- Historic Sites
“The Shah Always Falls”
A soldier-historian looks at how the world has changed in the past decade and finds that America is both hostage to history and likely to be saved by it
March 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 1
They don’t understand that most Americans lead surprisingly moral lives, that we work, we go to church, and we’re not constantly lascivious. We have a good time when we’re in college and when we’re young; then we mostly get it out of our systems. But that doesn’t work in a culture that sees female virginity as the ultimate good to be traded to your familial or clan advantage. We’ve outgrown that view, although it took us a long time. In the West the great revolution of the twentieth century was the birth control pill. The transition from women as property to women as full participants in society has been the greatest revolution in human history, and its reverberations will be felt for centuries. Repressive cultures are horrified by it because it calls into question their most fundamental biological, sociological, and religious ideas. However, the oppression of women anywhere is not only a human rights violation, it’s a suicide pact with the future.
You’ve written that the inability to imagine that American wealth actually came from work is another reason our enemies can’t understand us.
I’m a great believer in America and the American dream, but in my case it took about five generations. I’m descended from coal miners on both sides. Before me, my people coughed up their lungs, went hungry during strikes, and lived in company houses with 12 to 15 people in two tiny bedrooms until tuberculosis reduced the body count. So it took America a long time. We worked long and hard, and we suffered and struggled and fought our internal battles and fell by the wayside and died in civil wars. The Gilded Age wasn’t very gilded for most Americans. People from developing countries see only the wealth, not the long struggle to create that wealth, and they make the comforting assumption that Americans are rich because they have stolen it.
I wish more people read old books, especially some of those that are now allegedly discredited. Weber’s Protestant ethic has been dismissed by revisionists. Maybe we should partially rehabilitate it, because work ethics matter, and not every culture has one. Another writer who’s due for a bit of rehabilitation is Sigmund Freud, because terror of female sexuality is a real and crippling phenomenon. And William James. Read The Varieties of Religious Experience, and you’ll get closer to Al Qaeda than you will with any of those instant books on Osama bin Laden. Another one is Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium. It’s the best single volume in any language on the roots of religious fanaticism. If you look at my strategic writings—for want of a better term—they’re clearly influenced by experience and direct observation but also by reading. Any observation without reading is almost as bad as reading without observation. When we think about the evidence that’s available for formulating American grand strategy in the years to come, the study of history is most of what we’ve got.