A few years ago I heard a radio interview with some men of Yugoslavian ancestry who were touring America giving concerts. They were singing traditional Yugoslav folksongs, songs of the land where their parents and grandparents had lived, ballads that celebrated the joy and freedom their homeland had known before the genocidal war that destroyed it.
Toward the end of the program the interviewer asked, “Why are you doing this now—singing the folksongs of a nation that no longer exists as a nation?”
The leader’s answer touched me deeply, and still does. He said, very simply, “You don’t sing songs about Paradise while you’re living there. You sing them later, after you’ve left and can’t find your way back.”
What touched me was not just the emotion of his answer, but the wisdom. How many times in my life have I looked back on something and thought, “If only I had known…” If only I had taken time to appreciate where I was, or the people I was with, or what I was doing. If only I had recognized how good things were then, compared to how bad they might have been—or might become in the future.
If only I had known. The requiem of the human condition. The lament for what was, and is no more.
In May of 2002, two events occurred that disturbed me greatly. I remember them because I recorded them in the personal journal I keep. I’m afraid they represent two trends that threaten our future in Paradise.
The first was that a school district in the Houston area refused to recognize Memorial Day as a holiday. The school administration attempted to justify their action by saying they believed students should be taught a “world view” rather than a nationalistic one. They argued that memorializing our fallen soldiers is, by extension, a celebration of wars fought, and fighting is never something to be celebrated.
I agree that fighting is not something to be celebrated, and yet—there are times when it’s the only way to stay free. If America and Europe hadn’t fought the Nazi war machine, the Third German Empire would now stretch from England to Siberia, and the Jewish people would be as extinct as the dinosaurs. And let’s not forget that the oil fields of the Middle East, the linchpin of Twentieth Century civilization, would have been under Nazi control these past seventy years. Would America have become the reigning superpower it is today without that oil? In a word—no.
Throughout history there have been nations that accepted the tyrant’s yoke rather than fight, and the result has always been the same—slavery and death. If we accept the concept that fighting is wrong and should be avoided at all costs, that will be our destiny, too.
The second event also came from our educational system. I find that fact particularly disturbing because these are the people who are molding the minds of our children, and our children are our future.
There are people in the Texas educational system who want to rewrite the history of the Texas fight for independence. Rather than presenting it as a battle for self-determination by American settlers against a distant, oppressive, and corrupt Mexican government, they want to present our Texas heroes—Travis, Bowie, Houston, and the rest—as criminals who waged an illegal war against the legally constituted government of Mexico. This needs to be done, they argue, because the Mexican-Americans in our midst are offended by the present portrayal.
The concept of revising history isn’t new. A few years ago there was a movement to declare the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be unjustified war crimes by America against innocent Japanese civilians. Never mind that the only alternative to end the war was an American invasion of the Japanese Islands. Had that happened, millions of Japanese civilians and hundreds of thousands of Japanese and American soldiers would have died.
The problem with rewriting history is that, once begun, there’s no clear end to it. Should we consider the possibility that the Holocaust was justified by the Jewish domination of the European banking system? Were George Washington and the other heroes of the Revolutionary War really just terrorists because they fired on British troops from behind rocks and trees rather than standing out in the open as the prevailing rules of engagement called for?
It’s often been said that the winners write the history books. While that is true, there eventually comes a time when both sides are able to produce an account that is reasonably accurate and not colored by the emotions of the moment. I believe that has long since happened with the story of Texas independence.
For example, the battle for the Alamo was once presented as the massacre of a few Texas patriots by an overwhelming Mexican army force. We now recognize that the battle for the Alamo was never winnable, and the Texans knew that. Experienced frontiersmen, they knew that 189 men armed with squirrel guns and a few small cannon had no chance against 1,500 well-equipped Mexican soldiers. They died for a principle—the belief that it’s better to die free than to live in slavery. That same principle has motivated people for thousands of years, and will continue to spark revolutions for as long as mankind exists.
Here in the opening years of the Twenty-first Century, America is the only true superpower left in the world. That is a mantle that has been worn by only two other nations in history: Egypt and Rome. But unlike those nations, America hasn’t enslaved those weaker than we are. We’ve invested our blood and treasure in an effort to give them the freedom that is the cornerstone of our way of life.
We haven’t stolen their wealth and produce to enrich ourselves, leaving them to suffer hunger and poverty. We’ve shared our wealth with them, and tried to alleviate their suffering.
Now we have a president who tours the world, bowing to foreign kings and apologizing for American “arrogance.” Perhaps it’s time for him to recognize that America has nothing to apologize for.
As for the rest of us, perhaps we need to sing our songs of Paradise while we’re still living here. Otherwise, we may find ourselves singing them after we’ve left, and can’t find our way back.