Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Was Santayana Wrong?

The philosopher George Santayana wrote many books, but he is best remembered for one sentence: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. " It's been quoted and misquoted, and used to promote the study of history, an altogether worthwhile goal. Yet the application, or misapplication of the lessons of history has been responsible for two of Amerca's most disastrous wars.

I'm listening to the audio book version ofThomas E. Ricks's Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. Ricks gives this account of Paul Wolfowitz at Gettysburg:

"One day in 1996, Paul Wolfowitz toured Gettysburg with a group of specialists in military strategy from Johns Hopkins University's school of international studies, where he became dean, after his service under Cheney at the Pentagon.

"Later in the afternoon, as the sun dipped toward Seminary Ridge, Wolfowitz stood at the center of the battlefield, near the spot where the soldiers of Pickett's charge had hit the Federal line and were thrown back by point-blank cannon blasts. Pointedly, Eliot Cohen, the Johns Hopkins professor running the tour, had Wolfowitz read aloud to the group the angry telegram that President Lincoln had drafted but never sent to the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. George Meade. Why, Lincoln wanted to ask his general, did you stop, and not pursue your enemy when you have him on the run?"

Wolfowitz thought the first George Bush made the same mistake in Iraq. He should have pursued the Revolutionary Guard into Baghdad and toppled Saddam Hussein. And when Wolfowitz became Deputy Secretary of Defense under Bush II, his was the leading voice for war against Iraq.

And here is David Halberstam writing about McGeorge Bundy at Harvard in The Best and the Brightest:

"His Munich lecture was legendary at Harvard, and when word got out that it was on the day's schedule, he played to standing room only. It was done with great verve, Bundy imitating the various participants, his voice cracking with emotion as Czechoslovakia fell, the German tanks rolling in just as the bells from Memorial Hall sounded. The lesson was of course interventionism, and the wise use of force."

Here are two "lessons of history" which were certainly important factors in bringing us into two wars. When Bundy joined the Kennedy administration, he applied the Munich lesson to Vietnam. Never mind that Ho Chi Minh was essentally a nationalist leader, fighting first against the French and then the American-backed South Vietnamese government. To Bundy, he was a potential Hitler, and had to be met with force.

The Munich analogy was applied to Saddam Hussein as well. Wolfowitz, who lost relatives in the Holocaust, muses about "What if Europe had intervened earlier against Hitler?" But it is his Gettysburg analogy which is the most telling. Again, the circumstances were different: Lincoln had to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia in order to reunite the nation, while Gerorge H.W. Bush's objective was to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein may have admired Hitler, but he was not Hitler. Nor was he Jefferson Davis.

America's two biggest military mistakes in the last 50 years were made not by people who could not remember the past, but by those who remembered it too well, and applied the lessons of one era to the different circumstances of another. Santayana's adage may still be true. But the indiscriminate use of historical "lessons" can surely be as dangerous as ignorance.

4 comments:

Peter said...

I enjoyed this post -- so much I wasn't aware of.

Your last paragraph is a great summary. Perhaps the indiscriminate use of history's "lessons" is sometimes another form of ignorance.

"And of the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do; the heads of them were two hundred; and all their brethren were at their commandment." - 1 Chronicles 12

Peter said...

(I meant to wonder out loud: Who today has "understanding of the times" to know what we ought to do?)

steve said...

Peter, I had hoped you'd respond to this post. I agree that sometimes the indiscriminate use of history's "lessons" is another form of ignorance, though not in the cases of Wolfowitz and Bundy--their problem was not so much ignorance as obsession.

And an amazing qoute from Chronicles. As for your question, I wonder, too. Of the current presidential contenders, Barack Obama comes closest. Of any recent president, FDR probably understood his times the most thoroughly, and I'm afraid his understanding of the times led him not only to the New Deal, but to the internment of Japanese-Americans.

gerry rosser said...

I think Santayana's quip, like most short, punchy "truths" is just about as useless, but no more so, than other such blather. That said, another saying I like is that a good definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result.
The use of force on problems which do not lend them to a solution by force seems to me to be one of those insane sort of repititions.