The Iraq War and the Inevitability of IgnoranceRoundup
tags: Iraq War
Related Link 'Learning From History': A Goal? A Delusion? A Trap? By James Fallows
... There’s a long list of books I wish presidents would have read before coming to office—before, because normal presidents barely have time to think once they get there. To give one example from my imagined list: the late David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace is for me a useful starting point for thinking about strains within the modern Middle East. The book argues, in essence, that the way the Ottoman Empire was carved up at the end of World War I essentially set the stage for conflicts in the region ever since. In that way it is a strategic counterpart to John Maynard Keynes’s famous The Economic Consequences of the Peace, written just after the conclusion of the Versailles agreements, which argues that the brutal economic terms dealt out to the defeated Germans practically guaranteed future trouble there.
Also high up on my “wish they’d read” list is Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, by two Harvard professors (and one-time mentors of mine), Ernest May and Richard Neustadt. In this book, May and Neustadt reverse the chestnut attributed to an earlier Harvard professor, George Santayana, that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Instead they caution against over-remembering, or imagining that a choice faced now can ever be exactly like one faced before.
The most famous and frightening example is Lyndon Johnson’s, involving Vietnam. Johnson “learned” so thoroughly the error of Neville Chamberlain, and others who tried to appease (rather than confront) the Nazis, that he thought the only risk in Vietnam was in delaying before confronting communists there. A complication in Johnson’s case, as this book and all other accounts of Vietnam make clear, is that he was worried both about the reality of waiting too long to draw a line against Communist expansion, and perhaps even more about appearing to be weak and Chamberlain-like.
Because of the disaster Johnson’s decisions caused—the disaster for Vietnam, for its neighbors, for tens of thousands of Americans, all as vividly depicted in last year’s Ken Burns / Lynn Novick documentary—most American politicians, regardless of party, “learned” to avoid entanglement in Asian-jungle guerrilla wars. Thus in the late 1970s, as the post-Vietnam war Khmer Rouge genocide slaughtered millions of people in Cambodia, the U.S. kept its distance. It had given up the international moral standing, and had nothing like the internal political stomach, to go right back into another war in the neighborhood where it had so recently met defeat.
From its Vietnam trauma, the United States also codified a crass political lesson that Richard Nixon had applied during the war. Just before Nixon took office, American troop levels in Vietnam were steadily on the way up, as were weekly death tolls, and monthly draft calls. The death-and-draft combination was the trigger for domestic protests. Callously but accurately, Nixon believed that he could drain the will to the protest if he ended the draft calls. Thus began the shift to the volunteer army—and what I called, in an Atlantic cover story three years ago, the “Chickenhawk Nation” phenomenon, in which the country is always at war but the vast majority of Americans are spared direct cost or exposure. (From the invasion of Iraq 15 years ago until now, the total number of Americans who served at any point in Iraq or Afghanistan comes to just 1 percent of the U.S. population.) ...
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