Thursday, March 17, 2016

Learning Lessons

"It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards." —Søren Aabye Kierkegaard

That life must be understood backwards is something of a platitude, but when it comes to things like our foreign policy, is it even true? We may know what happened before (to some extent) and not know what follows, but to say the past is understood seems a little cocky to me [1]. What do you think? I've already talked about Iraq and the lessons we learned (or didn't really learn) from that war. In that post, there's the specter of Vietnam hanging above our latest (ongoing) adventure.

And indeed, when the Iraq war started there were several streams of thought in the public sphere: one of comparing it to Vietnam while also trying to not compare them [2]. With regard to the Vietnam war, the lessons learned are not obvious. There's one that the public learned: don't get entangled with foreign wars of no value, and one that the elite learned: don't ask the majority of the public to fight such a war and if a war is fought, it's best to be done remotely (Laos vs Vietnam).

Coming out of Iraq, the lessons were not so obvious. Sure, at home Bush lost elections because of the war, but that was more about the war going wrong than anything about the war. Even the likes of Obama didn't say that such a war was morally wrong, but that it was a strategic mistake. So what is the lesson learned in Iraq? This is important, mind you, because it affects the next argument about a war (and the remote wars, most likely to proliferate, since those are politically easy sells).

On the right there's already the idea that, like Vietnam, Iraq was a victory that was lost because, you know, peaceniks. Right. Forever the people with a hammer in search of a nail, the current theory du jour on that side of argument is that if Obama had only left 10,000 troops in Baghdad, things would have been different. How, they don't say. 

They say even less about the fact that having 100,000 troops did nothing for stability in the country and that a surge and political concessions had to be made for anything like a peace to break out. The less said about that peace the better. But it was more than a Sunni Shia rift. And even with troops there, hardly any moves were being made to a lasting peace (if that were possible at all). 

And once again, I see the same thing with this new war on ISIS and the war in Syria [3]. Those on the right are claiming that we can bomb our way to glory, while blaming those on the real left for any atrocity ever happening [4]. Details details. 

But it does put to lie the idea that people are understanding the past. More likely it's using the past to selectively reaffirm their current faith (secular as it may be). And the powers that be use this to profit themselves. Not a hard task when people are so tribal. [5]

My question, however, is do I do this? Am I guilty of this heuristic? 

[1] I should clarify that there is much to know, but here I'll focus on the mainstream discussions of the matter.

[2] Those for the war tried all they could to not compare Iraq with Vietnam, and certainly in many ways it was different, but one couldn't help but see a revisionism coming out: whereby Vietnam was revisited and those for and against the war once again argued about its merits (and sometimes even if it could be "won"—don't laugh, I still hear some on the right say that the war was almost won , but the peaceniks grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory. Yes, this is a strongly held belief). For someone of a different generation, I will say, as I've said before, that the propaganda was strong and I had come to the belief of a different Vietnam than the one that actually happened (that it was merely a  war that was run wrong, to say nothing of the revisionism in the 1990s that had even those on the center left say that it might have been necessary because something something communism). Again, take a look at that post on Iraq and lessons learned. The lessons learned are important. Look at the Pentagon trying again to rewrite what Vietnam was all about and the lessons learned there. It's about how one can twist any lessons into something to profit from.

[3] The war in Syria is complex beyond belief and the fact that people seem to think a handful of advisors could have made it a clean sweep shows the lack of learning any lessons.

[4] These crocodile tears, also wept by our leaders, should be ignored as it is a bait and switch of emotions for people over there with an immediate lack of concern for people over there through their own actions. Note again that it blames those who dare to stand up against power of any atrocities that happened (no matter if uncalled for). 

[5] It's also a platitude to say that those in power will use whatever moral or reflexive meme (have to fight them there rather than here etc) that benefits them to paint the past as they deem fit. 

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