Day By Day

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Lessons of History

Fools prattle on and on about learning the lessons of history, but historians know better. History teaches many lessons -- a plethora of them == and they are often contradictory. An article in today's Wall Street Journal illustrates this simple truth. The authors write:

WASHINGTON -- The struggle to set the future course of the Afghan war is becoming a battle of two books -- both suddenly popular among White House and Pentagon brain trusts.

The two draw decidedly different lessons from the Vietnam War. The first book describes a White House in 1965 being marched into an escalating war by a military viewing the conflict too narrowly to see the perils ahead. President Barack Obama recently finished the book, according to administration officials, and Vice President Joe Biden is reading it now.

The second describes a different administration, in 1972, when a U.S. military that has finally figured out how to counter the insurgency is rejected by political leaders who bow to popular opinion and end the fight.

It has been recommended in multiple lists put out by military officers, including a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who passed it out to his subordinates.

Read it here.

The fact is that history, properly viewed, provides us with a confusing welter of facts. What matters is how we relate these facts one to another, and ultimately to our present circumstances. What we gain from a study of history are not lessons to guide our actions and decisions but stories -- narratives that may or may not prove to be useful in charting our course into an unknown future. The study of history has many functions in our culture, but providing a clear and consistent guide to the future is not one of them.


For more on this check out "Battle of the Books" here.