Take it from a history major: history is not what you think it is.
History is written by the victors. History is filled with liars. The people who crafted it were the ones who had the power and resources to tell their side of the story, and generally that means whoever is left alive. Only in recent years have defeated parties been able to tell their stories to any major degree, and their testimonials can be as politically driven and deceitful as those of their conquerors. A historian’s job is to sort through numerous accounts, peel back layers of bias, and ascertain facts, which is why studying history is more complicated than simply reading books and accepting whatever they say.
This makes it frustrating to hear people claim such-and-such group is “on the wrong side of history,” an odious phrase frequently bandied about as a balm for popular anxiety in the wake of events like the recent attacks in Brussels and Paris. President Obama uses it often in reference to ISIS. He is also fond of its cousins, such as saying ISIS has “no place in the twenty-first century.” Last July, he promised real victory would come not on the battlefield but in hearts and minds, because, “ideologies are not defeated with guns, they are defeated by better ideas.”
Yes, like when we littered the beaches of Normandy with copies of The Declaration of Independence and the SS scurried in terror, the philosophical untenability of Nazism exposed before their very eyes. Or Sherman’s March to the Sea, when the cuddly general travelled from Chattanooga to Savannah, sat down with each slave-owning family, and convinced them slavery was incompatible with American freedom.
“Defeating ideologies” is impossible. There will always be people stupid or wicked enough to embrace heinous ideas. To the extent ideas can be “defeated”, it is through relegation to dark corners of society. They never disappear. So Obama is right to say crushing ISIS will not end radical Islam, just as he would be right to say spraying your house for pests will not eliminate termites from the planet. No one is talking about destroying radical Islam as a concept, only stopping its violent exponents from reshaping the world in their ugly image.
Obama seems to believe we will defeat ISIS because our ideas are better. No doubt they are, but people with bad ideas believe this, too. If you asked Hitler if he was on the right side of history, what would he have said? What about Stalin or Che Guevara? What about Christopher Colombus or Cecil Rhodes? Everyone – good guys who win, good guys who lose, bad guys who win, bad guys who lose – believes they are on the right side of history. If we’re supposing history picks sides, and the people with the best ideas win, that suggests some uncomfortable conclusions – were the Native Americans on the wrong side of history? I wouldn’t say so, but they sure as hell lost anyway.
The truth is that there is no right side of history. History has no preordained direction and will never lead us toward utopia, because human beings are not perfectible. Even the best among us are irreparably flawed. These flaws will not be contained within us or bounded by law. As long as we are in charge of things on this planet, there will be bloodshed and suffering, tears and pain. There will be no “end of history” brought about by human hands, the triumphalism of starry-eyed ideologues notwithstanding. We should know – we have been fooled before. The French Revolution was going to spread liberté, égalité, fraternité around the world. It consumed itself with internecine bloodshed, giving way to Napoleon and then a restored monarchy. Communism promised an end to a history of class struggle, but gave us gulags, genocide, and starvation. When it collapsed, Westerners honked about their own end of history, believing their model was the last one left standing. New bogeymen have filled the void. So it has gone, and so it will always go, with the human race.
Some commentators have chided Obama for seeming to believe history is a screenwriter. In a way it is, but it is a subversive one, one that despises clichés. The story it tells is not Harry Potter’s, filled with deus ex machinas and Macguffins to save the good guys when their need is dire. It’s more like Game of Thrones, where smarter or more capable bad guys will kill you – slit your throat, chop your head off, sew a wolf’s head to your neck and parade you around as a kill trophy – and it doesn’t matter that you were the only honorable characters in the show.
What this means in the context of current affairs is that good people must act. The best way to respond to the reality of evil in this world is not to sink into despair or nihilism but to fight it nonetheless, doing everything we can to build a better world in spite of it. In the case of ISIS, it may be that minimal intervention, primarily consisting of support for allies such as the Kurds, is all that is necessary to fulfill this obligation. For the sake of my own libertarian streak, I hope this is the case, though the evidence suggesting that our current involvement isn’t enough is hard to ignore. But whatever we do, please, let’s not pretend victory is assured because we have the right ideas and history looks out for the good guys. It doesn’t, so we shouldn’t.