes in korea and china. being on the “right” side of a conflict from the perspective of justification doesn’t mean the behavior of those fighting doesn’t descend to the level of less-than-animal-barbarism and human hate is perhaps the only thing other than greed the world has a limitless supply of.
looking at the korean war the same way shows one side fighting for equality and the other for inequality. the problem there is a lot more unresolved and complex, though. the side fighting for equality eventually gained the majority of the land but almost none of the money or international prestige. being supported by america, the south imposed its economic policies of competition and greed (exactly the same as america’s at the time and little changed even today) and gained prosperity while the north has descended into nothing more than postponed-collapse. this teaches us something very important. which side has more ethical merit or justification has nothing to do with who wins a war. and the leaders of the fighting on both sides are rarely anything close to good people — while the motivations and desires of the north were far more virtuous, kim ilsung and his backer, russian dictator stalin, were nothing short of demagogic monsters. judging a conflict by those fighting is difficult while judging its merits from results is destined to fail. the complex answer is almost impossible to determine. we therefore end up simply picking a side in hindsight and sounding silly for defending the actions of criminals and barbarians. it’s better not to talk about wars from the perspective of a good and bad side. if you fight, you’re probably wrong. it’s just a question of degrees after that.
what’s the difference between history and current affairs?
history is what happened yesterday and current affairs is what happens today. these can be looked at the same way. and what happened yesterday is no less history than what happened in ancient egypt or china. we can learn from what happened in either case but sometimes it is far easier to study the more-distant past. that is why studying the last hundred years is often so useful. a century means most of the information is still present and easily-accessible and the lessons are far more clearly useful in a modern context but it gives us enough separation that we can divorce some of our emotional connection to the events of literal yesterday when we are talking about a time of years, usually before our births.
we must take the same approach to history we take to watching or reading the news, though. the same objective-truth-seeking perspective is useful, though there is little that can be known other than basic statistics without there being at least some subjectivity and bias. but, once we have the narrative and have done our best to understand it, we can take that and create some applicable lessons for the future. this is exactly the same whether we are looking at the spanish-flu pandemic or the novel-coronavirus, the revolution in russia or that in iran, the protests in fascist italy and spain or those in the square of heavenly peace. it is important to understand these things as current-events rather than narratives truly separate from our reality. so it’s best to treat the past as present and the present as past — remove emotion and identify bias then try to learn and apply those lessons to the best of our abilities. we won’t always succeed but if we don’t try we’re guaranteed to fail.
what can history tell us about the future?
the future is the result of the past. so we can learn exactly what the future holds for us and determine how we can best deal with it. it’s important to remember, though, that the future isn’t just the result of our actions and decisions in a vacuum. it’s the collective result of everyone’s. what i want and try to make happen is likely not going to come — others seek different things are most of the power in our world comes from the rich and connected.
but history can give us patterns and lessons and we shouldn’t discount them just because they are from a time very different from our own.
history, of course, doesn’t have all the answers. people are human — they are, by definition, unpredictable. but when we look at the past and study history’s narratives, biases and assumptions, we can predict some of that behavior and much of the reaction that will come for each of our choices and decisions. if we study history looking for a perfect model for the future, we will be sadly disappointed. if we go there looking for a better lens to see clearly what to do for the best possible results in the circumstances, we may be pleasantly-surprised.
practically speaking, i think i may have just created better summary notes for the first lecture of this course than the originals. but that’s the proof of what i have been talking about. every time you teach something, you understand it better. if you can’t teach it, you simply don’t know it.
this has been a demonstration, of course. do this for your own notes. you don’t have to write thousands of words for every class you attend, though i recommend being as thorough as you can comfortably be. what you will discover is that, having spent a few hours taking the information and turning it into a lesson for someone else, you will be vastly more comfortable with it and it will be retained far better than any in-class exercises, flashcards, group study-sessions or question-and-answer drills will ever give you. and it’s not really going to take you that long. you can probably do this for an hour lecture in little more than an hour or two — and i suspect you’ll probably spend more than that number of hours studying the material in that course during a standard semester, right?
thanks for taking the time to think about this and walk through a sample with me. i hope you’ll find the blogging-and-teaching-to-learn approach as useful as me and my students. good luck with your studies. may you be enlightened and deeply understand the world around you.