There have been many different variations on the notion that history often repeats itself, particularly when considering political actions like war. I call war a political action because in most of the nations throughout the world, there is a military-civilian divide that puts the decision to go to war in the hands of politicians, even though politicians often seek the advice of their top generals. The question I present today, is: If history repeats itself often, why do our world leaders often fail to adapt to history. Let me add some qualifiers, Afghanistan and Vietnam are similar in that they are unfamiliar lands to American troops, there’s a fairly large insurgency, and our military plan has had to have been altered, they are not the same thing. However, failing to remember and implement the lessons of Vietnam’s insurgency has cost billions of dollars and our most valuable resource: human capital.
Failing history is not just an American problem. Any leader who commits himself to a continued cycle of war and uneasy peace is guilty. I’m thinking of two examples in particular the Lebanon-Israeli conflict and the Russian-Chechen conflict. In all three examples given, the way of fighting war has been the same Cold War model that has been in vogue since World War II. This model includes a large heavy force and bombardment through the air. Our enemies, be they Hezbollah, North Caucasus Islamists, or Al Qaeda have countered this tactic by engaging in insurgent attacks like car and suicide bombings or kidnappings things that our Cold War era battle plans are not equipped for, but conflict after conflict the means are the same: large invasion force and bomb away, which is increasingly leaving conflicts in perpetual state of : go in homeland attacked=bombard = attacks cease = bombing stops= insurgents regroup= repeat Why do world leaders stick with strategies that fail to solve the problem.
There are many possible answers. First is basic human pride and hubris, which make for a dangerous mix in a world leader. In any long term conflict, I would suppose that every leader feels like they can be the man or women who ends it and brings peace into his little corner of the world, this assumption may blind leaders to the realities on the ground and seeing the big picture. When one views themselves as an altruistic savior of his immediate world and is given authority either through a God or an electorate, its’ very difficult to get that leader to change course because doing so would mark a devastating psychological blow to that leader because his perception of the world has been challenged and rebuked, admitting that your strategy failed is like eating chemically treated paper to a world leader, and such an admission is difficult.
Another possibility is the pattern of success generated by previous actions serves as a numbing agent to political leaders Israel has always outgunned Hezbollah in Lebanon or Russia has always militarily dominated the Chechens. Previous success in tactics may be the worst possible thing for future military planning because it provides the false reality that the same tactics will always be effective. This reality was born out during the mid 1990’s Chechen war, when Moscow went in and had hundreds of soldiers killed because the Chechen fighters had prepared for Moscow’s tactics, while the Chechens had changed theirs. Same deal with Israel, they applied a very traditional blow um up approach and confident of military victory where largely driven from Lebanon by a Hezbollah that had adapted itself and learned how to combat Israel’s heavy firepower. Its’ easier to stick with an effectively proven strategy even when that strategy proves ineffective to on the ground realities.
I believe a certain amnesia sets in when considering global conflict. Vietnam ended with Richard Nixon, the fall of Saigon, in the 1970’s much has changed in the world since then. Time makes forgetters of all, to modify the classic Vince Lombardi quote. Decades of relative peace, has clouded our historic memories and led us down the very same mistakes that we made before. Do we intend to lose thousands of men and woman to war? No, but by failing to take into account our own history, its’ successes, failures, and murky areas of active debate, we only allow ourselves to slip back into the perpetual abyss of war, violence, and death…without understanding how we ended up there.
Bottom line: Our enemies have learned from history, why don’t we?