mm126: Iraq = Vietnam – Compare with Care

September 3, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

We and the world tackled this topic last weekend, but the NYTimes had something useful to say last Friday:


AS the nations of Europe leapt to arms in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson’s mind turned to President James Madison and the war with England in 1812.

“Madison and I are the only two Princeton men who have become president,” Wilson observed ominously in a letter, noting that tensions with Great Britain over its naval blockage of Germany recalled earlier disputes with England about freedom of the seas. “The circumstances of the War of 1812 and now run parallel. I sincerely hope they will not go further.”

His fears were unfounded. Great Britain became an ally in World War I, Wilson’s alma mater notwithstanding. But his knack for reading — or misreading — historical parallels hardly stands out in the annals of American presidents and public officials.

President Bush sent historians scurrying toward their keyboards last week when he defended the United States occupation of Iraq by arguing that the pullout from Vietnam had led to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia. His speech was rhetorical jujitsu, an attempt to throw back at his critics their favorite historical analogy — Vietnam — for the Iraq war. His argument aroused considerable skepticism from historians and political scientists, who note that the United States’ military action in Vietnam was among the factors that destabilized Cambodia. But Mr. Bush’s statement also revived a perennial question. Whenever a public officials starts to say “the lesson of,” is that a cue to stop listening?

The Times references some interesting parallels: the Cuban missile crisis of 1963 (Kennedy denied his advisors’ attempts to justify bombing Cuba by comparing the crisis to the pre-WWII Munich appeasement) is their most interesting example of attempts to find historical parallels where none exist. Take a look:

[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

War – History – Iraq – Vietnam – Korea – War of 1812 – New York Times

It’s common to attempt to understand complex situations by making associations to (hopefully) understood events of the past.

But those historic events themselves were of course complex, in the case of Vietnam/Cambodia probably still incompletely understood (after all, who ended with command of the battlefields?) and should resist a simplified reduction. However,

“People alight on the likeness with an event in the past, and it helps them to understand something when they can associate it with something familiar,” Professor May said in an interview.

The key of course is whether the comparison is apt. Just can’t give the Bush administration credit for considered reflection, unless the reflection is about how to award more spoils to their Halliburtons. tells me that George Bernard Shaw said, “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” Even that concept seems beyond the capability of the intellectually bankrupt administration of our very own George III.

It’s it for now. Thanks,