Saturday, February 24, 2007

War and the Lessons of History

There is an old saw that goes something like: "Those who ignore the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them." No quotation book contains it, no wise man claims it.

American poet Howard Nemerov said: "Those who have tasted power and developed an addiction to it, studied of history, intend to repeat it. "

Geretrude Stein: "It is the soothing thing about history that it does repeat itself."

George Bernard Shaw: "Hegel was right when he said that we learn from history that man can never learn anything from history."

Napoleon Bonaparte: "History is a set of lies agreed upon."

Aldous Huxley: "The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different. "

With those thoughts in mind, I have been reflecting on statements of opponents of the Iraq conflict who seek to draw upon the lessons of Vietnam to support their position.

In his 1961 inaugural address, John Kennedy said the following: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." At the time, the threat to America and a free world was Communism, and Kennedy was as anti-Communist as any politican in America.

"The enemy is the Communist system itself -- impacable, insatiable, unceasing in its drive for world domination. This is not a struggle for supremacy of arms alone. It is a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting ideologies: freedom under God versus ruthless, godless tyrrany," he said in a speech during the 1960 Presidential campaign.

Kennedy's words regarding Communism were true, and the committment made in his inaugural was shared by an adoring nation.

Now, forty-six years later, I think you could substitute "radical islam" for "communism" and the statement would be every bit as true. Radical islamists -- for whom Osama bin Laden is only the most notorious embodiment, certainly have made no secret of their agreement with it. I must doubt, however, that the contemporary Democratic Party would agree. And if they do, what they are willing to permit the President to do about it?

In Kennedy's day, the reigning Democrats in Congress, Tip O'Neill at the forefront among them, would follow the President's leadership against communism, which eventually led the country into an escalation of the Vietnam War.

By 1965, Kennedy was dead and Lyndon Johnson was becoming buried in the mire of war politics, with the generals in charge of the war admitting to President Johnson that their original plan had badly miscalculated:

"The successive political upheavals and the accompanying turmoil which have followed Diem's demise upset all our prior calculations. We know now what are the basic factors responsible for this turmoil -- chronic factionalism, civilian-military suspicions and distrust, absence of national spirit and motivation, lack of cohesion in the social structure, lack of experience in the conduct of government. These are historical factors growing out of national characteristics and traditions, susceptible to change only over the long run. We Americans are not going to change them in any fundamental way in any measurable time."

Vietnam would drag on for seven more years and a generation of younger Americans not familiar with Kennedy's words in 1960 would become a juggernaut, leading to the eventually withdrawal of troops from Vietnam and the fall of Saigon to the communists.

What the generals told Johnson in 1965 appears to be true in Iraq today -- substitute "Hussein" for Diem and see if you agree.

Does this suggest, then, that the "lesson" of Vietnam would compel us to withdraw our troops and leave the future of Iraq to the forces of chaos? I don't think so. As Huxley said, "from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different."

What we know now that is fundamentally different from 1965 is that our enemies are not content to challenge us on a conventional battlefield or to spread their insidious brand of tyranny by invading borders with army troops. They are willing to impose their tyranny in other cultures and countries in a most brutal and inhuman fashion (read about the Taliban's take-over in Afghanistan). And they are willing to murder innocent American citizens on our own soil -- and we are not prepared to defend our borders against that threat (indeed, our Constitution does not permit us to do so).

While the generals may have been correct in 1965, that "we Americans are not going to change them in any fundamental way in any measurable time," I do not believe that is true in Iraq today, for the simple reason that we don't need to change them in any fundamental way for them to understand the concept of liberty. The Iraqi citizenry, having suffered for decades under the brutal rule of Hussein, already knows what is at stake. There is a reservoir of understanding, and yearning, for what a free society will bring them.

It may take more time than the majority of Americans are willing to endorse, and the risks are certainly very high. But I am of the belief that we are at war around the globe with people who do not believe in treaties, compromise or political differences. They believe in worldwide hegemony and they will not stop at our borders.

How does the free world devise a "Marshall Plan" around that?

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