Despite the constant criticism, we should all be immensely thankful to be living in the present.
Like many Americans, I tend to find myself pondering over gratitude at this time of year. Whether that is sparked by the increased presence of friends and family, the Zen-like process of preparing a delicious shared meal, or merely an attempt to come up with something good to say at the Thanksgiving table, appreciation is on my mind. Of course, my mind goes first to the personal: my wife and daughter, my family in general, my loyal (and loud) chihuahua, my friends. Then come more general things like (relative) health, prosperity, happiness, and career success. But once I’ve bounced these more typical thoughts around my head for a bit, I continuously return to one broad idea: the glories of the present.
That may sound odd coming from a historian, but I feel it deeply. I adore the past about as much as it is possible to. My office is adorned with historical maps, posters, books, and tchotchkes. My favorite novels are in the public domain. I name houseplants after nineteenth-century British politicians (I’ve got Lords Balfour and Salisbury already). I could probably sink the Titanic (well, maybe the S.S. Minnow) with the number of history books I own. I have busts of both Napoleon and Wellington. I think about the Roman Empire every day.
But I firmly believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that today is the best possible time for a human to be alive. Not only is the 21st century an incredible time to be a member of homo sapiens, the past was far, far worse to live in than most people can imagine. Let us count the ways.
Resettlement, mass migration, and civilizational change are not historical outliers, but the historical norm. Lambasting them as evil is the peak of absurdity.
The term ‘settler colonialism’ has been widely bandied about in regards to Israel since the Hamas atrocities of October 7, mostly by leftists seeking to vilify the Jewish state and excuse or ‘contextualize’ the mass murder carried out by Palestinian terrorists. It has been echoed in protest movements, by online activists, and in serious news and opinion journalism. It has been applied not only to Israel as a nation, but to the United States and most of the West as well. The argument goes that any sort of resistance to such “settler colonialism” for the purpose of reclaiming “stolen land” is justified, if not necessary. The denizens of these purportedly-imperialist nations are therefore fair game for violent “resistance.” In the now-infamous words of a Yale professor (!): “Settlers are not civilians. This is not hard.” Those who use this terminology to make their preferred political points may sound intelligent to the layman, as they are using academic jargon in such a confident manner. But what does this term actually mean? And does it apply to Western history or the Israeli-Hamas conflict?
Far too many observers of the Israeli retaliation against Hamas see war as a theoretical construct, not a battlefield reality.
The famed Union Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman is widely credited with popularizing the phrase “war is hell.” And he would certainly know, seeing action at some of the war’s bloodiest battles and captaining the controversial March to the Sea, where Union soldiers would run roughshod over Confederate lands from Atlanta to Savannah. That march, replete with the utter devastation of civilian infrastructure, farmland, and property, helped break the back of the Confederacy and has remained a textbook example of total war. The term ‘total war’ itself was a product of World War I, which saw entire societies mobilized for what they all saw – and some experienced – as existential combat. The sequel, which killed even more people and included the most heinous act of genocide in the modern era, was the last of these sorts of conflicts – or so many thought.
After the end of the Cold War – which was itself something of a totalizing rivalry – the mood in the West was triumphant, not just over Soviet Communism, but over History itself. Gone were the days of existential conflict, replaced by a world of progress where genuine alternatives to the liberal democratic capitalist world order were nowhere to be found. These naïve optimists were, however, flat out wrong. Alternatives to the American order have reared their ugly heads: from the CCP’s brand of techno-totalitarianism, to Vladimir Putin’s throwback imperialism, to the militant antisemitic Islamism of Tehran and Hamas, oppositional ideologies abound. And those ideologies are more than happy to engage in totalizing, existential conflict. We have seen that in Ukraine for the past 600-plus days, and we are seeing it in Israel now.
Make no mistake, the Hamas terror of October 7, combined with its genocidal ideology and the support of regional powers like Iran, poses an existential risk to the Jewish state. If Hamas is not utterly annihilated, Israel will face a future of constant attack from all fronts meant to eradicate the nation itself – and massacre its population in the process. Hamas and Iran have made this into a total war; Israel has recognized that reality and is responding in kind. And that’s where we run into problems.
For those who decry Western support for Ukraine, everything is a precursor to World War III. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
If you’ve been around the internet at all over the past year and a half of war in Ukraine, you’ve likely seen breathless claims that Western aid is pushing us to the brink of a third world war. These terrified statements are the bread and butter of those who wish to see military aid to Ukraine reduced or stopped entirely. Some are pure isolationists, others are useful idiots for Russia, more are skeptics of American military power, and yet others are more vituperative Asia-firsters. Regardless of their personal ideological predilections, these commentators are aligned in their fearmongering over drastic, rapid escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War into a broad-based, global, nuclear-tinged Armageddon. Despite differences in motive, the Ukraine doves all sing from the same hymnal. The refrain is simple. Every Ukrainian advance: World War III. Every new weapons system delivered to Kyiv: World War III. Every response to Russian aggression: World War III. Every revelation of Western support – intelligence, economic, or otherwise: World War III.
They’re certainly consistent, but are they correct? That answer is a resounding nyet. This argument is merely a brickbat with which to attack Ukraine hawks; it has no relation to either the current day or the historical reality. This bedwetter caucus not only misrepresents the escalation dynamics of the Ukraine war, but also of both World Wars. On top of that, they fail to understand the significant differences between the present conflict and those of the past. In short, their argument is fatally flawed. Let us count the ways.
The use of atom bombs to end war with Japan in 1945 was not only defensible, but actively good. The critics who ignore the historical record and embrace presentist analysis fail to deal in reality.
Around this time each year, the Internet is flooded with hot takes about how the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were indefensible, unnecessary, and downright evil. These critics label the bombings as one of the prime atrocities of American imperialism and use them as fodder for their argument that the United States is uniquely bad for the world. This year, the hot take machine has been supercharged by the release of director Christopher Nolan’s latest historical film, Oppenheimer. That movie, released on July 21, is a biopic following the career of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the key scientists running the Manhattan Project and the man often called the father of the atomic bomb.
The film, which has received plaudits from reviewers and moviegoers, struck a nerve on Twitter, where it was accused of glorifying an act of devastating brutality. These critiques of the atomic bombings ranged from “it was unnecessary” and “Japan was already surrendering” to “Imperial Japan wasn’t that bad” and “the US was the real bad guy in the war.” And these indictments of the American actions in 1945 came from a true plethora of online communities: actual communists, anti-imperialist and anti-war activists (read: anti-American activists), Japanophiles and anime lovers, right-wing Catholics (for some reason), general contrarians, and assorted too-online weirdos.
The problem with this perpetual narrative is that it’s completely, unabashedly wrong. The use of nuclear weapons in Japan in 1945 was not only justifiable, it was at root correct. The decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved millions of lives, including an order of magnitude more Japanese lives than it took. This is proven by the historical record and is eminently easy to understand if one actually decides to do good history. With that, let’s engage in some good history, shall we?