How, Indeed.

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“War, children. It’s just a shot away.”

– Gimme Shelter, Jagger/Richards (1969)

The physical evidence of now-dead civilizations, some civilizations we still consider ‘great’ among them, quite literally circles the globe and populates our kids’ study-sheets and textbooks.

Athens. Rome. Great Zimbabwe. Machu Picchu, Sukhothai.

Ruins. Grand palaces repurposed as stores, stables and shithouses. Formerly powerful imperial cities of gold buried under strata of the refuse of succeeding societies and generations.

Think it won’t happen here? Think it can’t? That we’re too great, too special? American exceptionalism? “Don’t make me laugh,” says history to every civilization since the dawn of time.

Only a fool thinks himself the endpoint of evolution.

If there are any lessons to be learned at all from history, this is its primary lesson.

And yet, we Americans behave as if everlasting world dominion is our rightful inheritance. We project our military power around the globe willy-nilly, with the flimsiest of pretexts. When the pretexts are exposed as wrong-headed, ignorant, or just plain false, we don’t withdraw; we persist.

We extract the earth’s resources as if we had the key to a private, bottomless storeroom.

We have all but abandoned the decades-long compact between citizen and state that had as its foundation a high-quality, robust and universally-accessible system of public education. Go to the schools our tax dollars fund, it said, and become the engine of our economy; you’ll be more affluent and we’ll get better citizens. We’ve underfunded these schools, allowed them to bleed to near-death, made them inaccessible to those with no alternatives and unattractive to those with many.

We murder each other with reckless, yet increasingly efficient, abandon and argue against any attempt to control our unfettered access to the instruments of our very own deaths.

Relying on the mass marketing of deliberately ahistorical fantasies about the American characteristics of self-reliance and individualism, we distribute ever more of our economic wealth to ever fewer people; in so doing, we squeeze the life out of the very middle class that created our society’s wealth and stability to begin with, and inflate the economic and political power of a class with seeming indifference to all that live below it.

The result?

Decaying streets, sewers, roads, bridges, schools. Declining economic opportunity. Increasing concentration of power among the proudly-ignorant. A ratcheting up of violence. And internecine warfare over the scraps.

This is the way all empires die.

There will come a time when the people of this country will look around with slack-jawed wonder and ask how it could have come to this.

As if they didn’t know.

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Gettysburg, Still

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind. – Proverbs 11:29

It was a late spring morning, still early enough in the day and the year to be cool. The Gettysburg Battlefield National Park had its share of visitors, as it has had every single time I’ve visited, but was not yet crowded on this off-season day. We got our map from the visitors center and made our way to the parking area near the old observation tower, a good place to get some perspective on the site of this horribly bloody American Civil War battle.

We were just orienting ourselves when several large buses pulled in next to our car and unloaded hundreds of men and women in camouflage fatigues. They assembled smartly for a talk about the battle, which had taken place almost 150 years ago. The speaker discussed the positions of the forces, relative size and strength, leadership, movement, tactics, and so on. He took some questions, then went on to describe the horrific nature of war in those days, what the battlefield was like for the men fighting and dying, what it must have sounded, smelled and looked like.

The speaker then went further, deeper. He discussed the social and political context of the Civil War itself. The clash of egos, the carnage of a society grinding against itself, the insanity of neighbors and brothers fighting each other, the resulting destruction.

The camouflage-clad audience was rapt.

Turns out, this group was the graduating class of West Point. And, I came to find out, it’s an annual pilgrimage. The United States Military Academy, in order to train the next generation of our Army’s leaders, still requires cadets to take a trip to this place, and to learn its lessons.

I’ve rarely been more gratified by or prouder of my country’s armed forces than I was at that moment.

History is not just reviewing dusty, old facts. It is fully living in the present, understanding that where we are today is dependent on where we’ve come from.

To show proper appreciation for the great, indeed complete, sacrifices of our brothers who fought and died at Gettysburg, we must all – as West Point cadets do – learn the lessons that are still there for us.

We cannot continue to divide ourselves, particularly over trivialities, and expect to survive.

Do we need another Gettysburg to finally understand this lesson of our history?