Every profession has its temptations. In journalism, the temptation is to play historian. With the possible exception of looking for something "ironic" (which in the journalistic lexicon means anything that is not totally predictable), nothing delights journalists more than looking for historical parallels to current events.
It's 1979, and Iraq is invading Iran. Remind your readers (as a New York Times reporter did at that time) that the Arab aim has always been to subdue the Persians since the victory of the Arabs in the battle of Qadisiya in A.D. 637. James Reston branded the war as one of the "ancient struggles."
Now, Iran is invading Iraq. So, tell your readers (as the Economist did in its July 14 issue) that it is the revenge for Karbala. The magazine tells us that "The historic tragedy of Shia Islam was the massacre in A.D. 680 of the forces of Hussein, the prophet's grandson, at Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad. Iran's Shias are now getting their chance at revenge."
There is hardly a current war that has not been "historically" explained. You may think that China and Vietnam have been fighting only in the past three years, but journalists will quickly correct you and point out that Vietnamese kings have been fighting the Middle Kingdom for about 1,000 years. The superficial reader may think that the Sino-Soviet conflict is an ideological one or a border dispute; seasoned foreign correspondents will tell you, however, that the men at the Kremlin are still haunted by the memories of Genghis Khan and the invading "yellow hordes."
Nothing like a dash of history to add profundity to a mundane current event; it seems to be the current journalistic dictum. A closer look, though, shows that many of these "historical" parallels are on very shaky ground.
Vietnam and China may, in fact, have fought each other 1,000 years ago, but it is also a fact that the Chinese and the Vietnamese together were fighting the Americans much more recently. The Soviet Union and China may be enemies now, but they were allies for a decade in the '50s, Russian memories of pillaging "yellow hordes" notwithstanding.
There are few neighboring countries in the world that have not fought each other within the past few centuries. But historical memories are not so deep that one-time enemies are doomed to fight each other to eternity. It is doubtful whether actual memories of war last more than a generation, and, in any event, there are too many cases of reconciliation between nations who used to be bitter enemies for us to believe in the historical determinism of old wars.
Of course, the protaganists of modern wars themselves raid history for justifications for their actions. Tehran radio announces that the "sons of Khomeini have now gone to the front with the intention of occupying Karbala," while the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is labeled the "the victor of Qadisiya." But such propaganda is to be expected from the antagonists, and journalists should know better than to repeat them as if they were historical truths.
The politician's attitude toward history was probably summed up by Bismarck a century ago. He was on a relentless quest to build a Prussian empire, and when he was asked to explain why he was invading a small kingdom, Bismarck was supposed to have replied that it was his job to carry out the invasion and it was the job of the professors in Heidleberg to explain why, for historical reasons, it had to be done.
The same journalists who drag out forgotten battles to explain current skirmishes seem reticient when it comes to explaining peace. Why is it that the French are united with the English in the European Economic Community now and are not plotting revenge for the battle of Waterloo? If historical memories are so important, how is one to explain that both the French and the Germans are now allies against Moscow? How is it that Britain and its former colony, the United States, despite the war of independence and the wars after that, can now have a "special relationship"?
It is no accident that historical generalizations are made more often about the developing countries than about Europe. It is not that the French and Germans have a special gift for forgetting the events of the past 80 years, whereas the Sunnis and Shias cannot forget grudges from 12 centuries ago. Few foreign correspondents -- and even fewer Western readers -- are aware that the history of Asia is also a many-headed hydra, like the history of Europe, and that it can be used selectively to justify almost anything. That is why the Iran-Iraq conflict is more likely to be explained in terms of Shia-Sunni conflict than as the ideological, economic and territorial dispute that it is, whereas the French- German conflicts are explained in terms of common agricultural policy of the EEC without recourse to the events of the two world wars.
Factors beyond mere ignorance seem to be at work in the journalistic tendency to resort to history at the first excuse. Always acutely aware of the perishability of journalistic writings, and the incomplete nature of their accounts written to meet deadlines, journalists are game for something that sounds permanent or comprehensive. And they think they can cure their sins by dipping into history. By linking their temporal accounts to ancient events, journalists hope to transcend the limitations of their craft much like new immigrants who construct eleborate family trees to ennoble their ancestry.
We journalists have also been brainwashed over the years by textbooks and autobiographies of retired journalists that say we will be witnessing "history in the making" -- even though historians themselves seem to prefer the memoirs of the politicians and official records to our writings. Perhaps it will be better for all concerned when the next war comes around if journalists confine themselves to telling us who is selling the arms to the antagonists, what the ideological differences between them are and what the economic issues at stake are. It would certainly be better than telling us that the kings of both the countries concerned fought a battle on the same spot 1,000 years ago.