By now you can see I don't have a doctorate in history. Few people are history experts, and that's a shame because there is a desperate need today for historical perspective. Worse still, the school experience most people have was so painful and lacking in substance that as adults we are resistant to learning, and not curious. Additionally, information evolves, so what you learned last year may not be true now. All of these things help spell trouble for democracy and freedom.
I'm not a war history buff, either. But, I want to mention the Civil War and World War II, because they transformed the United States and the world.
Your history books emphasized that the Civil War was about the issue of slavery, and that is true. But again, it's important to understand the states utilizing slave labor became wealthy because of it, and arguably the United States enjoys the benefits of that economic boost today. Northern states found slavery abhorrent (generally). Southern states believed the South could be economically sovereign, wealthier as a result and avoid the ongoing, angry disagreement about the issue of slavery.
Between 600,000 and 700,000 people died. The list of casualties and location of graves is still being updated, 151 years after the end of the war. These numbers didn't mean much to me until I started to travel and saw one memorial park after another, after another, after another. Having come of draft age in 1971 under Nixon and Vietnam, I wasn't a war proponent. But the Civil War--didn't we need to fight that one? As the tombstones I saw numbered from hundreds, to thousands, to tens and then hundreds of thousands, any notion I had that war was necessary or a good thing left me completely and forever, and it just looked stupid and idiotic.
War proponents proudly state that, besides leading to the prohibition of slavery, the Civil War ignited the industrial revolution. Therefore, war is a really great thing, right? I don't buy that assertion for one second. Machinery, water and steam power were making progress in textile manufacturing and water transportation before the Civil War. After the war, production line methods came into prevalent use, starting with such things as firearms. The industrial revolution would have happened anyway--the Civil War slowed it down more than anything.
The Civil War made us the nation we are now, and clarified the liberties set forth in the Constitution. It should have made everyone in the world a peace activist until the end of time. It should have been the last war fought anywhere. Why didn't that happen? Furthermore, why was this country so willing to go to war over issues that could have been settled without so much death? That's easy to see. Individuals believed economic collapse was imminent, and that their homes would be overrun by legions of godless heathens, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Later, Grant exploited this old cultural fear on his march to the sea, tearing up everything in the Union army's path and setting fire to everything that would burn. What a concept, a war based on myth.
The United States didn't want to participate in World War I, and some people believed, probably incorrectly, its isolationist position led directly to the stock market crash of 1929. My education fails me and I'm not going to spend hundreds of hours reading opinion to offer opinion. The United States didn't want to enter World War II, but the idea it could stimulate the economy was every bit as important as the attack on Pearl Harbor. That notion really paid off in the short term. The U.S. had a handful of battleships and no air force. The Axis powers didn't consider the U.S. a contender; yet, in under three years, we built the biggest navy in history, about 100,000 bombers and fighter planes, and--oh yeah--developed and built the first atomic bomb.
Since then the United States economy has been dependent on military bases and industries for the survival of its communities and cities. This leaves the very incorrect impression with about half the people in the U.S. that war is always a good thing because it never fails to stimulate the economy. The fact is, since World War II, war has caused the economy to operate at a deficit, which devalues currency. In the 1930s, my father could go to the store and buy steak dinner with trimmings for his family of six for 25 cents. That would probably run about $20 today.
What history doesn't remind you about World War II is that Germany, and especially Japan, made a great many statements such as Japan's famous assertion that when they were finished, Japanese would be spoken in every capital city in the world. They weren't kidding. The little island had the technology, the hardware and manpower, not to mention commitment. What they didn't have was the historical perspective to understand that when you go to war, you take nothing for granted, and you don't know what will happen.
The Axis powers exploited the fear of economic collapse and overrunning the countryside. World War II marked the beginning of the United States' willingness to go far beyond the pale in breaking rules, and set up the gigantic military industrial complex we've felt required to feed ever since. That complex has turned on us and runs the country today more surely than Washington.
This monster can only be navigated by the most intelligent and compassionate people we can find. Instead, Washington is populated with crazy people. This is a recipe for tyranny. Perhaps the half of the eligible voters who don't vote in this country will learn, too late, that it really does matter whose finger is on the button. The Bush administration has taken rule bending and entitlement to a very twisted extreme. Although under court orders to cease and desist illegal surveillance of citizens, torturing war prisoners and the way it conducts military tribunals, it defies these orders, has stepped up these activities and is working hard twisting arms in Congress to pass legislation making these practices legal, and retroactively, no less, which the Constitution prohibits.
Bush ignores the extreme pressure citizens have brought to bear on these issues and others. And why shouldn't he? He's already assured the country republicans won't lose control of either house of Congress, because he knows what will happen on election day. So, let's review. A dictatorial president, no Congressional oversight, an impotent judiciary. That's all three branches of government, and that's your complete system of checks and balances down the drain. Legitimate means for change are gone, and you can't vote them out of office. We are not facing a constitutional crisis. We're in the thick middle of it.
(update from Lukery, part one here, part two here, part three here)