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What Does History Have To Say About The Persian Gulf?
What the past tells of America’s role in the current crisis is sometimes contradictory—but always worth listening to
November 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 7
If the stalemate does go on, it is unlikely to result in the much-prophesied “new Vietnam,” by which the prophets presumably mean a protracted guerrilla campaign. Kuwait is not very promising guerrilla country, and the Iraqis do not make very plausible Vietnamese. In any event, a stalemate is not necessarily a war.
A long-term garrison in Saudi Arabia should not be much more onerous to maintain than our commitment in South Korea and less so than an army in South Germany. Such a garrison, while conceivably politically destabilizing for the Saudi monarchy, should have no great impact on our domestic politics. And if war does come, we might want to remember that the only place where cheap colonial air power ever subdued an indigenous foe was, in fact, Iraq, where the RAF terrorized nationalist forces in the 1920s.
It was precisely this success that gave air power some of its undeserved reputation as the modern equivalent of the Maxim gun, a quick technological fix for the problem of restless natives—until the Vietnamese gave rise to a countermyth of invincible Third World guerrillas. If all peoples were as tenacious as the Vietnamese, history would be a different and indeed a more cheering spectacle. If the Kuwaitis, for example, had a conspicuous Vietnamese streak, Saddam Hussein might have left well enough alone.
Munich and Vietnam are not merely analogies but metaphors—in fact, the dominant metaphors in our current imagination of war and diplomacy. They imprison that imagination, and our experts tend to divide into mutually incomprehending factions for which it seems always to be either 1938 or the Gulf of Tonkin. This may be inevitable; people seem to have a taste for one great truth at a time.
People do, however, survive their metaphors. When the Menshevik Martov determined “not to be Cavaignac,” he was in thrall to a metaphor that had remained strong for men of the left since the risings of 1848 but that perished, with the Mensheviks themselves, in the 1920s. The men receiving Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg exulted in a metaphor, shouting, “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” as the Southern columns struggled uphill toward their guns. Our antitank teams in Arabia, however fortunately deployed, are unlikely to shout the same if columns of T-72s trundle into their view; that metaphor, too, has been outlived.
We would do well to remember that the affair in the Gulf may turn out to be neither tragical nor farcical. It may not even be a repetition.