EVANSVILLE  – In the middle of the 19th Century, the very idea of the German soldier was considered an absurdity. Southern Germany in particular was perceived as unsuited for war, especially versus the true martial races of Europe – for example the French.

Then the Germans beat the Austrians. Then the Germans occupied Paris. Then the Germans plunged the continent into two generations of war. What was conventional wisdom on the Germans – that they were fundamentally not a nation for war – was abruptly reversed. A beaten country, a perennial plaything of its neighbors, suddenly became the supreme aggressor, earning respect and fear in equal measure in a metaphorical heartbeat.

This isn’t the only time this has happened. It happens quite a lot if you look.

The Russians were an incoherent and staggering nation in 1941, wracked by revolution and tyranny, the country of the humiliation at Brest-Litovsk. They were so enervated that they nearly lost a war to Finland, and the German dictator concluded that Russia was ready for the taking; just kick in the door, and the whole rotten structure comes down. Four years later, Russian soldiers scoured ravaged Berlin for his corpse.

The Arabs were a collection of disgraced and humiliated peoples in 1967, their lands lost, their armies scattered, their plans for genocide and victory foiled by a tiny foe that was smarter, more energetic, more daring than they. Their shattered aspirations would never be revived. There was just something about them that precluded competition and contention in the modern world. Six years later, Arab armies brought a stunned Israel to the very brink of collapse.

The Chinese spent nearly a century as the wretched subjects of the greed of the Europeans, the Japanese, and the Americans. Their cities were colonized, their pride was ruined. Their capital was occupied again and again. Their imperial palace was burnt. They tore themselves apart, warlord upon warlord, and when they at last allied with their erstwhile national tormentors against Japan, their best quality was their ineffectiveness. China had nothing to offer but numbers. When the Communists took over in 1949, it seemed another dreary chapter in its decline. One year later, Chinese armies under brilliant leadership shattered one American army and ejected another from the snows of North Korea.

The list goes on and on. The Yankees were a Whiggish people with no martial tradition, but then they reduced the proud South to ruins. The Irish were habituated to seven centuries of subjugation, but then they beat the British Empire. Here’s the point: History does not go in any particular direction. People change. The quality of nations changes in a moment. Peace breaks out without warning; danger emerges in a flash.

Everyone who believes that some particular country or region cannot in a moment change is showing that they understand none of this. War and chaos, and peace and prosperity, both lurk around every corner. A fragile culture and set of leaders help determines what emerges.

There’s a story in “Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy” of an American soldier who discovers some graffiti in a French settlement near the frontier. There is the first line of the graffiti, signed and dated 1918. Then there is the second line, signed and dated 1945. The signatory is another American soldier, and it is the same man in each year. He scrawls a short message below:

“I would like to not have to come back again.” He didn’t. But if we are fools, perhaps his great-grandsons will. 

Claybourn is an Evansville attorney and author of the book “Our American Story: The Search for a Shared National Narrative.”