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Here’s a good British phrase for you yankees: Gobsmacked. If you don’t get it, allow me to define it for you.
Gobsmacked: Adjective; With reference to being shocked by a blow to the mouth, or to clapping a hand to one’s mouth in astonishment.
Yes, that’s a dictionary definition. Look it up if you don’t believe me.
This is pretty much the reaction I had when I started talking recently to friends about the history of war. It amazes me that Hollywood nurtures the idea that the first and second world wars only began when the Americans got involved. It also makes me completely gobsmacked to find the education system here actually enforces that idea. And to prove it, a friend of mine recently produced one of his text books from school that pretty much reduced the entire beginning of World War II to a single paragraph stating that there had been “… some limited conflicts in Europe prior to 1941.”
Being more than a little shocked by this revelation, I began to talk about other wars. It appears the dearth of realistic information is even worse when it comes to conflicts that have occurred since then. What really buggers my mind is that the American education system basically pretends that the Vietnam war pretty much never existed, or ended in a stalemate situation. What? Are you kidding me? No offense meant to my American friends, but Vietnam was a conflict that was lost. It started with the best of intentions (publicly), but quickly devolved into a war of attrition with an enemy who used tactics and strategies so different from Americans that we couldn’t hope to win. Add to that the “home field advantage” the Vietnamese had, is it any wonder really that American soldiers lost their lives in such horrible numbers?
Don’t misunderstand me, I have friends of mine who fought in that conflict. They’re all older than me, and they are to a man decent, hard working and good people who I have the utmost respect for. My comment is not about the Vietnam conflict… I am not old enough to have been around, and therefore am not old enough to hold a valid opinion of that conflict. Anything I say is based upon second-hand knowledge of the circumstances.
My comment instead is about an education system that seems to give recent generations an extremely skewed view of history. Sure, it’s often said that history is written by the winners, but even losses and mistakes can provide vital and useful information about yourself, your enemy and provide invaluable information to future generations about the mistakes made. It’s also said that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. I feel this is a huge disservice to my peers, and the children of my entire generation who are being short-changed by this myopic and controlled view of the past.
Looking at some of the knowledge my friends have of the Vietnam conflict (these would be friends of my age, not my friends who were there), there’s a huge lack of knowledge about Vietnam that really makes my eyes roll. The entire teaching of Vietnam in schools for my peers was pretty much a mention of the conflict in response to the popularity of the Rambo movies. Even then, the mention was cursory and didn’t delve deeply into it at all. Most of the knowledge these friends of mine have of the entire conflict was learned from movies like “First Blood” and “Born on the Fourth of July”. How can you possibly form an opinion about anything from that amount of information? Those aren’t even historical; they’re fiction portraying a particular viewpoint.
It blows my mind that Americans know far more about World War II than they know about Vietnam. Between Vietnam and Korea, these have almost become “forgotten conflicts”. Well, not forgotten because they are still in our media… but to most of today’s generation they may as well be fictional battles that never really took place. At least for all the attention that’s paid to them in the classroom. Even then, the paucity of information regarding World War II prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is quite saddening. Don’t even get me started on the “US Focus” of these self-same text books once they do detail the war efforts. Efforts by Canada, Britain and Russia are skimmed over while huge chunks of the text books detail the daylight bombing raids by B-17’s flown by American pilots. Don’t even get me started on the almost complete lack of information about the massive manpower, infrastructure and life cost that was paid by the other allied countries who were close enough to Axis countries to be bombed and attacked daily. Even today, I know from experience that Britain bears the scars of that conflict.
I feel that some of my best times at school in history class, at least those I learned the most from were the somewhat inglorious mistakes we had made as a people, as a country and just in general. The crusades for example were (in hindsight) a rather silly notion that all peoples should be just like us. In reality, there are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between extremist terrorism and the crusaders; it’s just in that case we were the terrorists bent on making everyone Christian whether they wanted to be or not. We spent a lot of time on that… and it’s an embarrassing part of British history that I found fascinating. There are more, but I won’t bore you with this.
I write this just because I feel that some of the current events in Iraq are because Americans don’t remember the past where they were taught that military strategy is at a loss when it comes to guerilla warfare. We must adapt to fight this war, we can’t fight it like we are used to. We must adapt our way of thinking to beat them at their own game, not try to “show them who’s boss” with people and machines. In part, we feed the hatred of us by doing what we’re doing, without really being able to do much to beat them at their own game. I am not a military strategist or tactician, but I do see that we’re fighting another guerilla war. Instead of forests and trees we have cities and buildings. Other than that, we should take the lessons we learned in Vietnam and use them… not try to brush it under the rug.
I have friends in Iraq right now… if you’re reading this guys I’m with you. I support our troops… many of them are my friends. I question often the reasons for going to war, and I question some of the actions taken by our administration as it continues… but the troops, I support.
As long as I’m free to question that, and free to voice my opinion you’ll know that what you fight for is not in vain.