A MOMENT IN HISTORY… Each day since I’ve arrived in Quantico the headlines have been dominated by events in Iraq… the Washington Post in the morning, NPR as I drive to work, cnn.com on my web-browser, FoxNews when I flip on my TV at night… the slant may differ from one venue to another, but one thing is certain - the world’s attention is focused on Iraq. What an opportunity for a historian to go to the precise place where history is being made (for better or for worse), to be with the very people who are making it, with the express mission of documenting it for future consideration. It is a moment in history. A moment for which I have been granted a front-row seat.
I can’t help but reflect as I listen to the news each day, how vital an understanding of history is as we seek to make sense of the here and now. How can we understand the sectarian violence in Iraq today if we don’t grasp the historical differences and divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims? How can we have an intelligent discussion about the wisdom or folly of proposals to divide Iraq if we aren’t aware of the ethnic distinctions between Kurds and Arabs (and Turks and Persians) or the geopolitical interests of Turkey, Iran and Gulf states as they relate to Iraq?
It’s also striking to me that there is (and ought to be) an active debate about HOW to apply the lessons of history. There was a significant amount of media coverage last week about parallels between Vietnam in 1968 and Iraq in 2006. But what is the most illuminating reading of the history involved? That a major push by the North Vietnamese during an important election year led to decreasing public support and eventual US withdrawal? Or that the Tet offensive was a military disaster for the North Vietnamese and that the reaction within the US, not the events on the battlefield, was the bright spot for our adversaries? When I read excerpts from (North Vietnamese Commanding) General Giap’s memoirs during my Command and Staff Seminar, I was struck by his candid admission that the Tet Offensive was repulsed with grievous losses for his forces and that he was “on the ropes” militarily in 1968. It was only the reaction inside the US media and public that gave him heart that his long-term strategy would work. Like the insurgents we fight today, General Giap recognized that America could not be defeated on the battlefield, but that our true “center of gravity” was public opinion and corresponding political support. This center of gravity is a by-product of our wonderfully open society and government, which not only tolerate, but encourage expression of divergent opinions. How do we reconcile the virtues of our open society with security requirements that might compel us to complete actions which may be difficult or unpopular? THAT is a question for all you students of history and civics out there to debate.
One final note: How are the North Vietnamese and their goals in 1968 so different from the multiple adversaries with multiple (often competing) goals that we face today in Iraq that historical comparisons may be strained beyond value anyway? More on that question another time.