We live soaked in good fortune and rarely have the slightest sense of it. It may be all for the best, but an occasional glimpse of how we win the lottery of astonishing daily good fortune can nevertheless boost our spirits and sober our appreciation of our lives. Pain, both physical and spiritual, presses down upon us and insists upon our attention. This is pain’s purpose: to signal something is wrong that demands our attention. Pull out the thron from our finger before it becomes infected. Avoid that man who threatens our wellbeing.
Our ability to avoid trouble and to know what we have avoided is both difficult and immensely important; for what has not happened will never compete with what troubles have happened. In 1933, Hitler won an election to rule Germany. Next to no one could foresee the horrr of what would unfold from this event. But ten years earlier, Hitler had bragged he would hang every Jew sequentially until they were exterminated. Could the Holocaust have been anticipated in 1933? Perhaps, although very few people at the time could have imagined civilization descending to such depths. Very few did. Was this lack of foresight laziness? Was it a lack of imagination? Of course, we can never see ahead nearly so well as we can see behind.
My wife and I have attended the World War
Two Conference at the WW II Museum in New Orleans for six or seven years. We have been impressed by the depth of scholarship, the detailed attention to the vast intricacies of various battles, of political maneuverings, and so on. Various skilled historians present wonderfully detailed stories of how the events of 1937 through 1945 developed. Each story represents an effort to explain how history unfolded, and why events succeeded events in the complex way they did. None of these stories has ever struck me as entirely explanatory despite the great ambition and scholarship to do precisely that: to explain of how and why history unfolded as it did. Both small and large accidents contribute enormously to the outcomes of history. Had the Germans brought their tanks rapidly forward with the first awareness of the Normandy invasion, the success of that much-celebrated effort might have been vastly diminished. A few small variations in the battle of Midway and that famous victory could easily have become something catastrophic. A sergeant too hung over in a critical moment may have made an error that altered an outcome in a pivotal battle. I imagine many military commanders in history have known that without good fortune, their successes would not have resulted in the outcomes history later recorded. Interestingly, this rarely seems to be lost on soldiers awarded the highest honors, such as the Congressional Medal of Honor. Most of those men, when speaking of their heroic accomplishments emphasize that they are no different than the thousands of others less fortunate than they were, many of whom perished, or whose duties never required any effort that defied all odds of survival. And, of course, there are the hundreds or thousands of men whose deeds were just as heroic, but were never recorded by history. Of course, success can also breed hubris. Perhaps many successful commanders believed in their omnipotence until circumstances humiliated them, as Hitler himself discovered in 1945.
What I am seeking to introduce here is the explanatory ambition of historical research. How did Hitler rise to such power in such a civilized country as mid-century Germany? Historians’ efforts to shed meaningful light on such questions propels them, quite sensibly, into the investigations of prior conditions, to those circumstances that preceded the events they wish to explain. While there is unquestionably a great deal to be learned from such investigations, I would like to propose we also thereby miss an immensely important parallel: what actions prevented calamity?
Defeating the Third Reich was unquestionably the pivotal accomplishment of the twentieth century. It is hard to imagine the second half of that century had Hitler prevailed. Yet I have never heard a detailed discussion of how that terrible, just war might have never had to have been fought in the first place. Could the catastrophe of Nazi Germany have been forestalled before it came to such power? Of course the theoretical answer must be yes. Hitler could, for instance, have been assassinated. Other, saner men in power could have acted more forcefully when they had the chance.
Historical narratives feel explanatory, but they can never succeed because to observe that this event followed what preceded it explains little. It is consigned to the dark mysteries of life not yet encountered. Our deepest responsibility, however, is owed to the future, not to the past. We cannot alter events already recorded. We can only hope to influence those events still to come. To influence the future positively calls forth perhaps the greatest and most subtle of all human virtues: the exercise of wisdom. If perfect wisdom might be understood to be the capacity to foresee every consequence of any act, then that is clearly beyond any mortal’s capacity. Yet it remains, like a mathematical asymptote, the constant aspiration fo our greatest ambitions. We all wish to influence our children to avoid all the myriad risks of early life to insure their hope of living with minimal suffering (work at your studies, don’t smoke, don’t take dangersous drugs, and so on, in the list know to every contemporary parent).
But does wisdom exist in the wilder world? Who can claim to have some access to it? Whose voice will rise above the din of the street to influence the trajectory of history? Are there inflection points when small pressures can influence the course of events? Of course there are! But who might have the figts to push the complex unraveling of events in some positive direction? Ten million voices may aspire to do so. How can we ever hear the voice we need to listen to? Can millions of us, we citizens of this imperiled world, listen together, much less act together? It is a deeply daunting thought.
We are now, at a point when the very viability of our planet, the world that sustains our livesk is in peril, at least it would seem so. Perhaps the most compelling contermporary voice speaking to this nearly incomprehensible possibility has belonged to an unlikely sixteen year old Swedish girl named Greta Thunberg. She scolds, and politicians like those in the British Parliament applaud in a sort of vapid, thoughtless approval lest they seem unsympathetic to this compelling young woman. In doing so, they seem entirely incapable of hearing the content of what she is telling them. Perhaps she is the unlikely voice of wisdom, a person with a stake in the future that none of these politicians share. Fortunately, she hs excited hundreds of thousands of young people who feel an urgency, and a stake in the ominous prospects of a wounded world, that older people do not.
Let’s then return to the theme: can we really see the troubles we have avoided? Can we identify in historical narrative those inflection points when tragic outcomes have been avoided? Rarely. And it’s converse: can we see the troubles looming before us? While both of these mental inquireies are important, neither is easily available to our usual mental capacities. Yet this, to me, should be the most fundamental duties of the study of history. Rather than simply telling the sotores of events already known, we should also aspire t to shed light on how misfortunes failed to occur. Had Captain Smith reduced speed in the Titanic’s first crossing, perhaps it would have avoid the iceberg, saving 1500 lives including his own. But would history have known? Could any historian have told this story, the story of a tragedy avoided?
There are times when events pinch us down to sharply narrow views of what life requires of us. Peral Harbor is bombed and the event galvanized an entire country. Such homogenizing historical events are uncommon, and those that generate sustained commitment that the Pacific war did are far more rare.
The World War Two Conference therefore suffers, in my view, in its slightly self-satisfied focus on the remarkable story of American success. Very few wars produce such a clear and satisfying outcome as this war did. Reviewing, and attempting to explain such a clear success certainly has some value, but it also risks distracting us from the urgent responsibility to peer towards the future. The finale of WW II produced a world order which has supported peace, at least in the “first world,” unlike that foolish residue of WW I. That peace has begun looking increasingly frail fo a variety of reasons. A powerful convocation of scholars such as those that gather yearly for this conference has a obligation in my mind to discuss not only the successes of the past but to propose what those successes may teach us about our daily encounters with the world to come. Lectures directly aspiring to do this, or a portion of every lecture could serve to remind us regularly that we will never live free of vulnerability, that our world will never be entirely safe. These scholars are sure people whose studies could shed some wisdom in the endeavor to anticipate and respond to the dangers lying ahead of us before they spring their traps on us.