Thursday, July 27, 2006

Lessons of history

Often as it's quoted, I think George Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" isn't quite sufficient to describe the current situation. Not as pithy, but more apt for right now would be, "Those who cannot remember the past are—along with everyone else in the entire world—condemned to repeat it."

There are, after all, many of us who remember the past; many of us have even taken the trouble to learn about events that transpired before we were born. But because the Bush Administration and its enablers actively refuse to learn any lessons from past mistakes (or, god forbid, past successes)—and because the Purported Opposition Party for some reason can't decide that it's a good idea to point out to the world that the Lunatic War-mongering Incompetence Party is, in fact, lunatic, war-mongering, and incompetent—we're all stuck repeating history.

Those of us who are lucky are repeating history, that is. The unlucky are being killed by bombs.

Along those lines, this post is about one historical tradition that doesn't ever seem to go out of style with military or civilian leaders: underestimating the fighting ability of the men on the other side.

From Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, Part 1 (1587)
An hundred horsemen of my company,
Scouting abroad upon these champian plains,
Have viewed the army of the Scythians,
Which make reports it far exceeds the king’s.

Suppose they be in number infinite,
Yet being void of martial discipline,
All running headlong after greedy spoils
And more regarding gain than victory,
Like to the cruel brothers of the earth
Sprung of the teeth of dragons venomous,
Their careless swords shall lance their fellows’ throats
And make us triumph in their overthrow.

Was there such brethren, sweet Meander, say,
That sprung of teeth of dragons venomous?

So poets say, my lord.

And ’tis a pretty toy to be a poet..
Well, well, Meander, thou art deeply read, and having thee I have a jewel sure.
Go on, my lord, and give your charge, I say,
Thy wit will make us conquerors today.

From Justin Marozzi’s Tamerlane (2004)
Fighting was in [the Tatars’] blood. Famed for their skill as archers, they charged across the steppe on horseback, raining down arrows upon their enemies. [In the words of a contemporary account,] “They were archers who by the shooting of an arrow would bring down a hawk from the hollow of the ether, and on dark nights with a thrust of their spearheads would cast out a fish from the bottom of the sea; who thought the day of the battle the wedding night and considered the pricks of lances the kisses of fair maidens.”

From George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate (2005)
It wasn’t the job of the uniformed services simply to salute their civilian leaders and march off to war. Franks, who was known to rule by fear, and his staff also had an obligation to the men and women under their command. Yet they never seemed to ask themselves what would happen if Rumsfeld was wrong—what might happen to their troops once they were in Iraq, without the necessary forces and protection, if things did not go according to plan. Plan A was that the Iraqi government would be quickly decapitated, security would be turned over to remnants of the Iraqi police and army, international troops would soon arrive, and most American forces would leave within a few months. There was no plan B.

From John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (2002)
The patience and willingness to suffer over a long period in order to achieve ardently desired revolutionary goals have led one observer of the phenomenon to observe, “Insurgents start with nothing but a cause and grow to strength, while the counter-insurgents start with everything but a cause and gradually decline in strength and grow to weakness.”

From James T. Patterson’s Grand Expectations (1996)
In Korea . . . the war went badly for the United States and its UN allies in the first few weeks. MacArthur had been optimistic; like many Americans he had a low opinion of Asian soldiers, and he thought the United States could clean things up quickly. But he had done a poor job of preparing his occupation forces in Japan. The troops who were rushed from Japan to Korea . . . were poorly equipped and out of shape. Colonel John “Mike” Michaelis, a regimental commander, complained that many of the soldiers did not even know how to care for their weapons. “They’d spent a lot of time listening to lectures on the differences between communism and Americanism and not enough time crawling on their bellies on maneuvers with live ammunition singing over them.” . . . If conditions had been better, the troops might have had a little time, once in [Korea], to train more intensely. But they were rushed to the front lines. There they were torn up by the well-planned North Korean advance.

From George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate (2005)
Rumsfeld looked upon anarchy and saw the early stages of democracy. In his view and that of others in the administration, but above all the president, freedom was the absence of constraint. Freedom existed in divinely endowed human nature, not in man-made institutions and laws. Remove a thirty-five-year-old tyranny and democracy will grow in its place, because people everywhere want to be free. There was no contingency for psychological demolition. What had been left out of the planning were the Iraqis themselves.

. . . .

Cheney didn’t believe that the postwar planning would matter in the end, anyway. Like the president, Cheney maintained an almost mystical confidence in American military power and an utter incuriosity about the details of its human consequences.

Then, noble soldiers, to entrap these thieves,
That live confounded in disordered troops,
If wealth or riches may prevail with them,
We have our camels laden all with gold
Which you that be but common soldiers
Shall fling in every corner of the field,
And while the base-born Tartars take it up,
You, fighting more for honour than for gold,
Shall massacre those greedy-minded slaves;
And when their scattered army is subdued
And you march on their slaughtered carcasses,
Share equally the gold that bought their lives
And live like gentlemen in Persia.
Strike up the drum, and march courageously!
Fortune herself doth sit upon our crests.

He tells you true, my masters, so he does.
Drums, why sound ye not when Meander speaks?

[Strike drums]


  1. You mean, if Bush hadn't flunked out of that Marlowe class at Yale, we wouldn't be in this war?

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