Alarmed by plummeting test scores, especially in math and science, American education has gone through several periods of reform which has shifted curriculum objectives and teacher education programs. The end result of this is that over the past 20 to 30 years, American students are graduating from high school with little to no knowledge or appreciation of history. History is an essential subject, because it teaches you where you came from, and points toward where you might be going. It also outlines a path that allows you to see the progress humans have made over time, and how particular cultures developed, including your own. The main outcome of a history class is to help you understand your origins, your thinking, and your life, as it exists, and give you a context for planning your future.
As time has passed in my education career, which began as a history and English teacher in 1983, I have observed a noticeable drop in the level of understanding of history exhibited by students, and by college graduates and adults. People form opinions about the way things should be in the world without the slightest knowledge of how things got to be the way they are. Even government leaders demonstrate an appalling lack of historical context and knowledge, and make decisions which create problems that are worse than the ones we are trying to resolve.
In the assumed role of “world policeman”, the United States does not have a great track record when it comes to intervention in the affairs of other countries, and in the “protection” of it’s own interests. The ISIS insurgency that is now occurring in Iraq is an excellent example of what happens when you don’t know history, and don’t pay attention to the past.
The first major military operation involving the United States and an invasion of Iraq occurred in 1990. It has become known as the Persian Gulf War, and the goal of the US invasion was to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation under the military ambitions of Saddam Hussein. During that war, the US went in, freed Kuwait, put security measures in place to prevent another invasion and occupation, and got out with the objective accomplished, though it was months before the fires were extinguished in the burning oil wells in the Kuwaiti desert. The balance of power, though somewhat disturbed by the defeat of Saddam Hussein, remained in place.
The second invasion of Iraq was a blind and misguided adventure that rode on the wave of anti-Arabic, anti-Muslim fever sweeping the country in the wake of the 9-11 tragedy. The fact that the victims of 9-11 were disrespected by the use of their tragedy is bad enough, but invading and occupying a country, bombing its cities, creating ruins and spreading death on the pretense of looking for weapons of mass destruction is inexcusable. The cost is still being counted, and the events that are now occurring, namely the ISIS insurgency, were predicted by a number of people long before the invasion, and the previous administration was warned. History was the resource used to make the prediction, which turned out to be quite accurate.
The presence of European imperialism, American capitalist enterprise, and the support that both of those things give to the continued existence of the nation of Israel is the reason for the Muslim insurgencies in the first place. The tangled mass of variant strains of Islam, all built on forced conversion, goes back to the Caliphates that formed in the wake of the collapse of the Muslim Empire, which in turn developed on top of the corrupt and self-serving Byzantine Empire, has led to all sorts of violence in the region for over a thousand years. Post World War I British Imperialism was interested in how it could profit economically from the natural resources of the area, the cheap labor and the trade routes. The lines they drew on the ground, and the countries they created were designed to protect their interests, not to advance those of the region’s residents, who were treated with contempt. While Syria was a bit more homogenous, in terms of race and religion, Iraq was a monstrosity in which the majority of Muslims were subjected to the control of a religious minority. Favor granting allowed some Sheiks to express loyalty to the crown in exchange for independence. As long as the oil and goods flowed cheaply and richly toward Britain, and there were no disruptions of the order, it was quiet.
After the disruptions and intrigue of the Second World War, the British continued to pursue their economic and imperial interests in the middle east, under increasing pressure from the US to open up Palestine to Jewish immigration in the wake of the Holocaust. There had been a small Jewish presence in the region prior to the war, but Britain was adamantly opposed to upsetting the political balance, which they had orchestrated for their own interests. Pressure eventually forced the policy to be withdrawn, though it would take more pushing to get them to reluctantly agree to the creation of the state of Israel. That pretty much spelled the end of imperial British rule, but left seething ethnic and religious minorities grouped together behind artificial borders in nation-states that were not ethnically, linguistically, culturally or religiously homogenous. The presence of a growing and prosperous Jewish minority was an agitation, as was the continuous foreign presence in the oil fields.
Oil money enriched Sheiks, who were virtual dictators, and further oppressed the majority of the people who longed for prosperity, watching mineral wealth extracted from their “country,” but receiving little of the benefit from it. Ancient hatreds were used by foreigners to keep themselves in the position to reap the benefits. That, in a historical nutshell, is the reason groups like Hamas, Al Qaida, Isis, and other insurgencies, have formed, and receive growing support, including financial resources. It has contributed to the use of Islam as a weapon or tool to gain control, most often by violent means, and to enforce a more fundamentalist practice of it on the people who fall under its jurisdiction.
Iraq was not a fundamentalist Islamic country under Saddam Hussein. He was much more of a political leader than a religious one. Like most Middle Eastern dictators, he learned how to play one side against the other for his own benefit, and that had a detrimental effect on his country, its people, and their prosperity, but the invasion, and occupation of Iraq by the US did not lead to the formation of a democratic republic. It led to large sections of the country falling into anarchy. It is wrong to think that there was ever a time when there was even a chance for that to happen without the presence of large numbers of American troops. It is clear that Iraq can’t be held together peacefully, and develop a strong, democratic republic without the force of an occupying foreign military presence. It is also clear that the anarchy has produced an opportunity for insurgencies to develop, and to create a situation that is more dangerous for the Iraqi people, and for “US interests,” than prior to the war.
It is a mess, and a dilemma that may not have any easy solution. If we just back out, leave, and let things go, the whole region may become anarchic, allowing extremists and insurgents free rein, along with access to the region’s oil wealth and technology. Iraq and Syria would become rogue states like Iran and Afghanistan, with Taliban-like governments supporting terrorist activity that could be devastating. The other Middle Eastern countries, like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the circle of highly developed nations around the perimeter of the Arabian peninsula, would be in grave danger, requiring military assistance in large quantities from the US to fend off invasion. The Bush Administration was advised by some men who knew their history, like Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell, that this would be the end result of an invasion and occupation of Iraq. The can was kicked to the current administration, who must now figure out how the US will respond, and is left with no good solution. The current Congress, with a house determined to defend the indefensible, is of no help whatsoever.
“Those who do not know their history, are doomed to repeat it.”