What Do We Say When History is Repeating Itself?

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In 2007 when I was first hired by the community college where I’m about to start my fifteenth year, the centerpiece of my teaching load was a course called “America’s Experience in Vietnam.” The class was very popular among a specific sub-group of students: recent veterans of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of them had permanent war-related injuries, while others were open with their classmates about their struggles with PTSD. Still others were physically and emotionally healthy but working incredibly hard to rejoin civilian life after an extended period of time in the armed forces. They added an element of realism to the course discussions that had been absent when I taught a similar course at a private four-year college.


As the years went on, and the turmoil in the Middle East continued to draw on the human and economic resources of our country, the “Vietnam course” as I liked to call it became more and more difficult to teach. Historians had a clearer picture than ever before of the errors in policy made in Southeast Asia and there was plenty of Vietnam-related data for analysis and discussion. My students, however, were beginning to see parallels between the war they were studying and the one in which they had been combatants. It was obvious to me that some were quite troubled by the proverbial notion of “history repeating itself.”


Class discussions became tangled in a question that I couldn’t answer with any authority: would a historian one day be making the argument that US military action in Afghanistan and/or Iraq had been misguided? I admittedly started to have a difficult time keeping the students on track because their concerns about the similarities between US policy in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, though decades apart, were so troubling. It seemed that every conversation about Vietnam ended with thoughts on the Middle East. Eventually I began to believe that a class focused solely on the war in Vietnam no longer made sense for a generation of students who were themselves living through a protracted military engagement overseas and needed broader historical context. I began to encourage student veterans to take general US history courses so that they could better understand how US foreign policy has changed over time in response to diplomatic and economic crises throughout the world. 


I’m thinking a lot this week about those students I taught in 2007, 2008, and 2009 who were new to college but veterans of combat. My college is offering additional support to current student veterans feeling stress and anxiety over the situation in Afghanistan, but I know that those young men and women I taught more than ten years ago -- wherever they may be today -- are likely thinking back to our class discussions. It’s unsettling. 


What do we say to students when we literally see history repeating itself in front of our eyes? I’m mulling this question as we prepare to start a new school year with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to wreak havoc on our daily lives. In these immensely challenging times I want to find ways to be truthful in my classroom while also offering hope for the future. Seeking suggestions. 


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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.