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The only thing we learn from history...

By Michael J. Smith on Wednesday December 29, 2010 12:53 PM

... is, notoriously, that we don't learn from history.

A salmagundi of items passed along from various email correspondents landed in my inbox today, and suggests reflections more numerous than I can corral into coherence.

First, from the pen of the loathesome Fouad Ajami, some choice remarks from the loathesome Barack Obama:

In May of this year, President Obama brought together a group of presidential historians for what was supposed to be the first of many meetings. By available accounts, he was curious about the rise of the tea party, curious as to whether there had been precedents for this sort of backlash against the established order....

"Ghosts," he said in one meeting when the late Richard Holbrooke... tried to draw parallels between Lyndon Johnson's dilemmas in Vietnam and the current American engagement in Afghanistan.... [Obama] was 13 in 1975, he said, when South Vietnam fell: "So I grew up with none of the baggage that arose out of the dispute of the Vietnam war. I also had a lot of confidence."

Fouad's own orotund ruminations about this ahistorical insouciance on Obie's part need not detain us, of course.

Then there was this, from the loathesome David Ignatius, sucking his loathesome thumb about the loathesome David Petraeus:

If briefings could win wars, Gen. David Petraeus would already be finished in Afghanistan. Here's what his masterful presentation looked like in Kabul this month - and then some hard questions for him to answer.

The general's aides come in first, carrying six wooden easels as if they're setting up an art display. Next come the charts, displaying an array of information as densely woven as a spider's web.

The Afghanistan campaign plan comes at the problem from every direction: It's top-down, in building the Afghan army, and bottom-up, in training tribal militias known as Afghan Local Police. It's about military power, especially the deadly night raids by U.S. Special Operations Forces, and it's also about making governance work in this corrupt and feeble country....

Like any war, this one is ultimately about willpower.... [But] history shows that three variables are crucial in countering an insurgency...

So here are a few questions for Petraeus to ponder at year-end.

I'll spare you Ignatius' "variables" and questions. They're all quite technical, in the original sense of the term; like an engineer -- in Ignatius' case, of course, an armchair engineer -- with a machine to design, weighing the choice between solenoids and pneumatic cylinders.

History, it seems, is a very useless thing. Petraeus and Obama despise it; Ajami and Ignatius think they can read its entrails; and it's hard to decide which of the four is most contemptible.

But it's easy enough to know which two are most dangerous, anyway. Ajami and Ignatius might bore you to death, but that's the only way they'll ever kill anybody. Whereas Obama and Petraeus have a practical infinity of death-dealing instrumentalities at their disposal, and seem very eager to leave none unused. This difference is probably just circumstantial, though; who would trust Ignatius or Ajami with even one Predator drone?

There's something all four have in common: an outlook we might call Problematism -- the notion that life consists of problem-solving exercises, like the Scholastic Aptitude Test, where a number of purported solutions are offered, and you have to pick the right one.

What distinguishes Petrocephalus and Obie, on the one hand, from the haruspices of capital-H History, Ignatz and Fubar, on the other, is a tactical difference in their approach to the exam. The former consider themselves the smartest guys in the room and are quite sure they can do well without studying much, whereas the latter are swots, for whom History is Kaplan, Inc., writ large.

Maybe that's why the latter are just scribblers, whereas the former get to play with rockets and stuff. Confidence will take you a long way in life.

Comments (26)

Nonny Puked:

Nice bit of loathing.


"So I grew up with none of the baggage that arose out of the dispute of the Vietnam war. I also had a lot of confidence."

BO's Toastmaster Club gimmicks have too long obscured that he is every bit the proudly philistine dumbass his idol Reagan was. This quote is unbelievably vapid, even for him.

No contest on the most loathesome, here, though I'd happily beat any of the rest with the king's severed head.


"Like any war, this one is ultimately about willpower.."

tell that to the Mohicans

"Like any war, this one is ultimately about firepower.."

There, fixed it.

The Tea Party? A backlash against established order?? Pardon me while I laugh until I piss myself.

I've covered more of their goddamn' Nuremberg rallies than I care to think about, and I can tell you, those clowns are all about "established order".

Still, that's a right fine steamin' heap o'loathing there, Smiff.


Mike F -- Thanks. I loved the "established order" bit, but there was just too much ground to cover....


I love any pile of old, scared, scooter-powered, flag-shirted racists on Medicare complaining about socialism. Where will you ever find a neater, more convenient, or more beautiful representation of American stupidity? It is almost anthropological origami.

This looks a little like the beginning of a novel, for some reason. It gots a theme and everything: the characterization of the idiots in charge of solving the world's problems as people who think the world is a problem to be solved. Which is really pretty terrifying! If you added an actual student character and worked up a recurrent 'testing' motif, and also referred to the, er, "journalists" pseudonymously — I think you could totally pull it off.

I wait with barely concealed impatience for the restoration of the Carnifex, after Petraeus Caesar ascends the dais.


"Like any war, this one is ultimately about willpower.."

Like any war, this one is ultimately about a failure of imagination...

Al Schumann:

I take cheer from the thought of that PowerPoint cretin strutting around the White House, corralling bootlicker media personalities into presentation rooms, droning away interminably about his nifty new strategy while the Medicare-scootered rugged individualists caterwaul and jockey for camera time. Maybe he'll give them medals. He should. They need them.


Like any war, this one is ultimately about a failure of imagination...

That suggests that the purpose of war is something other than war. Do tell.


I don't mind "problem solving" if they could just identify the real problem. I think the idea originated with Dewey, and it made sense as a replacement for the metaphysical mystifications which preceded it. In modern American pragmatism, however, it becomes a metaphysics itself, as if God originally endowed Adam (Eve wasn't yet born, sorry!) with problem solving, instead of an ethical nature.


Maybe he'll give them medals. He should. They need them.

And he appears to carry quite a supply of medals on his person.


Civilian deaths in 2010 in Iraq: 3,976

About 52,000 would be the number in proportion to the USA population...

Just another year's carnage in a finished and forgotten war, where willpower was and remains unconstrained, although it is almost trivial when compared to the totals of the sanctions era of Albright et al.

I notice that oil exports from Iraq in 2010 have achieved levels not seen in 20 years. Who could have imagined that! And, oh, those per barrel prices!


civilian deaths in 2010 in Iraq: 3,976

I think the left should reject the whole 'civilian death' 'collateral damage' distinctions.

The country was attacked and invaded by a superpower. A dead Iraqi soldier or insurgent is no less innocent than a civilian.

Also, that number seems to come from Iraq Body Count, which only counts civilian deaths by violence reported in the English language press, which is a methodology likely to produce the lowest possible figures since not every death is reported certainly and there are many deaths caused by the destruction of infrastructure and services. Hence its popularity with the mainstream media and the rare American political figure who deigns to mention Iraqi deaths at all.

Studies using epidemiology statistical methods put the death count much higher. I believe the total count using these methods is between 800,000 and 1 million for the attack/invasion/civil war over the long haul.


Like any war, this one is ultimately about a failure of imagination...

I wonder. Maybe it was rather an excess of imagination?


Maybe it was rather an excess of imagination?

What's all this about imagination? Whose imagining what?

Someone imagined they could loot a country, project power, fortify the secret government, shred civil liberties etc. and transfer huge wads of public money and debt into private hands. Some others thought they might be able to get some of the loot by being of service.

What am I missing?


"What am I missing?"

Your (our) complicity.


Your (our) complicity.

Ew, who let the moralizing liberal in? If you want to believe that you are actually consenting to all of this by virtue of not fighting quixotic battles every day of your life rather than just trying to get by, feel free. But leave me out. No guilt here, pal. Powerlessness is like that.

By the way, in your zeal to guilt trip you really didn't answer my question. It's clear we were talking about the people who actually make decisions. I am not seeing where imagination plays any role at all. The question for you is, what are these creeps failing to imagine? How to achieve some high-minded goal without war? But then, that assumes that high-minded goals are involved, doesn't it?

The question for MJS is in what way do they imagine too much?

Like I said, I see the usual war racket. Killing and stealing for fun, profit and more power. Nothing more. Nothing less.


I admire your leftihood, Tarzie. The comments are open to all and no one has been banned from SMBIVA so far as I can tell. Many get 'grief' for daring to speak, but if you want a better filtered comments you should go elsewhere. May I suggest Reclusive Leftist?

I thought the discussion was about something else... Ignatius' standard 'bracing' observation that this war like ALL wars was a matter of willpower. Someone suggested firepower as an alternative. And, while I take the point, I recall that firepower failed in Vietnam and I suspect that it will fail in Afpak, which seems to be a reprise of that earlier slaughter.

Recently Fluggenock suggested here that there are more of us than there are of them, yet our resistance remains ineffectual PERHAPS because of a failure of imagination.

At this point I suppose that I better start humming loudly with my fingers in my ears.

"And, while I take the point, I recall that firepower failed in Vietnam."

Wasn't firepower that failed. It was political reality. To win that war the US would have had to invade North Vietnam, risking all out war (probably nuclear) with the Soviet Union of which North Vietnam was just a client state.

While Nixon was one crazy ass SOB he wasn't that crazy.

Firepower worked fine and if folks back in here in the US had been fine with the continuing slaughter then the US could have held south Vietnam indefinitely.

At some point I gather some sort of crazy humanitarian concern about the continuing slaughter helped bring about an end to the war.


The question for MJS is in what way do they imagine too much?

It's not exactly that they imagine too much, but rather, as the prophet said, that they imagine a vain thing: the triumph of imagination over experience.


Hey Flak, I wasn't sayin' you shouldn't be here. I was just surprised to get a vapid moral guilt trip about my 'complicity' in these parts. And you still haven't answered my question about what makes war a failure of imagination. I infer from this that you think warmakers could achieve their end by some other more imaginative means. So assuming you weren't just blowing empty Obama-like smoke -- that is, a signifier of substance rather than substance -- please do tell what end the warmakers seek that they could achieve with more imagination and less war.

This thread is full of surprises. Where people are actually talking about 'winning' and 'failing' like any moral, reasonable person actually gives a flying fuck.


"Ew, who let the moralizing liberal in?"

"I wasn't sayin' you shouldn't be here."

Ha, ha. Good one.

We are talking past each other, it appears. But try this for a response to the unanswered question: "please do tell what end the warmakers societies seek that they could achieve with more imagination and less war."


" To win that war the US would have had to invade North Vietnam "


if by that you mean an all out all in slug fest with the chicoms on the otrherside
had a chance to get
a south korea '53 like solution
in south vietnam in say '73

ie a full time us ground force
of several divisions strength
ie large numbers
after years of brutal butchering
and that force sunk in along
the only plausible post truce dmz line
that would cross from the coast
between north and south and on thru
between laos and combodia
to the thai border

just stating that result leads to its rub out
by policy circles
as my pal y sez after a few beers
hell the korean gig proved stalin had out smarted us
we had no intention to get even more bogged down
in indochina
if we had we'd have joined the french effort in 54


"..risking all out war.... with the Soviet Union .."

completely out of the question
no way the soviets were that stupid
"...(probably nuclear).."
are you jocking ?
that's pure dove hysteria

worse case uncle invades the north
and we end up facing
a second round of chinese volunteers

"..North Vietnam was just a client state "
at least
if "just" as used here
has its accostumed meaning

from the 40's on
the red viets
played off great power ontradictions
like true masters of the art
in fact
the last thing they wanted was to induce an invasion
hence their truce chatter circa 68 - 69

neither side wanted korea II
only the soviets would benefit from that


But try this for a response to the unanswered question: "please do tell what end the warmakers societies seek that they could achieve with more imagination and less war."

Ew, who left the window open.

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