The Lessons of History

By Irfan Husain for

Is there — can there ever be — such a thing as accurate, objective history? If history is a true record of the past, how do we know we can trust the record-keepers? And years later, as historians sift through the past, can they be depended on not to let their own biases creep in?

As a student of history, I have long been fascinated with the problem of ascertaining which set of facts about the past to accept, and which to discard. Indeed, how can we even tell what has been handed to us over the years has not been deliberately or accidentally distorted?

This is not just idle speculation. Just as the present shapes the future, so too does the past determine the present. In a sense, we are all prisoners of history, and time has us by the jugular. This is not to say we have no control over our future: each choice we make determines which road we will take. Thus, I do not believe our future is predetermined. We all have the freedom to decide which path we take.
Individuals can decide for themselves, and suffer or prosper from the choices they have made. However, the choices nations make are the culmination of a host of factors, and this makes changing directions a more difficult task.

For instance, we in Pakistan are quick to blame the Americans for the rise of fundamentalism in our region. We are forever recalling how they walked out after the Soviets withdrew, leaving us with the jihadis who had helped win the Afghan war. But we have had years to prevent the problem from reaching this point. However, in our version of the history of the period, the Americans are to blame. In the American narrative, though, they had come to kick the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and avenge their debacle in Vietnam. After the Red Army’s defeat, there was nothing to keep them.

These are relatively recent events, and our memory is already selective. Let’s go further back to the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war. A generation of Pakistanis have been taught that our military’s position was rendered difficult due to the arms embargo the Americans had imposed on both sides at the start of the conflict. This hurt us more than it did India, because our foe hardly bought any arms from the US, while we were largely dependent on American equipment.

What our students and young military cadets are not told is that in terms of the military agreement under which American arms were supplied to us, they could only be used against a communist threat. Thus, by using them against India, we had breached our agreement.

Similarly, many Pakistanis blame the Americans for not bailing us out during the 1971 war. When Kissinger and Nixon stuck their necks out and sent in the Seventh Fleet, this gave the Indians pause, and they did not send in their forces deep into West Pakistan. Nevertheless, in the Pakistani psyche, there is a strong sense of being let down by the Americans.

Cumulatively, these misinterpretations of past events have made the Americans hugely unpopular with both the Pakistani right and left. Rather than correcting these errors by putting the record straight, our media pundits constantly hammer away at them, adding fuel to a raging fire.

In a talk he gave at the Galle Literary Festival recently, the famous historian Antony Beevor made an interesting point. While bemoaning the lack of historical accuracy in much of the media, he said we had entered a “post-literate phase”. By this he meant that images had superseded the printed word as the vehicle for disseminating history. Consequently, TV and movies now determine which historical narrative is believed.

Beevor gave the example of Loose Change, a documentary that has been viewed by millions on the Internet. This film has been spliced together by inter-cutting video clips from 9/11 with spurious interviews and bizarre counter-factual comments. The result is an over-arching conspiracy theory that presents the events of Sept 11, 2001 as a plot hatched by mysterious elements in the American establishment.

Often, when I have tried to debunk conspiracy theories in this space, I have been referred to Loose Change. Many readers clearly believe that this lightweight effort is the gold standard of investigative film-making. Indeed, this phenomenon shows that people will end up believing what they want to believe. Facts are cherry-picked to suit an argument. Historical accuracy is too dull for TV anchors to bother with.

Caught up with the pressure of deadlines and the race for ratings, they will grab the first factoid available and run with it at the drop of a hat. Even more pernicious is the tendency to deliberately distort the truth. I have often had the depressing experience of watching Urdu chat shows on TV where all sorts of wild allegations fly around. Apparently, the only requirement for winning an argument is to have a loud voice and an aggressive manner. Truth and accuracy are for pedants.

Given this large and growing disconnect between reality and our perceptions, the future looks bleak indeed. Before we can solve a problem, we have to understand it. Clear analysis needs facts and a detached outlook. Unfortunately, our approach is just the opposite: we shoot off at the mouth before we have even begun to understand the issue.

This kind of emotionally charged thinking shapes the perceptions and outlook of millions of Pakistanis today. And because it influences the present, it is crucial in shaping the future.

Today, even fundamentalist Pakistanis will agree that our biggest threat comes from the terrorists of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and their partners in crime. To combat these foes, our troops and our police need training and equipment. To win the hearts and minds of our radicalised youth, we need to impart modern education and provide job opportunities.

It is clear that we do not have the resources to do all this on our own. The only country that can help is the United States, and it has made its intentions to come to our aid very clear. And yet we are caught up in the ill-informed conspiracy theories of the past. Rather than forming a solid regional alliance to fight a common foe, we are hemming and hawing. But a sound policy cannot be based on equivocation and wilful ignorance.

Our national self-interest demands that we free ourselves from the demons of the past that we have created and nurtured. History is a hard taskmaster, and those who refuse to learn its lessons seldom prosper.

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