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What Does History Have To Say About The Persian Gulf?

May 2024
19min read

What the past tells of America’s role in the current crisis is sometimes contradictory—but always worth listening to

Men and women achieve historical perspective by making analogies. The old tag that we “remember the future and invent the past” suggests the hazards of this procedure; it admonishes us not to forget that the lessons of history are all too likely to be a series of projected misunderstandings. Anyone seeking those lessons runs the danger of being capriciously selective, self-serving, and sentimental. It is also easy to see the future as nothing more than mindless repetitions of the past; a Superman comic of my boyhood featured jet cars that looked wonderfully like levitating, betail-finned Cadillacs of the time. In fact, the futures we “remember” are unlikely to resemble much the one we are actually stumbling toward. Still, analogy is all we have, and when we find ourselves in urgent national difficulties, historical analogies proliferate.


The Kuwait crisis has been especially productive of such analogies, most of them to the diplomatic history of the 1930s. The Munich analogy—recalling the Allies’ appeasement of Germany over its demands on Czechoslovakia in 1938—has been cited again and again, and this is understandable: Saddam Hussein’s sequence of actions has been eerily evocative of Hitler’s, and the unprecedented unity he has evoked in the council of nations is a testament to the power of the Munich analogy for the last generation that genuinely remembers the 1930s and that now rules the industrial societies of the West.

The parallels are impressive: first the assertion of a provocation, not completely unreasonable to some in the audience (the supposed plight of the Sudeten Germans/Kuwait’s cheating on OPEC oil quotas), then the limited demand (the cession of the Sudetenland/strict adherence to quotas and a new benchmark price), then the abandonment of the small nation by its allies (in this case the Saudis and Gulf Cooperation Council forsaking Kuwait as the British and French did Czechoslovakia), the concessions, the apparent resolution of the crisis through appeasement, the solemn vows, the arrant lies, and finally the brutal, outrageous conquest.

The analogy works at least through the establishment of the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the 1939 pact negotiated between Germany and the Soviet Union by Ribbentrop and Molotov. If we go to war to defend a feudal, authoritarian regime in Saudi Arabia, the analogy will still be working: The Allies finally fought for the sovereignty of fascistoid Poland, not for the democratic Czechs. The Kuwaiti Emir scarcely deserves the comparison with the Czechs, but he did preside over what was by local standards an uncharacteristically humane and tolerant regime.

The unprecedented vigor of the response is a tribute to the vitality of the Munich analogy, which seemed to have been destroyed by systematic overuse: Civil wars in Vietnam, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, Argentine aggression in the Falklands, even the loss of elections by American protégés in the Dominican Republic and Chile could summon up that infinitely elastic analogy. But if the analogy had become stale with too-broad application, it certainly did again become riveting when a situation finally arose that it more or less fit. But it is important to remember, though, that there are limits to the utility of this—or any—analogy. In the case of Munich, we have reached, if not exceeded, them. Despite various assertions to the contrary, Saddam Hussein does not seem to be our decade’s equivalent of Adolf Hitler. This is not a matter of fine ethical distinctions. The fact that Hussein prefers to gas his victims outdoors is not morally significant; what is significant is a nonmoral criterion—that of scale.

Hussein’s sequence of actions has been evocative of Hitler’s in 1939—but there are limits to the utility of any analogy.

Regimes that commit their cruelties within their own borders, that are disastrous only for their own subjects, attract a less-memorable odium than those that export misery to foreigners. The law of nations, alas, in effect defines sovereignty as the right to treat one’s own nationals with virtually whatever barbarity one likes. Political, diplomatic, and military historians, along with various tribes of social scientists, begin to take an interest when such regimes attempt to inflict miseries on foreigners. Hitler did not emerge as a subject in world history until he became a threat to non-Germans, when he was able to take advantage of a narrow window between the accumulation of German military power and the potential power of his adversaries. The exploitation of this opportunity, plus a lot of luck, yielded the cheap conquest of France and Poland—that is to say, the conquest of the richer half of the richest continent in the world.

It was precisely this success, combined with overreaching, that produced a powerful—probably an invincible— coalition against Germany. Once its foes mobilized, total and disastrous defeat came rapidly, even though it may well have been considerably delayed by Allied blunders (among them Stalin’s insistence in the winter of 1942 on exerting pressure along the whole of the front, thereby dissipating the effect of the first terrible counteroffensive, and the Mediterranean strategy’s absorption of a bottlenecked resource, landing craft, with the possible loss of a year in the invasion of France, an area far more suited to the era’s offensive technique than the Apennines were). In 1939, 1940, and 1941, however, Hitler deployed the most effective military force in the world and with his allies menaced the whole of it, and the subsequent conflict was called a world war. Saddam Hussein, in contrast, deploys what is momentarily the most powerful local force in what is—and will continue to be—called the Persian Gulf.

The weak Gulf states have never been able to defend themselves against an adversary. The local balance of power having been twice distorted by the Iranian Revolution (first by Iran’s seeming so weak as to appear vulnerable to invasion, then by the Ayatollah’s regime in pursuing the war so incompetently as to risk losing decisively if the Iranians did not abandon it). The Iraqis finally struck at Kuwait, intending not merely extortion, as in the past, but grand larceny.

This increase in gall was itself the product of a remarkable conjuncture of events, not least the Reagan administration’s all but inexplicable series of successes in concealing from a majority of its own electorate its cowardice and irresolution (our response to Syria in Lebanon, our traffic with Iran) behind a screen of bombast and bullying (Grenada, Nicaragua). It is important to realize how absolute was the power vacuum into which Saddam Hussein moved. Of the other regional powers, both Turkey and Israel were absorbed by internal crises, and the unprecedented Iraqi build-up in the course of the Iraq-Iran War had eclipsed Syrian military power for the first time in memory. With all local adversaries simultaneously overawed or distracted, and American power apparently neutralized, Saddam Hussein finally nerved himself to attack a country with a standing army smaller than the New York City police force. Hitler was repeatedly astonished by his adversaries’ passivity; the spasm of activity by his adversaries has astonished Saddam Hussein. If he manages to hang on to the loot, his success will rest on neither his power nor his ruthlessness but will only illustrate the odd and intricate fault lines in the enormous composite force arrayed against him.



Not all useful historical analogies about the Kuwaiti affair, then, are to the thirties, not all of them are encouraging, and some important features of the situation have no parallel in our diplomatic and military history. Most significant, perhaps, is the fact that for the first time since our invasion of Mexico in 1847—where Winfield Scott’s tactics were perfectly suited to the job at hand—we have considered fighting a war we are prepared for.

Had Iraq invaded Saudi Arabia in the second week of August, badly outnumbered infantry with a lot of tactical air support would have tried to stop a massive assault by armor and mechanized infantry. It would have been an interesting fight, air power and little else against armor on clear terrain; no battle like it has ever been fought. It is, however, in some respects very similar to the situation we have spent the last forty-five years anticipating on NATO’s central front in Germany.

We would probably have done better against the Iraqis than we would have against our “real” adversaries in Europe. Americans have always had a bad tendency to overrate our air power versus Soviet armor, and much of our Cold War strategy was influenced by the military’s strong assurances that in the event of an invasion, American tactical air power would shatter Warsaw Pact armor and effectively interdict the echelons that followed it. Had it come to a fight, however, these assurances would have been given a severe test on complex and crowded terrain—the urbanized, densely populated North German plain.

The terrain now in question, though—the Kuwaiti-Saudi border on the coast—is an open killing ground, and killing tanks is much of what the U.S. Army has been thinking about since 1945; every war we’ve actually fought has thus been the “wrong one” in terms of the enemy, our available tactics, doctrine, and weapons. The antitank ordnance would probably have worked better on a pancake-flat coastal plain than it ever would have in Europe. It would have been the war the United States has spent the last forty-five years planning and, until a few weeks ago, finally came to think it would never, ever fight. Armies notoriously prepare for the last remembered war; in Kuwait we have come close to fighting precisely that. All the welltaken caveats about the Navy’s neglect of a swift sealift capability, the Air Force’s miserliness in procuring the sturdy but unglamorous A-10s, and so forth should not obscure this admirable, if largely serendipitous readiness.


The political task of organizing a unified response to Iraqi aggression has been amazingly effective, compared with the failures of the Reagan administration in organizing a response to exasperating Middle Eastern or Central American regimes. The logical response to Iraqi aggression was discovered to be collective security, everybody’s favorite retrospective choice over the appeasement of the thirties. The result is the blockade of and embargo upon Iraq, a perfect example of what the League of Nations should have done all through the thirties and never managed.

If the embargo and blockade work, great; there are reasons to think they may not. Mussolini was embargoed over his Abyssinian War, the Japanese over their depredations in China in the 1930s, both Spanish belligerents were variously embargoed from 1936 to 1939, and de Gaulle, then Israel’s chief military supplier, embargoed his client after the Six Days’ War in 1967. Rhodesia and for that matter South Africa were the subject of embargoes, oil embargoes at that. Cuba, almost absolutely dependent on U.S. trade in 1959, has been embargoed by us ever since, and we have had a long-term policy of keeping strategic military technology out of Soviet hands and nuclear and chemical- and biological-warfare capabilities out of practically everybody’s.

Mussolini managed to get his oil, as did Franco, and the Spanish republic found another patron—and became disastrously hostage to that patron’s political strategies—in the alliance with Stalin. The Japanese eventually responded to the embargoes, if not precisely in the fashion anticipated, at Pearl Harbor. Rhodesia and South Africa were (and are) swimming in imported oil; the Israelis found another supplier after the French ditched them; the Iraqis, along with some others, managed to procure nuclear-weapons technology, ballistic-missile technology, and, infamously, mustard and nerve gases. The Soviets, the Chinese, and the South Africans have been able to acquire most of the militarily sensitive technology they’ve cared to pay hard currency for, and Castro has so far managed to hang on for thirty-one years. Sooner or later, people tend to cheat on embargoes.

Greediness, neediness, misplaced loyalty, and fear make embargoes and blockades leak. American petroleum companies sold oil to Franco on credit, and the depression-battered Eastern European states allowed themselves to be swindled out of raw materials by Hitler because in a glutted market an unsavory and dishonest buyer is better than none. Having invaded his neighbor, Saddam Hussein got weapons from France and from the Brazilians and from the Chinese on credit, up to and including ballistic missiles, because Iranian behavior had so outraged the Western states that it had occluded the character of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Stalin shipped Hitler war mat»riel up to the day of the invasion of the Soviet Union, long after it was obvious that Germany was planning war, because Stalin had supped with the devil without a long enough spoon; he was desperate to put off the evil hour. The Saudis and Kuwaitis tried for years to buy off Saddam Hussein, keeping him alive until he was ready to devour them.

Food shortages are the great hope of the Iraqi blockade. Food is the only vital pressure point, and people who trade in it will do well, while persuading themselves that they are doing good. But we should remember that food shortages failed to move the British to surrender in either world war. Britain was a parliamentary democracy, and a great deal more vulnerable to such pressures; right now the Iraqi political community has a population of one, and many people will starve before Saddam Hussein is reduced to scraping the last of the marmite onto a dry crust.

For the first time since our invasion of Mexico in 1847, we have considered fighting a war we are prepared for.


Unless Saddam Hussein decides to cut and run, the blockade and embargo will work slowly. The Air Force chief of staff Michael J. Dugan promised a far quicker solution in the revelations that cost him his job: bomb Baghdad and “decapitate” the Iraqi high command.

But in fact, aerial bombardment, if we reach that point, may also be slow to produce useful effects. We may aim at Saddam Hussein and miss him; we seem to have been aiming at Colonel Qaddafi in the 1986 Libyan raid. A near miss does not necessarily moderate a dictator’s ambitions. Qaddafi may have pulled in his horns a bit, but Col. Claus von Stauffenberg’s very near miss in his 1944 bomb plot had the opposite effect on Hitler.

In contemplating the possibility of reducing Baghdad by heavy bombing, we came upon historical parallels that are legion—and disconcerting. World War II, Korea, and Vietnam conspicuously illustrate our Air Force’s enthusiasm for strategic bombardment, and World War II also saw first the Luftwaffe’s and then the RAF’s attempts to break an enemy’s will by what was in effect state terrorism.

We tried to break the will of the North Vietnamese political leadership through bombardment, with scant success, unless one interprets generously the results of the Christmas bombings of 1972. The German terror bombing of Britain was an absolute failure, while British terror bombing of Nazi Germany and our attempt to destroy her industry achieved its effects slowly and indirectly, through forcing the reallocation of resources from armor and infantry weapons to air defense. Had we been able to damage German resolve through terror rather than strengthen it, that outcome would not have much mattered; there were Nazi people’s courts to execute summarily anyone thought to have slacked or shirked, and these instruments of terror close at hand on the ground were at least as efficient as four-engine bombers overhead.

This is not to rehearse once again pieties about the war-hardened Iraqis. It is not true that Iraqi civilians are inured to massive aerial bombardment and the sundry horrors of war; the Iranian capacity to bombard Iraq was marginal, and the Iraqi home front was stuffed with imported food and other consumer goods to solace it during the war with Iran. Passive acquiescence to Baathist rule is sustained, like German military discipline in 1945, by generous doses of state terror, in this case administered by a secret-police apparatus said to exceed old Eastern bloc norms on a per capita basis. The “Indomitable Will of the Iraqi People” neither exists nor, unfortunately, is necessarily relevant to Saddam Hussein’s tenacity.


We are banking heavily on the possibility of the Iraqis’ developing a political community larger than the one comprised by Saddam Hussein. President Bush hopes that the Iraqi officer corps will do our work for us, and maybe it will, but historical analogies may be misleading. Both Baathist regimes—Iraq’s and Syria’s—have a history of successive coups, but it is not a recent history; Saddam Hussein and Hafez alAssad are both more vicious and more durable despots than the sequences of regimes they overthrew. Maybe we’ll get lucky, but it’s scarcely a sure thing. The Cuban people, whom we had persuaded ourselves were eager to save us the trouble of invading, didn’t rise up to help our protégés at the Bay of Pigs, and the July plotters against Hitler were few and late. And people have been known to get xenophobic when foreigners come along to help them overthrow their own governments. Iraq’s situation right now looks a good deal brighter than Germany’s in 1944, and it would be unwise to assume that the invasion of Kuwait has made Saddam Hussein less popular with his countrymen.


The true character of a closed absolutist or despotic regime is difficult to discover until invading armies have plundered its police archives and historians have spent a few decades poring over their contents. By 1975 or so Nazi political rule looked more anarchic and chaotic than anyone had suspected, and Hitler’s authority over the rest of German political society seems to have reached its zenith far later in the twelve-year Reich than most people believed. No one ever conquered the Stalinist Soviet Union; for a long time we knew of Stalin’s terror only from the archives the Germans had seized in Smolensk, which the U.S. Army eventually seized in its turn. Sporadic defector testimony is notoriously difficult to assess properly; if democracy triumphs and Gorbachev or a successor opens up the secret-police files, we may someday know a great deal more. In recent years the zenith of Stalin’s absolute authority over the party has been pushed forward a bit. The argument that the trials following the murder of his aide Sergei Kirov in 1934 indicated continuing serious opposition was for many years entertained only by dissident Leninists; now it is being looked at with less skepticism. If someone conquers Iraq and publishes the reports of the Baathist security forces, we may have a useful idea about the size of the Iraqi political community. The owl of Minerva, as they say in the trade, takes wing only at dusk; history too often yields up its lessons when it’s too late for them to do any good.

Does this mean that history is mute on the instability of Iraqi politics? Not quite. It tells us that we have a long history of overestimating our adversaries’ physical strength and underestimating their cohesion and solidarity. George McClellan would have been right at home assessing the missile gap or the capabilities of the MIG-25, and the fellows who knew how badly the Filipinos wanted to be annexed by us would have fit in well with the crowd gauging the political sympathies of Vietnamese peasants and Iranian slum dwellers. The present instance is a bit of an innovation; we are probably overestimating Iraqi morale while simultaneously double counting the country’s material strength.

For one thing, there probably aren’t a million men in the Iraqi armed forces; there are still relatively static infantry formations tied down on the Iranian and Syrian borders, and the recent about-face with Iran doesn’t mean that Saddam can prudently leave that front naked. A fair number of the units are geriatric homeguard elements, and the effectiveness of various elements of the Iraqi armed forces is said to have been impaired by measures taken to ensure their political reliability. The armor, the arm Saddam would need to drive down the coast, tends to be the most coup-prone (or at least coup-suitable) branch of any army, and Saddam is said to have deliberately factionalized, politicized, and riddled his with informers.

The best part of the Iraqi army is its engineers. They’re least likely to stage a coup; hence they’ve been permitted to become extremely professional. Holding Kuwait once they’ve been allowed to dig in is precisely what the Iraqis, on past form, would be best at. American Presidents are least likely to risk the casualties an infantry assault would necessarily incur, and air power alone cannot dislodge entrenched troops. History is eloquent on these last three points. Studying our enemy objectively, in political detail, and letting our studies inflect our military policy, is something we have never done enough of. In general the United States has shown no great understanding of either the weaknesses or the strengths of its enemies; since Ulysses S. Grant, it has concentrated on overawing or overwhelming them.


Rather than physically expel the Iraqis from Kuwait, some experts are urging the bombardment of Iraqi military and economic targets, presumably first with stand-off weapons to shatter air defenses, then with air strikes to destroy the air force, and finally with the progressive destruction of Iraqi assets, more or less at will.

Some thoughtful people, among them the former undersecretary of the Navy James Webb, make this case with considerable eloquence, and in so doing, they cite the lessons of a war that just now is, like Munich, very much in the public mind: Vietnam.

But everyone has his own lesson from Vietnam. Caspar Weinberger’s was that we must not commit military force without a near-universal consensus in favor of such a course. Some people drew the conclusion that the United States should never commit ground forces but rely instead on local clients for infantry. Others learned that we should apply all available force, including infantry, immediately; the disaster to avoid was an incremental escalation that allowed an adversary time to adjust to the intensification of the conflict. There were those who decided that guerrillas were simply invincible, and some extended this particular lesson to all Third World combatants (at the time of the canaltreaty ratification debate, this included Panama).

For Webb and his allies, the lesson of Vietnam was to refuse to limit ourselves to fighting on our enemies’ chosen ground. There are more recent episodes in our history, with lessons of their own. The thousands of foreign nationals imprisoned in Iraq and Kuwait are an impressive deterrent to implementing the bombardment plan. We may lack the decisiveness and cohesion to make effective limited war on cruel and cold-blooded forces; the Reagan administration’s bribery of and fawning upon some of its Middle Eastern adversaries (Iran, Syria, and Iraq all had a turn) are a particularly discouraging memory.


On television and in the newspapers the commentators sometimes reflect on these difficult facts and murmur that the sanctions will have to do the job. If indeed the embargo and blockade work, it will be because Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, and Syria all held tight. Four of these states are desperately poor, and we would be foolish to count on Saudi grit withstanding too much in the face of any Pan-Arabist noise. It is at least arguably a lesson of our postwar foreign policy that the more effective military and economic tactics are the ones most likely to have a disintegrating effect on alliance solidarity. The vital Arab wing seems particularly vulnerable here, and the East Asian states generally seem to have a very slender purchase on the realities of effective collective security. Hitler scared his enemies into at least an outward show of cooperation and an authentic collective resolve, but no one has been that frightening since.

The only place where cheap colonial air power ever succeeded in subduing an indigenous foe was, in fact, Iraq.

If the blockade does make Saddam Hussein disgorge Kuwait, it will be because we have held together an illassorted and mutually suspicious alliance, the “international community.” From World War, II until quite recently we were not so much members of an alliance as its hegemon; the Kuwaiti affair may have produced our first authentic alliance, with all its attendant miseries. With the partial exception of NATO we have never in our history been a long-term member of a genuine alliance; we have always felt ourselves too weak, too strong, or too isolated. In the early years of the Republic, indeed for quite a while, except during the War of 1812, we made brave noises and sheltered behind the Royal Navy, which put what teeth there were into the Monroe Doctrine.

Given the staggering costs and potential agonies necessitated by most balances of power, we have been a peculiarly fortunate people. For most of our national history we have faced at close hand only the military dangers posed by Mexico, Canada, and the Plains tribes. During the Cold War we were effectively the only military power on our side of the line; the graceless but at that time accurate neologism superpower was coined for a good reason. We will need to learn a new thing in a genuinely multipolar world.

If a grand alliance really does shoehorn the Iraqis out of Kuwait, there’s a chance that the relevant parties—the weak Gulf states, Europe, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States—may decide that the stability of the industrial world’s economy depends on a permanent commitment, a new oilsupply-driven equivalent of NATO. But it is an outside chance; such an alliance is incompatible with Pan-Arabist political sentiment and possibly with the effective functioning of OPEC in any recognizable form. If we do make such an arrangement in the Gulf, it will lack the shared history and political culture that may have made NATO work. The political reality of Pan-Arabism is a consequence of a strikingly different way from ours of looking at the history of this century.

It is already proverbial to acknowledge that to many Arabs the conflict looks like the pauperized and resentful Arab populations versus American-sustained and oil-bloated feudal regimes; this seems to be the way it looks to Jordan and the Sudan, on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, and the Algerians may yet show some tendencies in this direction. Most Arab regimes are plagued by legitimacy crises, and Saddam Hussein is the beneficiary of almost every one of these. An effective blockade and embargo are extremely vulnerable to one striking consequence of this: the frailty of Saudi nerve. Any ructions from below will rattle the Saudis badly, and they’re likely to pose impossible conditions or at least ones that vastly complicate American military effectiveness; they may simply boot us out.

This leads to one of the more subtly depressing lessons of Vietnam. In Vietnam we persistently misunderstood South Vietnamese political constraints on the military form of technical rationality. Military technical rationality, for example, might suggest committing reserves to an engagement when South Vietnamese political constraints dictated the preservation of an existing balance of power within a factionalized and coup-prone corps of general officers, and politics generally won. In other words, politics paralyzed the army. These effects exist within our own military, of course; the service rivalries that have led to peculiar divisions of responsibility are thought to have hindered most American military operations since the Korean War, engendered sometimes ludicrous procurement policies, and produced inefficient force structures. All these phenomena are widely acknowledged to be the product of the triumph of institutional politics over military rationality.


Our operations in the Gulf so far seem remarkably free of this. Yet the potential is certainly there. Pan-Arabism, Saudi anxieties, inter-European Economic Community divisions, Soviet ambivalences, Japanese timidity and indecisiveness, Chinese prickliness—the tensions between military rationality and so many different political necessities threaten to yield some magnificent military irrationalities. The hopelessness of Iraq’s inferiority—in mat»riel if not manpower—may not be decisive, set against adversaries potentially hopelessly at odds with one another.

The most useful lesson of Vietnam may be that the political and military realms thoroughly penetrate each other. The Kuwaitis who trusted to politics alone to preserve their sovereignty were as deluded as the cheerful fellows who assume that our superabundance of military power will necessarily prevail. Then again, it is now Saddam Hussein who is depending on politics to save him from the realities of military power; with luck, he will be as bitterly disappointed as his victims of early August were.


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.

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