Caleb’s Corner: History is dying, and people will follow
Editor in Chief
My summer job involves going door to door with a clipboard and, in many cases, raising people’s taxes, serving my county through the Porter County Assessor’s Office. Somebody’s gotta do it, but I can’t call myself a “civil servant” without a chuckle. One day this summer, though, about mid-July, I knocked on the door of a man who, at age 20, actually served his country in a meaningful way.
He was shaky, his eyes were empty. He answered the door and stared me dead in the eyes for a good ten seconds. Then he let out a strained croak.
“When I was about as old as you, they sent me to war.”
He repeated that last line, “they sent me to war,” a few times, shaking his head, the life absent from his eyes. “Korea.” Shortly thereafter his wife walked up and shooed him away. “He’s losing his head,” she told me.
I hadn’t thought much of it then. Just another vet. As with most 20-year-olds in this country, war is foreign to me. Though there’s a constant threat of “a war,” it won’t be a war that myself or most others will have to fight in.
It’s an especially distant concept on this campus. I’m sitting here, on a bench outside of Morris Library, and it’s serene. The setting sun bleeds through the clouds, and the breeze, just cool enough for a sweater, brushes against my arms. There are some people out, but not too many, and they seem content enough. The bricks look nice for the first time. We live in a wonderful world.
But, in a different time and place, at age 20, I could’ve been looking at an area like this — lush, quiet, serene ― and blasting craters in it from 5,000 feet in the air. Like millions of other American men, I could’ve been dropped into a small, peaceful jungle and told to “kill kill kill.” I could have, and probably would have, killed innocent civilians, under orders, without thinking twice, brainwashed into thinking they were “the enemy” — some mixture of communism, racism and testosterone.
Or, like the old man, I could’ve been in Korea, killing people and watching comrades get killed in the unforgiving Korean terrain. In the not-so-distant past, I could’ve been stationed in Baghdad, fighting an uphill, mostly fruitless war premised on faulty intelligence.
But I’m here, sitting in the comfort of a university. Here, we feel immune to all that. We look forward, we see progress everywhere we look. We see modern history as a fruitful period of intellectual progress, not a bloodbath that used the same ideas and technologies spawned at universities to kill. We don’t think about having to kill. Or whether we have the will to stop others from killing. We don’t have to think about the ever-looming threat of death.
We quite literally cannot imagine these things. And that terrifies the hell out of me. As history goes out of fashion, with enrollment dropping in history departments here and nationwide, we don’t study them. We forget that they happened. That it’s possible. Too possible.
That man, though I couldn’t see too far into those opaque, glossy eyes, understood war in its full horror. As do most veterans. But today, and this is a good thing, there are fewer young people serving in active combat than before. It means fewer people are going to war. Fewer people are going to know people who went to war or died in war. As time moves forward, fewer people than ever in this country are going to understand war like that man and other veterans do.
The more disconnected we get from war, the easier it becomes for us to treat it as an abstraction, especially here in a numbers-driven, STEM-dominated college world. War becomes a matter of strategy, an economics problem, a subject for a new ethical theory, a poli-sci paper. We can easily become the reincarnations of Robert McNamara and “the best and the brightest,” strategizing about killing from a hemisphere away, convinced that what we’re doing is right as we reduce millions to mere numbers.
And as automated warfare (think drones) grows more sophisticated, and as Big Data reduces us all to numbers, war will grow more impersonal and we’ll be able to kill more people with less people. As the world and its conflicts get bigger, that will be easier than ever to do.
That old man probably thought I was a naive, privileged college kid. He’d be right. But the least us naive, privileged kids can do, if we’re going to end up ruling the world someday, is take our education fully and seriously. To do that man some justice and study, thoroughly and intentionally, the wars that he and countless others fought in and died for. To make sure, 70 years from now, there are no people, anywhere, who suffered for a lifetime because of our reckless agenda.
History makes this stuff real. It throws you into the blood and guts of our past and forces you to face it. Most students can complete a degree here without taking a single history course. But I sure didn’t learn this in any of the STEM courses I’ve taken.