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Aug 22, 2007 11:57 am

Misusing History

President Bush delivered an address today before the VFW, pointing to historical lessons from East Asia to justify his policy in Iraq.

For a positive legacy, he cited South Korea:"The defense strategy that refused to hand the South Koreans over to a totalitarian neighbor helped raise up an Asian Tiger that is a model for developing countries across the world, including the Middle East."

That statement might very well be true: it certainly would justify the war to liberate Kuwait. But it's hard to see what relevance it has to the war in Iraq--which was started, after all, by a US-led invasion.

Bush then turned to Vietnam."Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left. Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields.'"

That statement is undeniably true--but, again, its relevance to Iraq is minimal. Is Bush suggesting that if the United States remained in Vietnam for a longer time, the end result would have changed? If so, for how long, and at what cost?

Politicians, of course, always use historical analogies when discussing their policies, foreign and domestic. But it would be hard to imagine a less appropriate use of history than that employed by Bush today.

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Barry DeCicco - 8/27/2007

In addition, the Reagan administration supported the Khmer Rouge, when they came into conflict with Vietnam. But, of course, that was OK, and we really shouldn't Hate America by dwelling on it.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/23/2007

As _if_ you would have approved congressional action if it had rejected the President's call to war. It seems to me that persisting in what we have done is folly. Despite the President's language, he's proposed no new direction -- only more of the same. As they say, when you're in a hole, quit digging.

William Hopwood - 8/23/2007

"Really, Brother Hopwood, must you and Brother Bush deliver us into wars that have no end? ...

Come, come, Brother Luker, I fear you misread my message, perhaps more by the light of your own antipathies than by the thought I meant to convey.

My point was that Bush's remarks re Viet Nam did have some historical significance in that he perceives a similar chaotic condition and loss of honor should we abandon Iraq as some now suggest.

You and I may come closer to agreement than you may wish to believe on the intelligence lapses and policy errors which got us into this mess. Nevertheless, how we got there is now beside the point. The fact remains that the mess exists, that Congressional approval at the outset was a necessary contributing factor to it, and that many who now duck their own responsibility for it, have done the least in the way of providing a satisfactory solution to it.

Todd Moye - 8/23/2007

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that all of the "killing fields" Bush refers to were in Cambodia, not Vietnam. The Vietnamese Communists put an end to them when they invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.
Following Bush's logic, this makes the Vietnamese Communists freedom-loving humanitarians. And if U.S. forces had not withdrawn from the region when they did, the Vietnamese Communists might well have been too weak at the time to save Cambodia.

All analogies are imperfect in the end, but the logic of this one is unusually tortured.

Marie E Hooper - 8/23/2007

Mr Luker, thank you for calling Pres. Bush on this. I found a particularly painful version of the story at the BBC website, entitled Redeeming History.

Bush's misuse of history is nothing new, but this instance is striking. Yes, the veterans might well best relate to a Vietnam reference. His picking and choosing among the lessons that war provides is also a time honored practice by politicians, theorists and others. His neglect of other lessons - the one that struck me when I first heard his speech - is that both wars were ill-conceived and based on poor readings of the situations in both countries. His idea that Korea is a success is startling as well: how can that divided 'result' be regarded as a success?

The Army/Marine Counterinsurgency manual (FM 3-24) also cites Vietnam and the lessons that the Army and the US military can learn from that conflict. One of the lessons that they have not learned is that domestic US issues will affect the way they pursue their goals, and that no politician in any branch of government can then step back and allow them to conduct a war without oversight and limits. The manual, written long before Bush's speech, notes that counterinsurgencies are inherently civil wars, require great numbers of boots on the ground for an extended period and greater patience by the 'home front' in terms of time and lives required. Those are some of the lessons the military learned from Vietnam; too bad Bush only consults history when it can be manipulated and distorted for his own purposes.

He treats truth the same way.

liu shui xian - 8/23/2007

That bloody Pipelining(Chinese meaning 流水线) I both love and hate, love because it gives us the convenience of the workers, greater efficiency!Hate because we can only go with him day and night, the moment can not stop! It is for this! One month down, I would get sick! Now rest at home and bored RM4.46 look at the article on the Internet with every message! ! See here. I left traces! ! Then to bless you happy!!!

Ralph E. Luker - 8/23/2007

Really, Brother Hopwood, must you and Brother Bush deliver us into wars that have no end? War is, as Randolph Bourne said years ago, "the health of the state" and you neo-cons seem determined to deliver us into a world in which war magnifies the state and it consumes our all. Thanks, but no thanks.

William Hopwood - 8/23/2007

In my view, Bush's message was appropriate to the occasion and one to which many in his VFW audience might historically relate.

In essence, it was that the Viet Nam war was not lost on the battlefield but on the socio/political front at home. That the net result of our abandonment of our allies in Viet Nam was not only the considerable suffering which those we deserted had endured, but a stain on the honor of our country.

That Bush perceived a similar or a worse result should current domestic political pressures lead to our abandonment of Iraq, seemed clear. The cacophonous suggestions now coming from his anti-war opposition seem considerably less so.

Barry DeCicco - 8/22/2007

Sorry: "...all uses of 'appeasement' or the run-up to WWII..."

Barry DeCicco - 8/22/2007

It's easy, actually - any and all uses of 'appeasement' the run-up to WWII when advocating the invasion of Iraq.