Repeating History

Here’s former Google and Uber robotics engineer Anthony Levandowski in The New Yorker:

“The only thing that matters is the future,” he told me after the civil trial was settled. “I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess—the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that history to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.”

What was that maxim again? Something about how those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it?

Incidentally, I’ve been reflecting on this principle quite a bit while watching The Vietnam War, a ten-part documentary series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The social and political themes which emerge in its telling are eerily similar to the challenges we face today. Here are just a few.

Regret over Hateful Rhetoric. I have heard it said that we Americans are more divided today than at any point in our nation’s history, excepting the civil war. And yes, it is undeniable that things are very bad right now. But if you watch the documentary I am willing to bet that you’d come away feeling that things were far worse during the ’60s and ’70s.

The Vietnam War sparked protests across the United States - including at Kent State University, where the Ohio National Guard killed four students
One of the most iconic images during the Vietnam War: a student shot during a protest at Kent State University. Source: Daily Mail UK.

What does not seem much different, however, is the degree of hateful rhetoric and hysterical lampooning employed by opponents over a given social or political issue. Protestors against the war were often branded degenerate, freedom-hating commies. Supporters of the war were deemed no better than cruel baby killers who condoned the shooting and napalming of innocent civilians.

One anti-war activist later deeply regretted her rhetoric. Her interview comes in the last episode of the documentary, and in my opinion is one of the most powerful parts of the series. In a voice choked with emotion, she says:

I’ve been to the [Vietnam Memorial], more than once. When I look back at the war, you know, and think of the horrible things we said to, you know, vets who were returning, you know, calling them “baby killers” and worse … I, you know… feel very sad about that. I can only say that, you know, we were kids, too, you know, just like they were. It grieves me, it grieves me today. It pains me to think of the things that I said and that we said. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry. ~Nancy Biberman

The Destructive Force of Ego. Many high-ranking American officials looked closely at the situation in Vietnam and concluded it was unwinnable long before it ended. So why did we stick it out for so long? The reasons are complex, but it is clear that saving face became just as strong a motive as stemming the tide of Communism. Nixon, for example, did not want to be the first American president to lose a war, and he and his advisors looked for every possible way to pull out without giving the impression defeat. And so the war dragged on, and more people died.

Over-reliance on Statistics. Again and again, the US military used the number of enemy deaths to measure success in the war, highlighting how for every American soldier who died there were ten or more enemy soldiers who were killed. But of course the American people didn’t care about enemy deaths; they cared about the one American.

There was also a rather haunting point made about the systematic misuse of statistics. In one episode, an interviewee describes how the US military not only measured the number of deaths, but the number of prisoners taken, the number of weapons confiscated, and other such minutiae. There was just one small, vital thing they left out: the attitudes of the Vietnamese people they had been sent to defend. That turned out to be a pretty catastrophic thing to overlook, since many of the people harbored a deep distrust of the American outsiders, and worked in secret to hinder the American effort.

Racial and Economic Injustice. For a good while, African American soldiers were sent to do the most dangerous fighting, and so they suffered a disproportionate number of American casualties. Additionally the people most likely to be drafted were low-income individuals who could not afford to enroll in college to escape the draft. And this is to say nothing of the villagers of the Vietnamese countryside who endured incalculable loss—their homes torched and bombed, their families caught between sides and torn apart, their children turned into displaced orphans.

Should we try to learn something from these themes? Or is it all irrelevant because it’s in the past?

Let’s just say I’m glad Anthony Levandowski isn’t making policy.