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History’s Largest Lessons
A historian of the ancient world believes that in every era humankind has reacted to the demands of waging war in surprisingly similar ways, and that to protect our national interests today Americans must understand the choices soldiers and statesmen made hundreds and even thousands of years ago
February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
Let me make this very clear: I think the hardest thing that human beings have to do is be military leaders. The intellectual problems of deciding how to wage war well are so fantastic that anybody who does it deserves an incredible amount of admiration. So it’s not surprising that many of these people tend to be very cautious people, who spend most of their time thinking about how not to lose—how not to be humiliated, how not to be made to look foolish, and how not to be defeated- rather than about how to win. I don’t mean to say the latter is excluded, but the former predominates.
When you have had anexperience that is almost entirely negative, which the Vietnam War was, you tend to become fixated upon avoiding that kind of mistake. And you may not think enough about the fact that the next thing you’re going to get engaged in very likely won’t be the same.
One of the responses the British made to World War I was an increased call in some quarters for a predominantly maritime strategy. The American military also displayed a similar interest in the wake of Vietnam, although it is not clear that maritime strategies are viable in the face of modern airpower and submarine forces. Do you think the Reagan naval buildup was also part of the Vietnam syndrome?
I think the Navy remains a linchpin of U.S. military power, and we can never get away from that, barring an utterly unforeseen technological revolution. Certainly in our lifetime the Navy is going to be a critical part of any strategy, both military and diplomatic, because wherever we’re going to fight we’re going to have to use ships to deploy forces there. That means we’ve got to protect sea-lanes and all the things that flow from that. So there’s no escape from maintaining our status as the pre-eminent naval power.
It just struck me that instead of talking about how useful historical analogies are, we’ve been discussing how dangerous they can be.
No, we’ve been talking about how dangerous a single analogy can be. There’s a strong human tendency to seize on the most recent analogy that has impressed itself upon one’s mind or an analogy that happens to fit one’s prejudice in advance and tends to support what one wants to do anyway.
The obvious defense against this is to multiply the number of analogies that have some resemblance to the current problem. Best of all is to retain analogies that seem to run counter to one another in the lessons that they teach. That will help you about as much as anything will, because it will compel harder and deeper thought than anything else. I’d paraphrase John Stuart Mill on democracy: Historical knowledge is at best deeply imperfect and dangerous, and the only solution to this problem is to have more and more of it.