Why history matters

  • Published
  • By Steve Larsen
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Historian
In 1931, historian Carl A. Becker stood before the annual meeting of the American Historical Association to give his inaugural address as their newly elected president. Mr. Becker gave an address in which he offered his perspective that everyone is an historian.

In the course of delivering this address, he offered a brilliant one-line synthesis of exactly what history was. He simply stated that, "History is the memory of things said and done." That was it. Nothing more, nothing less described what was and is, for many people a somewhat obtuse subject.

Given the surface simplicity of this statement, you might be inclined to ask somewhat rhetorically, "Does history matter?"

In short, yes it most certainly does. History's relevance is often debated in the modern age, never more so than by younger generations. For the youngest of them, President John F. Kennedy is as remote as Julius Caesar.

To focus far more on the here and now relegates history to the realm of the obscure or dismissing it as entirely trivial. Many of the younger generations do not see much point in the study of history other than to fulfill requirements for their education. History from their perspective is just not important in their lives.

Others think history is merely a collection of facts. This is far from the truth.

As one of my former professors once said, "Knowing that Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, [March 15,] 46 BCE wins you $25,000 on Jeopardy."

If history was indeed "just facts," there would only need to be a single biography on Abraham Lincoln as opposed to the thousands published over the last 150 years.

The fact is biographers and historians go back over the "facts" repeatedly for a variety of reasons but the central motivation for all of them is interpretation of the facts. What were the motivations of the parties concerned? What were the long term ramifications of their actions?

The past actions of others and the motivations that spurred those actions are what produced the world all humans live in today. History is relevant, important and above all, necessary.

This is especially true where military service is concerned. All of the services are bound in tradition. Airmen are surrounded by tradition every day they report to work. Air Force heritage is in the uniform an Airman wears, the customs and courtesies he executes, and the exercises that squadrons, groups and wings take part in.

History is beneficial to deploying airmen. All deployers should consider reading some history of the region they are going to. It will help them understand the area they will serve in. Reading about history and culture of their deployed location will help them better understand the people living there and what motivates them, what they value and where they place priority.

The study and use of history can make the typical Airman a better diplomat which all Airmen need to be, when deployed. It can also help them in "knowing their enemy" when the motivations of those who would do us harm are considered.

Yes, history is relevant. It is part of the readiness posture all expeditionary Airmen must adopt.