In the fourth grade I was introduced to a hero. My teacher had set up a scheduled “field trip” across the elementary school quad to the library. As is the case with most elementary school libraries, the limited shelves were populated with books geared towards younger readers. We were told (perhaps ordered is a better word) to choose two books to check out.
Most of my elementary school colleagues tended to gravitate towards the fiction section and avail themselves of the literary classics of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Ms. Pickwick.
I found myself wandering around the biography section.
This was most likely not to search out the stories of unique individuals, but rather to keep as much physical distance between myself and the thoroughly odious Mrs. Bercher, who happened to be my fourth grade teacher. (I am sure that at this point she has shed her mortal coil, and it is disrespectful to speak ill of the dead, so I will refrain, save the mention that if I knew she were alive, I would write an entire blog on her ethical failings.)
While I was attempting to look busy, I was told to choose a book quickly, we needed to go back to our classroom and do something that passed for an educational experience. Without thinking, I picked up two books: a biography of Jacques Cousteau (really more of a coffee table picture book), and a biography of Benjamin Franklin, written with an elementary school reader in mind.
I flipped through the Cousteau book and looked at the interesting pictures.
I devoured the book on Franklin. In fact, I read it four times during the two weeks I had possession of that treasure. Not only did it make an impact on me from the story of a “great man”, it began a passion for the love of history. (Much later would I come to learn that Benjamin Franklin was far more… salty (and… shall we say, ethically ambiguous) than a fourth grade reader would let on. Some would allow that knowledge to shatter the image they had of the man; for me, it made him that much more interesting.
Reading about Franklin oriented me towards historical biographies. From Napoleon, to Grant, to Talleyrand, to Washington… to even Jesus of Nazareth, Moses, Abraham… (yeah I’ve read the source material a few times)… if it was about a “someone”, I read it. I read it with a goal: What could I learn from these great men (frankly, it was mostly men) that I could emulate?
A few weeks ago Sandy and I took a course called Great Military Blunders and the Lessons They Teach. This course is taught by one of my favorite historians, Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete, from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay.
One of the first things he mentions in his lecture is why we should be doing this in the first place.
This piqued my interest. It is a fair enough assessment. We always read about success. We seek to mark ourselves against those who have succeeded before and, thus, measure our own success. Moreover, there is an inherent efficiency in this process. Focusing on the ways things have been done successfully in the past eliminates the need to figure out every workable pathway going forward in the future.
But it does miss something.
Seeing how people have royally screwed the pooch can provide its own cautionary tale. More importantly, by really understanding where things went sidewise, we can be on guard to prevent the same mistake from happening again.
The old adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” should have an update: “Those who choose not to acknowledge past failures are more likely to do the same thing again.”
Throughout the course, we looked at specific blunders: from the Civil War battle at Petersburg to Carrhae, the Fourth Crusade, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and many other examples of buffoonery.
Two themes constantly resurfaced: A fundamental belief on the part of the generals who simply knew more than their enemies, and a reliance on the way things “had been” rather than the reality of the way things are now. This sort of unilateralism created a fundamental arrogance of ignorance, which sent many of these generals to their graves.
We certainly see this today as well.
Of course, as we currently slide into the realization… well… that many people on both sides of the political aisle, both at the national and international level, are finally acknowledging that something is fundamentally wrong with the current administration.
But, I am actually talking about ourselves as individuals here. More specifically, I am talking about us as gunfighters, or, in some cases… very arrogant “gun owners”.
There has been more than one occasion where I have encountered individuals who are absolutely resistant to any form of training. They oftentimes dismiss our admonitions on how to perform a manipulation with the standard phrase: “I don’t do it that way.”
This highlights that second point.
Focusing exclusively on what one has known in the past, to the exclusion of what has been learned by others since, creates a form of unilateralism. “I am going to do what I am going to do, and the advice of others be damned!”
This is the height of arrogance… and history is full of graves populated by the arrogant.