When Chou En Lai was asked what he thought of the French Revolution he allegedly replied “it’s too early to say”. However others are willing to make a judgment on history. Chinese artists Dai Dudu, Li Tiezi, and Zhang An painted a fascinating panorama of 103 persons in 2006 they considered famous. The selection reflects their point of view. It contains many more Chinese and Asian figures than might figure in an American choice. It is understandably a Sinocentric view of the world; where Hitler strikes an indifferent pose but it is Hideki Tojo who is singled out for torment. Movie stars and sports stars have more prominence than would be expected. It’s cavalcade of fame as seen from the international news pages.
Since the painting was done in 2006 there is one conspicuous omission. Is it a fatal shortcoming? And have the artists failed to anticipate the most significant historical figure of all?
Maybe “it’s too early to say”, but the auguries are not good. Historian Max Hastings says that the campaign in Afghanistan, Obama’s ‘war of necessity’, is coming to an ignominious-looking end. “That we can’t even leave a memorial behind says everything,” Hastings writes.
All over the world, from Vimy Ridge and El Alamein to Rangoon and Rorke’s Drift, stand memorials to British war dead, most of them places of pilgrimage for descendants and tourists.
Future travellers, however, will find no such proud relic at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. When the Army lowered the Union flag there on Sunday, our memorial — etched with hundreds of names of the fallen — had been dismantled and flown home.
Had it remained in war-torn Helmand province, it seemed certain to face desecration and destruction. There could be no more vivid manifestation of the failure of Britain’s Afghan mission.
Hastings is a man whose profession is memory. The Brits like to remember everything, and recall their defeats with even more fondness than their victories. As for itself, the Obama administration is stealing away as quietly as it can. The last US Marines out of Helmand said. “‘It was surreal,’ said Marine communications officer Captain Anthony Nguyen, 33, of Houston, Texas.” There were no parades, no big flybys of massed aircraft over fleets of ships in Tokyo Bay. Just an urge to get out there as fast as prudence allowed.
“We’re not refugees or anything, but it kind of reminding me of scenes of Vietnam, of people running to the helicopters … just this mad dash to the aircraft,” added Nguyen, who is Vietnamese-American.
The Obama administration has a curious relationship with the past, one akin to a cat and his box of kitty litter. The past can’t be buried soon enough or redacted too quickly. Afghanistan, once a “war of necessity” began with a big speech and ended ‘responsibly’, like a man quitting smoking. Obamacare, you may recall, was about originally about “something wonderful” and keeping your doctor and your health plan if you liked them. About all they can say now is Obamacare expanded Medicaid, a program it was supposed to save in the first instance. If you are tempted to remember the jingling optimism of all those initial caravans of Hope setting out, remember dude that everything was a long time ago. Move on, buddy. Move on.
The rear view mirror may show a trail of broken promises, none of which are operative any more. From the justice that was promised for the Libyan consular victims and the ever lengthening list of beheading victims,to the #hashtag campaign to “bring back our girls” — back when they were still young girls — but they’re now a reminder of things to forget. Phrases like the Grand Bargain, Russian Reset, Arab Spring, Red Line, World Without Nuclear Weapons, Responsibility to Protect, Green Energy, etc. are just embarrassments now, best left unmentioned.
If the three Chinese artists should try to panoramically paint the administration’s past they might show Snowden at a computer depicting a crashed Healthcare.gov in the foreground, with Putin invading the Ukraine as a backdrop. Off to one side will be the ISIS flag. At one end a tableau of the Mexican border showing guns (with little legs) “walking” in one direction and narco terrorists walking in the other can figure prominently. They can include a man in a theatrical mask planting a classified document into Sharyl Atkisson’s computer. If the artists can manage it, out the window they can depict drones and aerostats circling in the sky. In the far distance they can draw in doctors in Hazmat suits perhaps adjacent to a graveyard where the dead are rising getting ready to vote.
And then the pictures should vanish. If the artists are using digital media, the figures should fade — the drones last — until there is nothing left but a blank canvas, an empty screen into which anyone can project his deepest aspirations. See the dreams, don’t see the past. Memory for the administration is as Orwell described it: a thing infinitely malleable. “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”
Of course as Oscar Wilde pointed out, there is always another artist at work, laboring in some secret room, recording things as they really look, both good and bad. In that secret room the past remains the past and the future is what the present makes it. In the public narrative Dorian Gray may appear young, handsome and full of superficial glamor despite his corruption but in the secret room there’s a picture of him as he really looks. “The greatest theme in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) is Aestheticism and its conceptual relation to living a double life.” It’s a place where nothing fades, where our double history does not apply.
The real history survives in despite of the redaction. As does the real future, as distinguished from the promised one. If the Obama administration has decided to steal away from Afghanistan like a thief in the night, ashamed even of its own legacy, it does not extinguish the facts nor efface the true portrait. The good and the bad; the noble and ignominious have alike played their part. And the world turns, not under the impetus of the teleprompter, but from the cumulative effort of the ordinary man. The role played by the men in Afghanistan and Iraq will be accounted in their effect; in what events they delayed, in what events they prevented, in what course they altered.
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But we left them alone with their glory.
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