Sunday, December 27, 2020

Lessons from History

In 1984, Don Henley released Building the Perfect Beast. This was his second solo album, but at the time he was far more famous for his work with the Eagles, a dominant force in pop music. Perhaps the best known cuts from the Beast are "All She Wants to do is Dance" and "Sunset Grill." Of course, the "Boys of Summer" resonated with many. But, beneath the surface was "Driving with your Eyes Closed," and perhaps his deepest ballad - "A Month of Sundays." It is "Driving" that came to memory for me recently, however. 

There, Henley makes multiple references to the French, one of which regards the gentleman and his artistic efforts ("I met a Frenchman in a field last night"). There is some suggestion of individual perspective in reference to the man's art. He seemingly suggests that different people are motivated by different things ("Sometimes it's a country; sometimes it's a girl"), but that "everybody got to have a purpose in this world." We are each about something. 

Henley refers us to two nineteenth century French poets of significant fame, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Art and poetry are each perspective-dependent. We may each see or hear something different, regardless of the speaker/writer's intent. From my perspective, there is suggestion in "Driving" that Henley perceives challenges to pride and its perils. He refers us to war or politics with "Some guys just got to go and put their rockets everywhere." As that stanza proceeds, he similarly refers us to love with references to The Death of Lovers (Baudelaire) and The Punishment of Pride (Baudelaire). Whether in conquest or love, his focus on the perils of pride are clear. And, the French foundation for the discussion is patent. 

"Driving" has resonated with me over decades. It came back to me when I once had the opportunity to similarly stand with a Frenchman in one of many remaining portions of the Maginot line in eastern France. Coincidently, we were in a field across which the French had built this impressive interconnected system of forts and armaments in the 1930s. Of note, that construction effort was a response. 

The French suffered deeply in a drawn and pitched battle for world supremacy, known at the time as the "War to End all Wars" though later known as World War I as society looked back with the new perspective of the subsequent killing and disaster that was World War II. After that first global conflict ended in 1918, the world invested significantly in defense, including the formidable Maginot Line across the French/German frontier from La Ferté to the Rhine River. Notably, as that war ended, the world faced an influenza pandemic in 1918 that eventually killed somewhere between 20 and 50 million people.  As we ponder COVID-19, that death toll is worthy of consideration. 

In my studies of history, I have heard many references to the Maginot Line, often derogatory or at least dismissive. Its' construction was undoubtedly a reaction to horrible circumstances. France suffered almost two million dead (about 4% of population) in the "War to End all Wars." It suffered among the highest casualty rates. The French were not alone in suffering or reaction. The Germans felt seemingly as threatened, and contemporaneously constructed the corresponding Zigfried Line in the 1930s to similarly defend against French invasion. It was a complex and intriguing time of conflicts, challenges, and destruction. 

Nazi Germany later came to call in France, and the fallacy of ending all wars was too soon demonstrated. Appreciating the engineering and organization of the Maginot Line, Germany elected not to confront those fortifications. Instead, it invaded neighboring (and far less fortified) Belgium, and after a short pause invaded France from there across another border without such fortifications and defenses. Having accomplished this end-run, the Maginot Line was essentially under siege from the rear by June 1940. Though I have heard multiple academics deride the Line, it is hardly fair to fault its design or intent. Its failure was not there, but in the failure to predict how France's enemies might avoid its might. The next threat that is faced may not always mimic the last. 

Surrounded, the French surrendered the Maginot Line. This, the Frenchman in a field once lamented to me, was and remains a source of great discomfort and disappointment. He rushed to assure me, despite my not having raised such a topic, that the French were not cowards. He focused on his perceptions of their pride and esprit de corps. His nationalism and patriotism were patent in his animated defense of the French troops' honor and bravery. His regret at the fall of France in 1940 still palpable some 80 years later as we quietly discussed it there in the monument the Line has become. 

I reflect upon the implications as we near, hopefully, the beginning of the end of our war on COVID. Some are hopeful that this is the pandemic to end pandemics? We have undoubtedly suffered an attack on our livelihood and humanity. SARS-CoV-2 has assaulted us all in some measure and caused tremendous human suffering that we might readily measure in death, casualties, or mere economic impact. Societally and personally, it has been a vicious and prolonged incursion; some believe its impacts will be long-lasting and significant. We face 2021 with high hopes that science will deliver us from this peril, that vaccination will return us to normalcy. I reflect on CNN reporting last March the scientists assurances that it is impossible to produce a deployable vaccine within a year, that it would require at least 12 to 18 months. I am pleased they were so wrong as deployment is underway and more products seemingly imminent. 

Certainly, I share the hopes and optimism for 2021. But, I wonder beyond that what we as a world will do to prepare ourselves for our future. Can we become better at foreseeing the potential for such infections in the future? Almost certainly, there will be reaction in years to come. Perhaps equipment will be stockpiled such as respirators and personal protective equipment (PPE). Institutions and organizations may evolve in their preparedness or structure. It is possible even that individuals will become more cognizant of preparations and readiness, with greater supplies of things like toilet tissue and hand sanitizer maintained at home. 

However, people seemingly have short memories. Time and again in the southeast we suffer the ravages of tropical cyclones. After each of the major landfalls, it seems folks suddenly take hurricanes seriously again. But, then those memories fade. People slowly lose their assiduous attention to evacuation warnings. The day-to-day overtakes and consumes our focus. We become less likely to listen to the authorities or forecasters. We may even become complacent enough to neglect to appropriately secure construction equipment when the next storm threatens. We are seemingly persistent in a cycle of fear, preparation, compliance, fading, complacency, and resulting disaster. 

Will it be thus for viral infection? Will there be some relatively brief post-COVID period in which we assiduously respect the potentials for viral onslaught? For how many years will we stockpile supplies? How long will we remember 2020 and appreciate its impact upon us? When will memory fade, whether that means individually, or as generations that did not experience 2020 are born and become weary of our "walk to school in the snow" reflections on history?

In the short term, will we be inclined to build a fortress in preparation for the next potential exposure, focused upon the way this infection developed, our own figurative Maginot Line? Will such preparation or precaution be too focused upon the last threat and in that perhaps lack imagination as to the next? Will we build a figurative Maginot Line only to learn too soon that our fortress against the last threat is not up to the next one? Are we up to individually and collectively comprehending that this world is capable of persistently challenging us, individually and collectively, in sometimes quirky and unexpected ways?

The relief of the vaccine is palpable in conversations I have had recently. Several have told me how the New Year "has to be better." They see relief on the horizon and a "return to normal." I am hopeful that they are correct. I am confident as 2020 ends that societal improvement looms large on the horizon. I am cautious that the coming recovery will not address everyone or all of the ills. And, I harbor concerns that our attention and focus will be too short-lived, that we will quickly begin to ignore our recent lessons in social distancing, preparation, and disinfecting. 

2021 offers promise and hope. Certainly, however, there is likely much about which to remain deeply concerned as we move forward into it. Let us perhaps learn from the mistakes of history as we mover forward in our recovery from this onslaught. Let us remember our lessons, the suffering, and the challenges. But, let us also remember the fantastic efforts of those who saved lives, those who developed the vaccines the experts denied were possible. Let us end the year with a commitment to increase our appreciation that the world around us is challenging and complex, that optimism is worthwhile, and that we are all better together. 

Happy New Year 2021, may it be your best year ever.