Monday, May 14

History Repeats Itself. So Does Riley.

LIKE most of you I had literacy thrust upon me at an early age, without regard for my wishes and with no knowledge that it might one day lead me to want to poke my own eyes out. My family were not great readers. My dad read two newspapers every day, but I don't remember any books in the house until George from down the street built us a room divider that had two bookshelves on the bottom and a series of dowels on top, above a planter. The bookshelves were soon filled with the Golden Book Encyclopedia, purchased one volume per week at the A&P, and some of my parents' books which had been in hiding: a dictionary, my mom's Gregg Shorthand high school text, and a bunch of my dad's sports biographies. A nubby green armchair was cocked in front of the thing, and I used to sit behind it devouring everything on those shelves. It's why I can still name the starting nine for the old Gashouse Gang, most of whom were dead by the time I read about them. The planter was filled with plastic ivy, twining up those dowels. I used to put my pet shop chameleons in there.

I started giving my dad books in 1969, beginning with Jimmy Breslin's The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. I have no idea now how I settled on that, but it was a popular gift and soon every birthday, Father's Day, and Christmas he got rectangular packages which he was good enough no to say "Gee, I wonder what this is?" about. Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer begat James P. O'Donnell's The Bunker, and thereafter the focus was mainly on history. Still is, knock wood, and the only concession to his eighty-seven years is Large Print editions. Still, none of that has prevented him from becoming a regular FAUX News viewer.

I was taking a tea break from yard work yesterday and idly thumbing the Times book reviews when I came upon Walter Isaacson's review of Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome? It begins thus:
The only sure thing that can be said about the past is that anyone who can remember Santayana’s maxim is condemned to repeat it. As a result, the danger of not understanding the lessons of history is matched by the danger of using simplistic historical analogies. Those who have learned the lessons of Munich square off against those who have learned the lessons of Vietnam, and then they both invoke the bread-and-circus days of the overstretched Roman empire in an attempt to sound even more subtle and profound.

Thus Time, folks; thus CNN. Faux Balance is now a scholarly tool, the approach favored by Wisdom, as well as a talisman against those simplistic enough to argue that one side or the other is correct.

Let's start with the basics. The only place Simplistic Munich has squared off against Vietnam for Dummies is the US invasion of Iraq. At the risk of publicly displaying my unlettered gaucherie, Is It To Early To Say One Side Was Correct?

Isaacson may be forgiven, if you wish, on the grounds that he's only filling space in a book review (said space being the first flipping paragraph), but not for the "only illustrating simplistic arguments on both sides" gambit (which, as usual, requires not quoting anyone; had Isaacson used "NO BLOOD FOR OIL" he might have escaped on a technicality). The Munich Analogy is inherently simplistic. It relies on post-facto analysis of actions which were roundly cheered when they occurred--it was thanks to Churchillian agitprop Chamberlain was soon being blamed for British "loss of face" after being hailed as its savior. It assumes that a war with Hitler in September 1938 would have been different than a year later, or that Hitler, chastened by a united French-British response, would have gone home and not bothered anyone any more. The first is a mere hypothetical which is almost certainly wrong--bear in mind that the response to the invasion of Poland was the Sitzkrieg of '39-40--and the second is demonstrably false. Chamberlain thought Hitler half-mad. Unfortunately for him he was only half-right.

Munich is not an analogy. It's a piece of political theatre designed to convince without argument. It insists that diplomatic belligerence and a military hair-trigger are always trumps. We have hundreds of counter-examples. Iraq being the latest.

On the other hand, what are the simplistic lessons of Vietnam? Never get involved in a land war in Asia? Americans should never fight against anybody called "North" something or other? The lessons of Vietnam--about understanding an opponent's culture and motivation, the limits of air power, not propping up a (or a series of) corrupt, unpopular regime(s), the diminishing returns on lying to the American public, the proper role of a free press, the long-term effects of a national descent into madness, etc, etc--are both subtle and complex. Maybe that's why we haven't learned them yet.


joel hanes said...

> what are the simplistic lessons of Vietnam?

An elephant is poorly equipped to fight ants.

Woodrowfan said...

Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha...

Anonymous said...

The one lesson I took from Vietnam: Imperialism is ugly. I don't think anything else needs to be added.

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