Reasoning by Historical Analogies

Reasoning by historical analogy is dangerous. Georges Santayana notwithstanding, history does not repeat itself. Rather, the value of history is in what we learn from the past. Failures are as instructive as successes, if not more so.

From the day Islamic Jihadists struck the World Trade Center five years ago, those favoring and those opposing every response dredged up lessons from the Vietnam War. While vast spatial and temporal differences separate the Vietnam War from the global war with Islamic Jihadists, it is foolhardy to proceed without mining the historical record. Let us then plunge into the dangerous waters of historical analogies.

Lesson one: each historical event has specific, cultural and political dynamics. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is no more Adolph Hitler than was Saddam Hussein or Ho Chi Minh. Munich 1938 occurred in a post-Versailles European political landscape far different from that of colonial Indochina and today’s Middle East.

Lesson two: war is inherently unpredictable. Human nature is far more susceptible to optimism than the historical record warrants. “Home by Christmas” is a common refrain from the American Civil War to Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 1961, when George Ball warned President Kennedy that American troop levels in South Vietnam might eventually exceed 100,000, Kennedy responded, “George, you’re crazier than hell.” In 1964, as the Johnson administration considered strategic options, it disregarded warnings from Army and Marine Corps leaders who argued that half a million soldiers and ten years would be needed to win and opted instead for strategies posed by air power advocates positing a 28-day bombing campaign against 94 targets to compel Hanoi to negotiate. America neither slid nor leapt into Vietnam. Rather, the US waded in with small, easy-to-take steps until too much was invested to disengage easily.

Lesson three: optimistic strategies based on hubris foster failure. The Bush administration went to war with a hubris fed by military success in Operation Desert Storm. At the strategic level its primary failure was to saddle the global war against Islamic Jihadists, Iran and Syria with the nonsensical moniker “War on Terror.” The strategic situation became murkier when the Bush administration based Operation Iraqi Freedom on dubious intelligence and then, when that did not work out, stated the war aims always were regime change and democratization. At the operational level, the Bush administration, like the Johnson administration nearly forty years earlier, embarked on its Iraq campaign based on the optimistic predictions of techno-wonks advocating quick victory through strategic bombing and brushed aside warnings, like that to Congress by Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, who cautioned winning in Iraq would require hundreds of thousands of troops and years of occupation. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, the outcome of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914, Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June 1941, and Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor six months later join with the US misadventure in Indochina and the conduct of this current war as examples of the consequences of strategic and operational hubris.

Lesson four: wars do not respond to arbitrarily imposed time limits. In 1968, Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency touting a “secret plan” to get US forces out of Vietnam in four years. In July 1969, Henry Kissinger unveiled Vietnamization with the goal of all American forces out by January 1973. While Kissinger’s diplomatic initiatives successfully played Moscow off against Beijing, Nixon used air power boldly to strike enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos buying time for the withdrawal of most US forces before the massive North Vietnamese “Spring Offensive” of 1972. America got “peace with honor” when Nixon responded decisively with air power, first to halt Hanoi’s invasion then, in December 1972, to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong, convincing the enemy to negotiate in earnest.

American casualties, however, were higher during the withdrawal phase than they were during the buildup between 1961 and 1968. Additionally, a hasty withdrawal left the South Vietnamese unprepared to counter the military might of North Vietnam in 1975. Only 18 months after the last US soldier left Vietnam, Saigon fell to a communist offensive. The operation (Vietnamization) was a success but the patient (South Vietnam) died. This lesson must be heeded in calculations concerning any US withdrawal from Iraq.

In the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, Democrats won the White House while Congress eviscerated America’s intelligence services and slashed military budgets. An emboldened Soviet Union extended (and overextended) itself with adventures in Africa, South America and Afghanistan. When America recovered in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s massive military buildup coupled with his focus on defeating rather than containing the “evil empire,” toppled an already teetering Soviet Union onto the trash heap of history.

The consequences of losing a global war to Islamic Jihadists, Iran and Syria, will be far worse than the defeat suffered in Vietnam. Iran has the stated intention of destroying Israel and subduing the Judeo-Christian West. Al Qaeda and other Salafist Islamic Jihadists are intent on establishing a world-wide Islamic caliphate. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists have will have no place in a world where the victors want everyone converted to their form of Islam or dead. This is a war the West must win. Victory demands strong and decisive leadership which only the United States can provide. History’s verdict will be written by the victors.

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism. Email: [email protected]

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