History doesn't repeat-it just keeps raising the same issues

Leonard Koppett

December 11, 1992|By Leonard Koppett

UNITED States troops have been sent to Somalia, unde United Nations auspices, to make possible the delivery of food to the starving through armed groups who have been usurping it. The announced goal is to have the U.S. military replaced by U.N. peacekeeping forces once some degree of security has been established for those delivering aid to the helpless.

In Bosnia, the slaughter of the Muslim population continues, along with other internecine warfare, while the United Nations remains undecided about what to do. Eventual U.S. participation in some as yet undefined intervention is quite possible.

Famine remains a reality in other parts of Africa, like Sudan and Ethiopia, not just in Somalia. The fate of Kurds, in northern Iraq as well as in Turkey, remains unsettled. Internal violent conflict, at various levels, is going on India, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, Israel's occupied territories, Lebanon, Cambodia, the former Soviet Union, Liberia, South Africa, Haiti, Venezuela, Peru and Afghanistan, to mention only some of the places that immediately come to mind.

Separatist movements, less systematically violent, trouble Canada, Spain and parts of Indonesia, and already have broken up Czechoslovakia. The eventual relationships between China and Taiwan, China and Hong Kong, North and South Korea, the Baltic Republics and Russia, Cuba and the United States (and others) remain unclear. The other side of the separatist coin, virulent cultural chauvinism directed against "outsiders" along traditional Nazi-fascist lines, has been coming out from under the rocks in Germany, France and even Italy, and is the basis of the whole Balkan tragedy.

It's difficult to understand (1) what's actually going on in the world, (2) how it affects us, (3) which emotional, intellectual and moral responses are appropriate, (4) what sort of actions we can or should support, (5) what will be the consequences of one or another plan of action, and (6) how our true and legitimate "national security interests" can be defined amid such chaos.

And it is at this point that some awareness of history can help.

It has been said that history repeats itself, and that those who don't learn from it are condemned to repeat it. For all the truth in such observations, I don't think they're quite correct. History doesn't repeat, in the sense that the same circumstances and events occur again in a way very similar to the way they occurred before. No matter how striking the similarity, circumstances always are significantly different at different times different settings. What do get repeated are the underlying forces, issues and patterns: succession to power, aggression, ethnic and commercial rivalry, racial and religious hatred.

Knowing history, sketchily or in great detail, won't provide answers to today's agonizing problems -- but it can help us recognize the questions.

And the condemnation we want to avoid is stumbling into the same answers that didn't work in earlier cycles.

So as we try to make some sense of these admittedly bewildering, complex (and yes, terrifying) problems brought to us so vividly by unprecedented technology, it may help us to contemplate what little we know about the past in this way: We may be able to identify which answers proved to be wrong. That won't prevent us from arriving at new wrong answers, but it can narrow the field in which to seek good ones.

We know, from the League of Nations experience of the 1920s and 1930s, that inaction against blatant aggression guarantees far bloodier, costlier and desperate reaction later. That indicates that the last year's inaction with respect to Yugoslavia was not a good answer.

We know, from our experience in Southeast Asia and that of the Soviets in Afghanistan that arming surrogates in the course of great-power rivalry doesn't "win" an area for one side or the other, but merely supplies vast armaments to local combatants who will continue to use them for their own purposes and perhaps against us.

That indicates that we are reaping in Somalia (and elsewhere in Africa and Asia) what we have sown.

We know, from this century's history of Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union, that savage "internal" unrest and dictatorships inevitably cause external trouble: refugees, economic disaster, war. That should tell us that excessively rigid concepts of "sovereignty" can't deal with the realities of the modern world. Whether it is hit-and-run terrorism from protected bases, or the actual establishment of dictatorial regimes (like Iraq, for instance), it's everybody's business sooner or later, and is best faced sooner.

We know from all history that when far-flung empires break up -- Roman, European and most recently Russian and (in the economic sense) American -- what follows is not peace but greater turmoil.

The past can't tell us what we should do now, but it can tell us what's unlikely to succeed, so that we can at least try something else. New mistakes may be unavoidable; repeating the old ones will be our own fault.

Leonard Koppett is editor emeritus of the Peninsula Times Tribune of Palo Alto, Calif.

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