Monday, October 23, 2006

The All-Powerful Historian

I just love it when politicians try and predict how historians are going to view events in the future. President Bush's recent comment "that this traumatic period in Iraq will be seen as 'just a comma' in the history books" suggests that when all is said and done and historians look back on the beginning of the twenty-first century the current violence in Iraq won't merit much attention by those in my profession.

He might be right. Twenty years from now, when I am lecturing in my U.S. survey course and complaining about how I never get passed the presidency of the George W. Bush, I might not spend much time discussing the war in Iraq or the consequences of it. On the other hand, if Sept. 11 is the 21st Century's Pearl Harbor or the War on Terror becomes the next generation's World World III - I might devote a full week of lectures to the War in Iraq - maybe the class will do a book assignment on some American soldier's experiences at Guantanamo Bay - perhaps they will watch part of a documentary on the origins and development of neo-conservative foreign policy.

My point is that it is pointless to speculate about how historians will view some current action in the future. We won't know the full significance or importance of most policies or events until we know the complete consequences of those events. Moreover, how those consequences are viewed 20 years from now, is not necessarily the same way they'll be viewed 40 years from now as new evidence comes to light and society's concerns change and develop over time.

I realize this view of history is probably not very comforting to those who are seeking to leave an important legacy and hope to be remembered fondly in the future. However, it should be heartening to all my fellow historians. Because ultimately what it means is that we get to decide who was great and who was not. We get to interpret what events are significant and what is just a 'comma'. Who needs money or power or influence today - when the historian has the power to determine what the world of tomorrow remembers about the wealthy, influential, powerful leaders of today.

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