A famous line from the 1946 classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life proclaims “every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” The refrain expresses a happy sentiment meant to express the joy exhibited in the movie’s final scene.
Regrettably, President Trump’s recent off-the cuff speech—in which he made reference to the Kurds and their absence at the D-Day landing in Normandy during World War II—demands the creation of a similar refrain to express the sentiment he provokes regarding the study of history. It should go something like this: “Every time President Trump attempts to make a historical reference, a hardworking and well-meaning history teacher sheds a tear of frustration.”
I contend his presidency is a mocking blow to all the hardworking and well-meaning high school history teachers who have long attempted to inspire lazy, apathetic or skeptical students by preaching that you can’t advance in life without knowing your history.
While trying to defend his decision to pull U.S. forces out of Syria, and thereby abandon our Kurdish allies, President Trump commented on Oct. 8, “The Kurds are fighting for their land…and as someone wrote in a very, very powerful article today: They didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy, as an example, they mention different battles…but they’re there to help us with their land. And that’s a different thing.”
The article Trump referenced was an opinion piece on the right-wing Townhall website by conservative commentator Kurt Schlichter, in which the author wrote, “Let’s be honest — the Kurds didn’t show up for us at Normandy or Inchon or Khe Sanh or Kandahar.” Schlichter not only referenced the D-Day landing, but also two other famous battles associated respectively with the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as a province in Afghanistan that has seen more than its share of fighting during our war against terrorism.
Trump’s reference to Normandy and the Kurds went far in revealing his ignorance of history. Besides overlooking the fact the Kurds were not capable of supporting the D-Day invasion because they do not have their own country (they are an ethnic group whose population is spread throughout Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria), Trump also chose to ignore the fact that two of our most reliable post-World War II allies have been Japan and Germany, two countries that were obviously not on our side at Normandy.
A U.S. president’s misunderstanding of the Normandy landing’s historical significance is confounding enough for any high school history teacher. Yet, what is most intriguing about Trump’s statement is that he didn’t repeat the names of the other three battle sites mentioned in Schlichter’s article. Granted, there could be a good reason for this omission. Perhaps the president didn’t have time to mention them. After all, more speech time means less tweet time.
Or maybe he thought his point had been sufficiently made with the Normandy reference. His point was apparently that U.S. battles should no longer be seen as historical examples of heroism and noble self-sacrifice, but as a mere transactional events, much like corporate business deals centered on the principle of reciprocity.
But there is a third possible reason. It’s very likely Trump omitted the names because he did not recognize them. I contend he perceived them not as famous battles synonymous with American valor, daring, and commitment, but as sketchy, foreign words lacking the cachet to register as significant because of his limited historical knowledge.
This reason is frighteningly absurd in its implications, for it implies the names of Inchon and Khe Sanh—two hallowed names in U.S. military history—probably mean nothing to the man designated as commander-in chief. The Marine Corps’ audacious amphibious landing at Inchon on the Korean coast in 1950, a stroke of military genius on the part of General Douglas McArthur, should be common historical knowledge for anyone entrusted with the power to once again direct American forces against a dangerous North Korea.
Trump’s possible ignorance of the 1968 battle of Khe Sanh is equally absurd. During the battle at this isolated firebase, Marines were able to repel several divisions of North Vietnamese forces over the course of 77 days. No history of the Marine Corps is complete without an account of this battle. True, the Kurds were not there to assist and earn future alliance credits, but it is ironic that at least one draft-age, soon-to-be prominent American also happened to be a no-show at that battle.
As for Kandahar, the numerous military operations that have been conducted in that area might be considered of too recent vintage to be considered history. However, it’s definitely not considered unreasonable for a busy president to know the name of a key province in a country where American troops still wage war.
Donald Trump’s questionable knowledge of history, as reflected by this one speech, along with his occupying the highest office in the land, makes him a candidate for the dubious title of “high school history teachers’ worst nightmare.”
Unfortunately, the joke is on history teachers. The next time a lazy, apathetic, or skeptical high school student asks, “Why do I have to study history?” teachers can no longer respond with a sincere, “Because playing an active role in society requires you to be a well-informed citizen who understands the lessons of the past.” The Trump presidency has rendered that answer null and void. Instead, teachers must now rely on the more trite, “Because the state says it’s a mandatory graduation requirement, so get to work, and stop asking silly questions.”
Steve Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps officer and high school teacher who last taught at Olympian High School in Chula Vista.