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Monday, September 22, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 10/22/2006

Lessons of history can never explain the future

We're fighting the Vietnam war again. It may have been a mistake to fight it the first time. It certainly is a mistake to fight it now.

But here we have even President Bush, in a stunning betrayal of his own war narrative, acknowledging that the vicious upsurge in violence in Iraq this month could produce a 21st century replay of the Tet Offensive. Try that notion out in a freshman history seminar and watch your grade-point plummet.

Historians even now can't agree whether the Tet Offensive, undertaken by the North Vietnamese at the end of January, 1968, was a battlefield victory or defeat for the United States. The North's forces suffered terrible casualties, perhaps as many as 58,000, and South Vietnam did not fall. (It wouldn't fall for seven more years.) But the battles, which began with attacks on 36 provincial capitals in the South, left the Americans and their allies in tatters as well. The fighting may have forced a million Vietnamese from their homes.

But now Tet, like the Crusades, Watergate, and McCarthyism, is a metaphor and no longer purely a historical event. It isn't a military engagement any longer. It is a weapon - of rhetoric and symbolism. And like many of the weapons employed in Vietnam at the time, it is being misused. (Oops. Slipped into a little military metaphor of my own there. My apologies.)

Now to the meaning of Tet, which is actually the name of the lunar new year holiday in Vietnam. In casual conversation and in political debate, Tet is now a synonym for turning point. That's probably not inaccurate. Tet represented a hinge (metaphors are hard to avoid in this business) or a pivot (there he goes again). Before Tet there was general American support for the war in Vietnam, despite the storm of protest in the streets. After Tet that support seeped away.

And there is more. Tet represents the moment the curtain was pulled away from the people who were choreographing the war. Until Tet, Americans believed they were winning the conflict, that there was a light at the end of the tunnel (the unhappy phrase of Gen. William C. Westmoreland, transformed into an even more unfortunate symbol when it was discovered that French Gen. Henri Navarre had conjured virtually the identical image in 1953, a year before France was forced to scoot out of Vietnam). After Tet, Americans found it harder to believe that, and eventually came not to believe it at all.

Then there are the political overtones that are struck whenever Tet is employed as a metaphor. Exactly 60 days after the beginning of Tet, President Lyndon B. Johnson stunned the nation (and all but a handful of his own aides) when he announced that he would not accept the nomination of his party for another term in the White House. In the political context, Tet equals the destruction of a presidency - and the dramatic transformation of the Democrats from the party that, under two presidents, had prosecuted the war to the party that opposed it with great passion. The Republicans are in deep trouble right now, but they are in no danger of becoming, as the Democrats did, a near-pacifist party.

Historical events are often misused, in part because of the alluring and patently false remark that philosopher George Santayana sewed into the American consciousness:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Too bad we didn't seize on another remark of Mr. Santayana, better suited to the way we use history:

Knowledge is recognition of something absent; it is a salutation, not an embrace.

We throw around historical analogies to put lipstick on our opinions and prejudice. For two generations the greatest metaphor of history - the lessons of Munich - has been employed by all sorts of zealots for bad causes. Munich, of course, is shorthand for the Munich conference of 1938 where French and British leaders sought to appease Hitler by allowing him to swallow the Sudentenland, an area of Czechoslovakia where German ethnic sensibilities were inflamed, probably artificially.

Hitler swallowed the Sudentenland but his appetite was not sated, and every time an aggressor appears on the surface of the globe so does the Munich metaphor.

Now Tet is the new Munich, and while there may be surface similarities between what happened in Vietnam in 1968 and in Iraq in 2006 (principally that American casualties are reaching levels that are once shocking and wearisome, two notions that in most other contexts are contradictory) the metaphor doesn't work.

Tet was much more dramatic than anything that has occurred thus far in Iraq. Even so, American public opinion is more skeptical about the volunteer-army war in Iraq in October, 2006, when there has been hardly an anti-war picket in the streets, than it was about the conscripted-force war in Vietnam in January, 1968, when anti-war protests were common.

The idea that there was light at the end of the tunnel, expressed by General Westmoreland 10 weeks before Tet, was regarded by the public as plausible at that time in Vietnam. No one is suggesting today that there is light at the end of the Iraq tunnel, and even those who argue that Iraq is but one part of a wider war on terrorism acknowledge that the struggle will be long and hard, not brisk and easy.

Now a word on the uses of history, from someone who is probably guilty of misusing it himself. The study of history is useful as a way of understanding the past and, at its best, the present, but it is almost never useful in understanding the future.

There are lessons of history, to be sure, but they are rare and very often tied to immutables, like geography and climate. (Two pretty good ones: Countries that have to fight in Russia in winter often lose. Countries that invade Afghanistan seldom succeed.) History explains how things got to be the way they are. It almost never explains how things are going to be in some other time.

So the lesson from history today is simple:

Be wary of historical ignorance. But be even more wary of historical arrogance.



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