Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Trying Too Hard to Learn from History

Josh Manchester writes:

Our attempts to compare every conflict to World War II or Vietnam hinder our ability to fight different kinds of wars, including the current one.

In the pantheon of American warfare, no conflict garners as much popular admiration as the Second World War, which holds the title of ideal war...Whereas World War II is the gold standard for US warfare in most Americans' reckoning, the specter of Vietnam forever haunts our every move in any conflict that does not appear to resemble World War II...

The result of these two national experiences is that warfare exists along a one-dimensional axis for most Americans. World War II exists as the positive terminal of this circuit, and Vietnam as the negative; the tendency then is to reinforce the one, while eschewing the other.
As he also writes, "[t]he truth is something more complicated."  Indeed, much historical work has been done to strip away the "preferred remembrances" of WWII and there have also been attempts to play out various "what if?" scenarios with regards to Vietnam. Such revision and counterfactual assessment are the bread and butter of History.  However, too often, we all (myself included) fall into the trap of trying too hard to learn from the past.  No contemporary situation is ever exactly like something that's happened before.  As Manchester explains, searching for similarities between "then" and "now" can lead to simplistic and faulty conclusions:

Many observers across the political spectrum today seek to account for our failures or defeats in the War on Terror by partaking in complicated analogies to determine whether we are in a particular phase of World War Two, say, 1939 for example, and have thus really not begun to fight at all, or whether we are in the midst of the folly that characterized the Johnson White House, say in 1967, and thus are destined to lose.

But we would be better served as a nation to take a cold, hard, sober look at our position in 2006 and note that while similarities can always be found throughout history, each incident is strikingly different and the future is never foretold. We would be better served as a nation to note that we are engaged in a counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign in Iraq that resembles Vietnam in some superficial ways, but does not make failure a foregone conclusion; and moreover, that while counterinsurgency tactics and strategies might currently apply in Iraq, that does not mean they will always apply everywhere...
We can take our cues from the mistakes and successes of our history, but we shouldn't deceive ourselves by taking history as a preordained script.  "It happened before, it'll happen again" is a pithily accurate statement in a generic sort of way,  but the particulars and contingencies of any given historical moment vary from time and place to time and place. History does provides us with cautionary tales that can (hopefully) make us more deliberate in considering our future actions. But it is only one portion of all that needs to be considered.  What we know (or think we know) about a current situation is still the largest determinant of future action. 

No comments: