Discussing Congressional politics over at Facebook I made the following comment.

The past is dead, and only exists on the pages of books. Chart a new course and new future.

I was questioned pointedly as to what I exactly mean in that statement; and rightfully so. Am I saying that that history gives us no lessons to learn from? Am I saying that we live in such unique times that all that’s come before is irrelevant? Not quite. I will use this blog to expand on my sentiment, and hopefully give some insight into what I consider the defining theme of the current Era.

We don’t live in the 20th Century any more. The themes we based our American Perspective on are geopolitically (and more) dead. There is no iron curtain, there is no soviet menace, there are no dominos to keep from falling. In the last decade or so we have not witnessed the end of history, what we have witnessed was the end of the 20th Century American paradigm.

America’s waffling in international affairs, our inability to articulate a strategy–especially grand strategy–comes not from lack of strategic ability, but from a lack of grand narrative. While it seems as if it were easy for us creating such a narrative in looking back, it was not an easy thing to clearly accept and define who we were (and who we should become) as a Nation from the start of the Cold War. Though we made the decisions, and we thus defined who we were going to be politically, socially, and on the world stage. Such decisions are made generationally and change with each subsequent generation.

My perspective differs greatly from those older than myself. I turned 18 in 2000, I will be 31 in a few weeks. Think about that for a minute. Much is said regarding the personality of Millennials, Generation Y, older Generation X, or whatever the nomenclature is for people around my age. But what is said is largely centered around the personality quirks of Americans 30 and younger. But, those quirks are based upon experience.

I’ve been in Europe for two years and three days. I’ve worked in NATO for this whole time. The impetus for NATO’s creation largely no longer exists, NATO has for the last few years been reinventing itself because of the loss of its impetus. But, beyond NATO all of the geopolitical realities of Europe are in flux. Additionally, the United States and our relationship to Europe is also undergoing change. While we were liberators in the 20th Century, the deeds done by the US are not a vibrant living memory any more. The monuments are here, the appreciation for what was done is still here. But, the men and women who did the liberation for the most part are not. As well, those who were liberated are not. The decisions made by US and European leaders are not being made in the Cold War paradigm either; decisions are not being made between people who were making decisions during the 20th Century.

Now, take this one step further–the average person. The average person not being either academically or personally steeped in the history of the Second World War or the Cold War, what do they think of the World in which we all live today? How do they self identify as a citizen of a nation? How do they understand the actions taken by other nations? Inherently, it will have to differ significantly from how those that lived through the Second World War and Cold war did (or do).

While I live in a World that results from theirs I cannot make decisions based upon what they did. I must inherently stand on my own and make decisions based on my own merit. This is the nucleus from which my generation of leaders will make decisions.

In all this, I am saying that for all intents and purposes, for those currently in power and for those who are coming to power: That history, which is arguably the greatest in all of America’s history, is not relevant in the sense that I cannot claim credit for it, nor should anyone give me that credit. My self and my nation are only as good as it’s current generation.

Perspective matters, as does how a people identify themselves and their nation. In the American experience I’ve noticed a predilection to point to our recent history as an exemplar of who we are. There is inherently nothing wrong with this, but there is some peril in doing so. The peril is in making decisions based on what once was. On living under the auspices of those no longer alive. A habitual form of ancestor worship in the worst sense.

America needs to come to terms that the 20th Century is over. The ways we did things then do not translate over very well into this 21st Century. Mark Twain talked about how history rhymes. And what we’re doing now is looking for that syllable that fits perfectly in relation to the previous stanza, and the whole World is too. Culturally, geopolitically, philosophically, and damn near everything is being defined for a new age. That, is the defining theme for today.

We can either be annoyed or frightened by this reality, or we can embrace it. But, by embracing it we have to let go of the past and not conflate what we do today with what was done in the past. What we do today defines what America is, not what our ancestors did. We’re only as good as we allow ourselves to be. The goodwill we earned as liberators and defenders of freedom has nearly run its course. It’s now up to the living to make new decisions predicated upon today’s realities that can either be as good or worse than our ancestors decisions.





Posted by CTR1(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III in History

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  • Sean Heritage

    Another thoughtful contribution, YN2! Could not agree more. I speak with many people who share this very sentiment. Working in the “Cyber Arena” makes it even more challenging to accept that we need to fit into the existing model, rather than break the existing model so we can evolve into who we need to be. I look forward to partnering with you and others truly interested in “chart(ing) a new course and new future.” Hopefully, others will evolve or find other venues in which to apply yesterday’s thinking to today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.

  • jasonapawlak

    “My self and my nation are only as good as it’s current generation.”

    “whatever the nomenclature is for people around my age”

    I agree there is a huge difference from making opinions and decisions based on your own past vs making them on studied past.

    One of the real game changers here I believe is that the span of a “generation” is becoming so small and undefined. People always look to be a part of their peers, that’s why generations can be defined in the first place.

    While making “now” decisions, it is very important to learn from history (from other generations) but also to realize that there are no identical situations (history repeats itself) but that there are only many parallels.

  • grandpabluewater

    YN2: The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated. While you are quite welcome and I was glad to do it, I’m not done yet.

    I’m glad to hear the Euros don’t really need us. Now we can leave with a clear conscience. We should. Next year.

    • Grandpabluewater,

      What I am talking about is not the passing of a generation as much as it is subsequent generations being motivated to do just as much as those that preceded it. Or, in other words, for my generation not to take what your generation did for granted–for us to not assume that you guys did all that was needed, and now, we can do less.

      To honor what all you guys did, we must do more and do better. For me to stand at the WWII monument with tears in my eyes in gratitude is not enough. Such ways of honoring our past rings hollow to me when there is so much to be done and we are able to do it. I have to do more, I have to do better to truly honor all you have done.

      That said, for me to do more, and to do better, I have to let go of what you guys did and remake the World, as you all did in fighting WWII, in waging the Cold War. You guys changed the World and won. While I do not have a war like WWII, or the Cold War, my deeds have to be on par none the less.

      • grandpabluewater

        HLGIII (no point in calling you by your current rate, you are going up, fast):

        I want no adulation, I want to be considered, listened to and challenged, like anyone else, not patted on the head and humored like an old blind dog with a wall full of blue ribbons. There’s bite in this old dog yet.

        There are several urgent reasons to watch history like you would watch a reef on the downwind side…

        to know what worked;
        to know what didn’t;
        to know the old grudges, since they drive fresh folly;

        it may be be a lot closer than you think and affect the currents pushing you off course without you knowing;

        Finally, there are no new cons. The oldest and most reliable of of all is: “We cannot be held back by the old. outmoded ways of the past.”

      • I agree, completely. But, I also fear that too many take the recent lessons from history as an excuse to not be as great as your generation–that we are endowed with that greatness.

        I hope my words are defining the contrast I see between generations: That the great things done by those who came before us are a gift that amounts to a limited opportunity to do greater things.

        If subsequent generations do not take the opportunity presented to them, they do not honor their past. Of course, “taking the opportunity” is incumbent upon learning the lessons from the past.

  • Lynn Wheeler

    Finishing “Triumphant plutocracy; the story of American public life from 1870 to 1920 (free kindle download at wayback machine) … quite a large amount grist for lawyer jokes

    loc2233-36: A man, to become a good lawyer, must have spent his life studying “precedent.” What is precedent but the preservation of the status quo, and what is the status quo but the wisdom of yesterday? The good lawyer is therefore the lawyer who is able to preserve the shadow of yesterday and use it to darken the sunlight of today.

    loc2236-41: The good lawyer, to educate himself, pores over the Common Law of England. When his head is filled with seventeen hundred decisions handed down by judges who lived in the seventeenth century, before the American Colonies found the British rule intolerable, he fills up the chinks of his mind with Blackstone and with Kent’s Commentaries.

    loc2242-47: First, because his study of precedent has rendered him incapable of thinking into the future and has thus made him a natural protector of things as they are; Second, because the tradition of property rights inherited from the past can best be preserved through such a class of “dead-hand” experts; Third, because the lawyer, under the ethics of his profession, is the only man who can take a bribe and call it a fee.

  • N D

    “The themes we based our American perspective on are geopolitically and more dead?” Respectfully, we are scarcely over 1/10th of the way into the 21st century and you are trying to broadly categorize it, which I think is a reach. Your assertion that we should be forward leaning and “take no credit for the past” is an reminiscent of lamentations I have heard from liberal bloggers on Democraticunderground, Huffington Post and others; however, I challenge you to look beyond the sports mentality of “only being as good as your last game” and look at the systemic and cultural dynamics and fundamentals that allow us to or prevent us from succeeding. Our legacy gives us that. You work for NATO–an organization that has not been strategically relevant for over ten years–yet the legacy of NATO (and its subsequent potential) is quintessential to future global security. Global security today without NATO would not be significantly different, but would our ability to shape it in the future be affected? I say yes…because at some point we may decide to stop the decline of American Influence and actually get back on the stallion and lead again. I recall you stating that in order for conservatives to move forward, they need to cut the cord on Ronald Reagan. Rubbish. I wonder if 30 years after President Washington left office if politicians were saying the same thing?

    Final thought: international paradigms are not created in by mythical fairies, they are created by nations and people with hegemonic aspirations, be they benevolent or malevolent. China is working to create a new paradigm. The islamists are working to create a new paradigm. Should we just roll over and “accept the ‘new normal'” or should we be out there battling back?

    • N D,

      You make a lot of fair points, and I am by no means dogmatic in my assertions in my blog. However, I do feel that I am more accurate than you give me credit for. Though, I attribute this to my poor writing.

      The sports mentality isn’t quite an accurate portrayal. I nearly did use that analogy when writing the blog. But, I stopped because of the specificity of WWII and the Cold War being irrelevant, as well as why a similar mentality is important.

      My concern with looking back to what was done has the ubiquitous monuments in Europe as its impetus. Everywhere I’ve been there are monuments to a great deeds done in the past, and there are buildings that were built for their grandeur alone. But, such buildings were only truly grand 100s of years ago. Then, there’s the Abbey (circa 1300) I went to that is now a hotel… I could not help but walk the massive halls of that Abbey and think to myself that the purpose for that building had long since past, and it now stood not for the glory of god, but for the glory of the past.

      What I have seen in Europe is a testament to the past. Function, in European cities, has form following it. Old buildings that are in most every way inferior to what could be are allowed to stand. Roads stay small, crooked, inefficient, and wreak havoc on a car’s suspension. Coming from an American perspective I cannot help but feel that Europeans accept, to a certain degree, the status quo for their life. That the road they walk is the road many generations previous to them have walked–that it worked for their ancestors and it will work for them too. I fear a similar mindset for America. Americans became who we are because certain people left all this behind in want of creating something new, something in their mind better, something they could make. We have a very mature infrastructure, polity, and culture–newer, but mature, just as Europe has. I fear that in want of honoring our past, we will become tied to it, as Europeans are to their old buildings and monuments.

      What I am advocating is a type of Objectivitst Individualism. And as Rand comes across as sounding harsh in her advocacy for the primacy for the individuals wants and right to obtain what they want; I come across as sounding harsh as well.

      You’re correct in saying we’re hardly 1/10th of the way into the 21st Century, and I am trying to broadly characterize it. But, look at how I broadly characterize it: There are no broad characterizations. There is no defining theme for today. No one type of art has primacy, we do not have a grand strategy, Asia while rising is not dominant in geopolitics, in the hard sciences we see that each is advancing faster than ever before in a nearly exponential sense–greatly out pacing the ability for the social sciences to come to terms with what it means for humanity. Yes, philosophy is languishing in more pedantic minutia than ever before.

      To your finial thought, what I am advocating is NOT rolling over and accepting the ‘new normal.’ What I am saying is for us to battle back, we cannot assume what has done in the past will secure our future.

      The victory in WWII assured American hegemony to a large degree. It assured that the good will of Americans was intrinsically understood by generations across the World. But, that assurance has run its course, and we cannot assume that WWII is a precedent that resonates in the minds of others. We will have to redouble our efforts in foreign affairs, every action we take and everything we do is a litmus test for global leadership. If we want to lead in the World, if we truly want to be that “indispensable nation” then we have to earn it with everything we do and everything we are. It’s getting harder now, a lot harder. And I hope I am clear on my desire for America to always be the indispensable nation. But, also clear in my assertion that we will only be the indispensable nation if we earn it every generation.

      • Awesome comeback. Plug this into your original blog entry and then submit to Foreign Affairs.

      • Matt

        I look at our history as real capital in a bank. Without that deposit we would have no capital to invest. With capital, our ability to chart our own course and “earn” our future is made possible. For example, our bases in Asia and the Pacific, which we earned in WWII, will allow us to tame China’s ambitions and earn ourselves continued peace and goodwill in Asia indefinately. Without those positions previously earned we would have little with which to earn our future. History is only valuable if you use it to earn additional value. Our bases in Europe and Nato itself are capital with real potential for additional rewards. It is what we do with the history we have inhereted that matters. Just like capital if you let it sit in a bank with no interest it will be worthless eventually. We must use the history we have inhereted to earn additional value.

      • Matt, that is in fact much of how I view recent history. I tend to view the ‘good will’ of our actions as being a type of capital.

        To be honest, and I’m not sure how well this sentiment will go over with others, the capital we earned over the 20th Century was largely (nearly completely, if not completely) spent during the stumping for war in Iraq, and to a lesser extend in the lead-up to Afghanistan.

        However, rather than being a plus-or-minus transaction it is of course more nebulous, and where I am left at in my thinking is that our wars over the last decade plus are a greater precedent than our wars of the 20th Century, especially for those who do not come from an American perspective.

        To your real estate analogy, you’re also correct. There would be no Enduring Freedom as we know if (or quite possibly at all) we did not have bases in Europe.
        For instance, when was the last time you heard of the wounded being transported through Hawaii to get back CONUS for medical treatment?

        A few commenters quickly jumped on what they assumed for my sentiment being that NATO and the Europeans do not need us any more since NATO has been in the midst of ACO reform for the last two years, and will continue the reform process until around 2015. But, that is not what I said, nor implied (nor honestly believe). Much more to my point is that we need Europe.

        The war in Afghanistan makes European geography, our military infrastructure there, and the diplomatic good will of Europeans vital to our national interests.

        Lastly, I’m going to digress a bit, but I think it bares mentioning that our pivot to the pacific is only possible because of the stability of Europe. And yes, this is due to the history that was written in the 20th Century.

  • Sperrwaffe

    thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic.
    There are some interesting approaches in it. And you finally made me join the discussion back here. Thank you for that little kick..;)
    Based on your discussions with N D and Grandpa (Prost to you!) I would like to give some additional point to consider.
    As you pointed out Europeans have a different approach towards their historical surroundings (if you might subsumize it this way) and the way we accept this. But it is certainly not a mindset to be afraid of. It makes you aware of the past, the history (but you have to learn that histroy in order to understand, something not easy for a lot of people).
    I admit, I am a little preoccupied since I studied History and even worse, I am a Naval Officer…damned
    Only when you now where you come from, you can challenge the status quo. And when you end up with the result that you are doing fine with it (pareto approach), this does not mean that you can still work on the remaining 20%.
    To finish this exurse on Europeans I give just one of my rules: “Just because something is old does not mean you throw it away.”
    You are right, that for a lot of people the ideas of strategy and grand narrative sound like the “Science of Crystall Balling”. So it is to educated people to enlarge the average persons point of view.
    For people like you. You are educated on these matters, you have made up your mind and you present them to a wider forum. So I have to challenge you a little bit. You say that the Geopolitics of the Cold War no longer matter, because the Cold War is over. We need something new. So throw away that old stuff? 😉
    What was the Geopolitics of the Cold War based on? Mahan, Mackinder, Spykman and newer studies from Grey. The theory of Heartland and the World Ocean is no longer relevant? Maybe you could have a look into these “Klassiker” of Geopolitics.
    What I want to say is, the period is over, right. But that does not mean that the theories and other basis behind it are obsolete. They can be adapted, the can be evolved. You don’t have to throw them away.
    So here we are again, You need to know where you come from. And that knowledge needs details, philosophical discussions, all cross-disciplinary. And a lot of historical knowledge. (I am currently reading Chester Coopers “In the Shadows of History”, Absolutely fascinating keeping in mind a hsitorical source analysis…). And “Cyber” is just a neew tool. It is not the solution for evolving a new Theorie. Remember the discussion about “Cyber and other stuff” you started. It was somehow cut off in the transition to Discus. I warned about the overestimation of the of “Cyber”. What are the definitions for all that fancy stuff?
    Handing over to Sean Heritage. What is the model you are talking about? What do you want to break up into something new? I think I have missed some of the points. Could you provide some more background?
    And again, why do we have to break up everything?

    I am looking forward for the continuation of the already interesting discussion.

    With Regards,

    Shame on you Lucien 😉

    Now you made me create a DISQUS Profile…Damned. But I want to continue the discussions here…So it was devil, fly, the lesser of two evils…

    I am not with facebook, not with twitter or g+. There I stay “old fashioned” and you may clearly call me so!!
    Sceptical Historical Heritage…(and I am not that old, as one might think now…)

  • Lynn Wheeler

    while a main theme of “triumphant plutocracy” is that congress is the most corrupt institution on earth (in part because of the excess number of lawyers) and only rarely does any member of congress have any integrity … a periodic subtheme is study of the past (not just lawyers) has been used to condition people to the status quo … as opposed to motivating innovation. however, it isn’t totally w/o any navy content; 3381-87:

    He made really the most brilliant career of any man I ever knew in the Senate during his first term. He was the author of the Rural Free Delivery service of the Post Office Department; he secured the appropriation for the building of the first submarine. He attacked and exposed the infamy of Cleveland’s administration, and his bond sales, and also assisted me in the fight with regard to the railway mail pay, and in the armor-plate controversy he showed up many remarkable and startling facts. He was a member of the Committee on Naval Affairs, and was a sturdy opponent of graft and extravagance.

  • leesea

    Words on the National Archives bldg:

    “The Past is Prologue”

  • Your theme reminds me of “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler, written in the ?70s.
    As I recall(not well,) he talked more about mankind’s inability to easily accept the rapid changes in social life and technology then occurring and probably accelerating in the years ahead. I believe we have been over the shock part for some time and perhaps now expect,even want, change on a continuing basis. Personal communication devices seem to upgrade almost daily, as do computers. I wonder if military technology has kept up with that in the civilian sector. Probably not!
    Anchors Aweigh!

    • Soren Kierkegaard: “[l]ife can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

  • If I may, I offer the opinion that history is a study of the continual transition in society, a transition that tends to be accelerated by wars, but a transition that continues even during wars, a transition wherein a generation moves from the immediate past through the present into the near future. Each new day presents something new, and the success of a given generation is how well its members adapt, modify, innovate, create, in order to handle the changes it encounters. No generation is handed a blueprint for its span of life, nor can one be created because the future cannot accurately be predicted. In my study of history, I have found that change is constant but human nature is unchanging, and each generation has to learn the lessons of life anew, albeit they can benefit in that learning by knowing what succeeded and what did not, in the past. But the lessons of the past have to be understood in the context of the past, and modified to fit the present. So it was, is now, and, in my opinion, will always be.

    • James,
      The quote I use in my reply to Harold applies equally well to your sentiment.

  • It appears to be a very simplistic view of the world through the eyes of a Me generation member. They want us to forget the past simply because they never bothered to learn it in the first place. IF it isn’t centered around “me,” it isn’t worth “my” time. . .


    By the way, “it’s” is an abbreviation . . . the possessive form is “its.”

    • Actually Earl, I did not say to forget the past. I apologize if you do not like how I wrote my blog. I’ve mentioned Ayn Rand once in these comments, and I guess I will do it again.

      I am approaching history using Rand’s Objectivist Epistemology. As knowledge can only be acquired by the observer relating knowledge to themselves, any history not experienced by the observer–no matter how well academically steeped–will not resonate with that individual as much as what was experienced.

      Now then, You have Millions of people on this Earth like myself, and we’ll use your terminology “the Me generation.” Now, the Me generation did not live through WWII, and was barely able to understand what the Cold War was when it existed.

      Some of the “Me generation” are already in power and in charge of nuclear weapons: Kim Jong-Un. When Kim is making decisions regarding America, do think that what America was when we won WWI matters to him? What about the Cold War, and all America did during it. Does that matter to his decision making? To a certain degree it does, but again, from an Objectivist (you’ve read Ayn Rand, right?) view point it doesn’t matter as much as they’ve experienced.

      If we study history make ourselves feel better and who we are today, we’re steal the honor earned by our ancestors and fooling ourselves into thinking we’re great by what they endowed us with. What you’re attempting to call me out on is exactly what I am arguing against in my blog. Judge me (and since you mentioned it, my generation) upon what we do while we’re able to. I will not take what my father and grandfather did and say it makes me great, but I will live up to that standard.

      ad hominem attacks are cheap. Next time, don’t read my blog, and please don’t comment.

      • I thought blogs encourage exchanges of ideas . . .

        apparently not yours. . .

        I’ll leave you to your opinions now. . .
        you don’t have to invite me not to come back . . .
        I’ve already thought of that …

      • There’s exchange of ideas, and then there are logical fallacies and being purposefully insulting. Your sentiment was the later. Notice the discourse with everyone else in these comments.

  • RickWilmes

    After reading this post, “History is Dead. Long Live History” and the reference to Ayn Rand in the comments; it should be pointed out that Ayn Rand was a history major.

    The following interview is well worth a listen and relevant to the topic being discussed.


    At the end Ayn Rand states,

    “The Intellectuals are Dead. Long Live the Intellectuals.”

    It’s the intellectuals that create history. So one could also say intellectual history is dead. Long live intellectual history.

    • She was also a philosopher, and it is from that body of her work that I borrow. To be sure, I am not saying in any way, shape, or form that history should be disregarded. Talking in that regard does not speak towards the point I make.

  • Bob Z Borng

    “Function, in European cities, is following form. That the road {Europeans}walk is the road many generations previous to them have walked–that it worked for their ancestors and it will work for them too.”

    I have experienced life both in Europe and America, and agree with you on the above – but disagree with your value judgements. To me you make the underlying assumption that America is superior to Europe. I have to disagree. Both my personal experience and statistics support me on this. Personally, the European urban lifestyle is incomparably more satisfying. But that’s just me. More relevantly, recent statistics show that the top 10 most prosperous countries in the world are all in Western Europe, and the majority of the top 20. Whether you look at inequality adjusted Human Development Index or Gross National Happiness, the US lags behind the most developed EU nations.

    But most importantly, regarding the big challenge of our times – ecological sustainability – the EU beats the US hands down. Whether it’s China which becomes the next economic leader, India, or some yet-to-emerge African free trade zone, what every county will need to come to terms with is that we have reached the limits in how much we can tax the atmosphere, the oceans, fresh water, arable land, etc.

    And a prime reason why the EU is ahead is due to “function following form”. Or to be exact, the limitations posed by old cities, traditions, and high population densities naturally push European societies to find more “compact” and sustainable solutions.

    Also, Europeans are more aware of the past, and see both the dark as well as the golden ages – which makes them more cautious and critical, but also lays the solid foundation for effective innovation.

    Why is caution and being critical important (which I feel is underemphasized in America)? Why is it important not to believe the myths and stay grounded in harsh reality? To raise monuments for the dead? Because it’s 100 times easier to destroy than to create. Europe has learned it through millenia of wars.

    Due to this sense of caution grounded in history, I believe that Europeans are more skeptical of progress, and steer away from its uncritical worship, avoiding some “progress traps” of modern development. (see Ronald Wright’s “A Short History of Progress”). Hence the attention to city planning, carbon emissions, recycling, genetically modified organisms, etc., but also balancing individual freedoms vs the needs of the community, free enterprise vs equal opportunity, etc.

    So to wrap it up, the high standard of living and prosperity of Europe is strongly connected to its awareness of history, from which they learned that critical caution, planning, and balance are key to long-term success.

    If anything, the US could do with more knowledge of History. History is not dead – it’s very much with us, and for the better. And I think your perspective is not really what’s different, it has little to do with your generation. What’s different is that the world is changing quickly from a relatively stable “Cold War” period until it finds a new balance (perhaps “clash of civilizations” style) for the next few decades. Your perspective is really not that different; in fact, what I feel you’re saying is that you feel an obligation to live up to the great achievements by Americans through history. That’s history which is very much alive – through you.