History, as Marx famously said (by way of paraphrasing Hegel), repeats itself -- "the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."
A catchy concept, to say the least. And while there's definitely something to it, it's also true that sometimes history does not repeat itself. Take American wars in Japan, the Koreas, Vietnam and Iraq. President Bush, addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars, recently made a case -- a flawed case -- for a kind of core continuity linking these disparate conflicts. It's not that he didn't admit there are many differences among them ("There are many differences" among them, he said). But he mostly argued that American involvement over time across the Far East had ushered in post-war peace and prosperity, and that this demonstrated "a precedent for the hard and necessary work we're doing" in Iraq.
Sheesh. How do you equate total victory in Japan with bloody stalemate in Korea with congressionally mandated defeat in Vietnam ... and Iraq? Of course, it was the invocation of Vietnam -- the president offered a cautionary tale against withdrawal from Iraq by pointing to the ghastly fate of millions of South Vietnamese and other U.S. allies on our abandonment of them in 1975 -- that triggered media distress, with the liberal-elite-complex going dyspeptic over the implication that its beloved antiwar movement was culpable in the humanitarian disaster visited on anti-communists in Southeast Asia.
This is the point at which, as a good conservative, I should declare that this assessment of Vietnam is long overdue. And it is (although why the White House speechwriters brought in a quotation from Graham Greene -- a Reagan-hating, Castro-admiring, Kim Philby-defending leftist -- I'll never know). But that doesn't mean the Southeast Asian analogy -- basically, we can't let the Iraqi people down as we did the South Vietnamese -- is right.
Why? Well, for starters, South Vietnamese didn't kill American troops, didn't booby-trap buildings and towns, didn't turn temples into armed camps, didn't teach their young to throw rocks at GIs. To my knowledge, when training South Vietnamese army and police, American advisers didn't require body armor (not to mention armed U.S. guards) to ensure their survival. And South Vietnamese leaders weren't -- while Americans were fighting on South Vietnam's behalf -- eagerly courting American enemies, as, for example, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seems to do every week with junkets to Iran and Syria. Where next, North Korea?
This glossed-over distinction accounts for my uneasy reaction to the president's exhortation to "stand with the Iraqis at this difficult hour." Which "Iraqis"? Sunnis and Shiites eradicating Iraq's remnant Christian population? Sunni bombers whose hatred of Shiites (fleetingly?) transcends their hatred of Americans? Agents of Iran? Agents of Al Qaeda? Proponents of Hezbollah? Forgive me if I fail to be stirred by the president's call. This isn't to suggest there aren't strategic imperatives in the Mesopotamian theater, but they have less to do with "the Iraqi people" than with suppressing Iran's offensive capabilities, Syria's expansionist aims, Saudi Arabian support for creeping sharia and other jihadist threats unaddressed by our efforts in Iraq.
Could it be that our military has other, more vital missions ahead? No, our strategic thinkers say, better to gloss such things over. Just like the president did when he blithely equated our limited war effort to transform post-Saddam Iraq with the total war effort that democratized Imperial Japan after World War II. There are few similarities, because there is no correlation between limited war and total war.
How can there be? The utter devastation of Japan -- 1.27 million Japanese soldiers killed in battle, another 670,000 Japanese civilians killed in air raids -- was such that when Gen. Douglas MacArthur instructed Japanese military commanders to order their men to disarm, 250,000 Japanese soldiers complied, right down to their Samurai swords. This has nothing to do with the American experience in Iraq, which, of course, remains plagued by armed militias. Another result of total victory was that the Japanese Emperor admitted to his people that he wasn't divine. This would be akin to Shiite leader Ali al-Sistani declaring Allah wasn't divine. After all that, little wonder MacArthur could write up a decent constitution for Japan -- as opposed to the sharia-supreme constitution we sponsored in Iraq.
A more frank, comprehensive -- more grown-up -- assessment of the historical record would offer very different lessons from the ones President Bush is teaching. It comes down to this: As World War II ended, we stopped being total warriors. In the 60-plus years since, we have become limited warriors. Our leadership, political and military, Left and Right, should recognize the difference.