The rear-view mirror, which we call history, helps us to examine the past to determine the course of action for future while being in present. It is not only for examining our own journey heretofore but also of those who are on the same road. As well as those whose path we crossed or who crossed our path previously.
John Arnold, a British historian has put it as:
“Visiting the past is like visiting a foreign country: they do some things the same way and some things differently, but above all else, they make us more aware of what we call ‘home’.”
What we humans do the most in their lives is dealing with people, second only to breathing. We constantly interact with individuals and are faced non-stop with situations. Every move we make, every step we take requires decisions. By knowing the history of other people we can understand their values, their fears, their interests, expectations as well as possible reactions. Critical consideration of the mistakes in the past can lead to advantages ripped from not repeating them. History can assist us in making better predictions. By this, I do not intend to imply that history has all the blueprints; rather it helps us to choose wisely from various options at our disposal for our future decisions. It can help us to think clearly. History, out of numerous purposes it serves, essentially helps decide between what ought to be done and what ought to be avoided in the future. We can then, with confidence, prophesize the likely outcomes based on our understanding of the past.
In past, if only, statesmen, generals, diplomats, bankers, think tanks, pundits etc. had had a look at history, several of the wars could have been avoided, monetary crises could have been averted, famines could have been deterred, catastrophes could have been deflected. And those who did have a look at what past had to offer either failed to comprehend the insights or simply ignored them.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
said George Santayana.
Chinese tradition presents a good example when it comes to dwelling into historical lessons when faced with crucial judgments. For example, when Mao was deciding in the 1960s to open up China’s relationships with the USA, as a counterbalance strategy to the Soviet Union, he did so by using sagacity dating back to 3 A.D., from a narration of a then statesman. On the contrary, several of the men-in-power have ignored the history of the people and/or regions they were dealing with. From the recent past, wars of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq present compelling cases where one side either ignored the suggestions experts (who surely understood the history better) presented derived from historical context or simply relied on feeble evidence.
Only by careful examination and honest description of the past can we bridge the lacunas that still remain wide open in historical realms. Care needs to be taken when dealing with history. Mind it that our revision, and accordingly our analysis of historical facts, should not be selective (what would be a case to which psychologists refer as confirmation bias). Otherwise, it can do more harm than good. As Aldous Huxley said:
“ Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”