Not forgotten

I was reminded last week of George Santayana’s observation that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The words may seem trite, but are as true today as they were a century ago.

To learn from history, however, one must know it, study it and appreciate its value. Unfortunately, few Americans today pay much attention to anything that happened longer ago than last week — and fewer still take the time to ponder the importance of such events. This is especially true of the denizens of Washington, who are fond of quoting their predecessors but otherwise ignore what they went through.

President Obama hit a wall last week as analysts, pundits and many of his fellow Democrats began to shy away from his complicated and incredibly expensive healthcare scheme in ways reminiscent of the collapse of the Clinton plan in 1993-4. His arrogance mirrored that of the Clintons, whose “reforms” were initially seen by Republicans and Democrats as popular and inevitable, but proved to be neither.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the world’s oldest man died at the age of 113. His name was Henry Allingham and he was also the last living British veteran of World War I, the “Great War” that raged from 1914 to 1918, destroyed the old order in Europe, made the United States a dominant world power, set the stage for the era of Hitler, Stalin and Mao and guaranteed that the 20th century would be the bloodiest in world history. The last German to suffer through that conflict died some years ago, and there is but one living American who whistled “The Yanks are Coming” as he headed off to save Europe in the war that he was told would end war.  

The men of America’s “Greatest Generation” are dying off, too, and few young Americans understand the price they paid for all of us in World War II. Several years ago, a friend of mine authored a volume on that war and was, as a consequence, booked for an interview on cable TV. It was canceled at the last minute for a breaking news story, and my friend, eager to share his perspectives on the war, was anxious to get it rescheduled.

After a few days, he called the young producer who had contacted him, but she told him, “I don’t really know anyone interested in World War II. We only booked you in the first place because of the anniversary of D-Day, and now that we’ve missed that, I don’t think anyone would want to see it.”

One can only imagine her interest in an earlier war, even if it did change the world. Allingham returned to Britain after the 1918 armistice, married, raised a family and presumably spent more than a normal lifetime trying to forget the horrors of the war into which he and the world had stumbled in 1914. His wife died in 1970 and he didn’t know what to do with himself until a nursing home inspector suggested that he ought to remind people they are free only because of the sacrifices of millions long dead.

Allingham realized that the man was right and vowed to spend his remaining days sharing his experiences so young people would never forget that those who perished in the trenches “died for us.”

He spent his last decade reminding his fellow Britons of the horror of war, and cautioned them that forgetting its lessons can only lead to greater horrors in the century in which we now live.

Those of us who survive the Allinghams of the Great War, as well as those who fought and died before and since, have an obligation to ourselves, to our country and to those who bled and died for us to make certain that they and their sacrifices are never forgotten, because the world we live in today would be a far worse place had they never lived.

Last week an article in another publication alleged that I made an unethical proposal as chairman of the American Conservative Union to a potential contributor that could be read in part to imply that I might write a column in this space favorable to the contributor’s position.

Upon seeing this allegation I read the solicitation for the first time, found the inference appalling, and reprimanded the ACU staffer who wrote it. I have never used this column to benefit my clients or non-profits and never will.

In addition to chairing the ACU, Keene is a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm. He can be reached at