Some perspective on history and impermanence, courtesy of Friedman and Stephenson

In a recent column, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman speculated that Iraq may have to break up into separate states for a while in order for Iraqis to figure out that they’re better off sharing a country. Leaving aside for now the question of whether Mr. Friedman is right–though he does usually have some good insights to offer into world affairs–his column and the prospect of the breakup of Iraq furnish me with an occasion to write about something that’s been on my mind lately: things that may be much more historically contingent than we assume.

The basic problem in Iraq has long been that various groups, the largest of which include Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Kurds, that otherwise wouldn’t be inclined to live together have been forced to share a country. This problem is largely the fault of European powers who carved up the Middle East to serve their own interests with little regard for whom they were forcing to live with whom. (See also: Africa.) Strong leaders more or less managed to keep a lid on the tensions, usually at the expense of human rights for one group or another–but suppressing a problem isn’t the same as solving it, as became painfully obvious when Saddam Hussein was removed and sectarian hell broke loose. Now the nation-state of Iraq, not quite a century old, may well not survive another year.

Certainly the violence and bloodshed that have characterized this process are deeply, deeply tragic. But I’m not convinced that, in and of itself, the breakup of Iraq is tragic at all. It may be a good thing for the people or a bad thing for the people, or more likely good for some and bad for others. I don’t really know, and I don’t know enough to speculate (although the Kurds, for their part, seem to be on track to build a stable, inclusive government in the north). But whether the breakup of Iraq would be good or bad is beside my point; what isn’t beside my point is the impermanence of Iraq.

For most of the last century and a half or so, a huge majority of the earth’s land area has been carved up into states and territories with well-defined borders, to the extent that most people living today can be forgiven for assuming that such an arrangement is, if you’ll pardon the expression, the natural order of things. But countries haven’t always operated that way. For much of human history, international borders were unfixed; a country or kingdom or empire would claim whatever territory it could administer and defend, and that was that. Several modern European nations, including Germany and Italy, were motley collections of princedoms, principalities, and city-states as recently as the nineteenth century. And defending the fixed boundary of Hadrian’s Wall required far more soldiers than Rome’s previous strategy of letting roving bands of soldiers patrol its northern border in Britain as the generals thought appropriate. And of course kingdoms, republics, and other forms of government have appeared and disappeared and changed across the world throughout history.

In other words, perhaps it is not just Iraq that existed for a time and will eventually give way to something else; perhaps the same is true of states as well.

A few months ago I re-read Neal Stephenson’s speculative fiction novel Anathem, and one of the things I enjoyed most was Stephenson’s descriptions of the rise and fall of civilizations over thousands of years, the waxing and waning of populations and polities, the flow and ebb of human activity. Usually these descriptions take the form of the protagonist’s observations of abandoned towns and fields, dilapidated buildings, and the like. The effect of these passages, for me, was to call to mind not so much the ruins that Greece or Macchu Picchu became long ago but the ruins that New York or Seattle may become some centuries hence.

Think for a moment about the history books you’ve read. The history books of today can condense, say, Europe’s Late Middle Ages–the lives of millions of people and the cultures and politics of dozens of kingdoms, in all their vast complexity–to a single book, a single chapter, a single paragraph. A thousand years from now, what will the history books say about the twenty-first century? What institutions, what forms of culture and government, which of the things that we think of as enduring will be distilled to a paragraph that students will skim over in a vain attempt to pass a quiz? Liberal democracy? The United States? The modern university system? Labor unions?

This post isn’t meant to be a depressing rumination on the meaninglessness of the things we do. It’s meant to be a liberating reminder of how the things that we take for granted will last don’t actually need us to fight to keep them around, because it turns out that, in all probability, human life will go on even if Iraq does not.