Repeating The Past

Monday, April 30, 2018
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, US 7975, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, US 7975, Hoover Institution Archives.

The United States appears to be slowly emerging out of the wreckage that it has made of the Middle East. One would hope that the country’s political, intellectual, and military leaders would use the coming years to think seriously about the lessons to be learned from a lack of understanding that has marked America’s strategy over the past half century. It would be nice if they would, but I doubt they will. They certainly will not, if the past is any guide. As George Santayana commented, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And as that great American philosopher, Yogi Berra, noted, “it has been déjà vu all over again.”

We have forgotten the past with an enthusiasm that gives one small hope for the future. Fifty years ago we had already embarked on our first Sicilian expedition to bring democracy to South Vietnam. What had happened to the French barely a decade before in the Indo-China war was irrelevant—after all the French had lost, hadn’t they. The U.S. commander in South Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, had the books by Bernard Fall, recounting the sorry story of the French defeat, beside his bed. But, as he recounts in his own memoirs, he never had time to read them. And so we stumbled through a dirty, wretched war that almost broke the country apart and would have lost us the Cold War except for the gross incompetence of Soviet leaders.

For those of us unlucky enough to be burned by the wretched decade that was the 1960s, there has always been the hope that we would not repeat the mistakes we had made in Vietnam. That we would not underestimate our opponents; that we would understand the political complexities of fighting an insurgency, if we had to; and that in any future war we would understand the “other.” Well, we have not for most of our efforts in Afghanistan and particularly Iraq. Tragically, over the three years that followed the Coalition’s destruction of Saddam Hussein’s baneful regime, our political and military leaders managed to repeat every mistake we had made in Vietnam.

Thus far we have been lucky, because in the end, we escaped with nasty bruises and cuts from the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. Thus far since 1945, we have only been up against third rate opponents in our wars. Will that be the case in the future? Or might China become a real strategic opponent. It would certainly represent a first-class opponent, far more dangerous than the Soviet Union? As always, the jury is out about the future, but we do know that the Chinese have been studying our history, as well as theirs vociferously. Have we been studying even our own? In a world where our historians no longer study strategic or military history and where our political scientists study history in irrelevant bits and pieces and only when it supports their irrelevant theories, I am afraid we will soon no longer be able to understand our own history, much less that of the “other.”

 
Williamson Murray serves as a Minerva Fellow at the Naval War College. He graduated from Yale University in 1963 with honors in history. He then served five years as an officer in the US Air Force, including a tour in Southeast Asia with the 314th Tactical Airlift Wing (C-130s). He returned to Yale University, where he received his PhD in military-diplomatic history under advisers Hans Gatzke and Donald Kagan. He taught two years in the Yale history department before moving on to Ohio State University in fall 1977 as a military and diplomatic historian; in 1987 he received the Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award. He retired from Ohio State in 1995 as a professor emeritus of history.