The Trouble with History: Is This Munich? or Vietnam? the Analogies Are Thick, but the Truth Is We're in a Whole New Era

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, April 12, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Trouble with History: Is This Munich? or Vietnam? the Analogies Are Thick, but the Truth Is We're in a Whole New Era


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


In Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Slaughterhouse-Five," the character Billy Pilgrim comes "unstuck in time." As the world grapples with Serbia, we're all pilgrims now, voyaging in the mists of memory. Is this the last war of the 14th century or the first war of the 21st? Is Slobodan Milosevic a Hitler or a Ho Chi Minh? A little history can be a dangerous thing, especially if it is rigidly superimposed on a new and complex set of circumstances. The only true lesson of war is to avoid fighting the last one. And yet historical analogies are essential to charting the wisest course. The challenge is to strike an imaginative balance, like a postmodern artist picking and choosing from the styles of the past.

So far, the picture is a mess. President Clinton got the lessons-of- history game off to a bad start by telling the nation at first that both World War I and World War II began in the Balkans. That was simply untrue. World War II started over Czechoslovakia, which can only be considered Balkan in a Clintonian sense. While he was hyping some historical analogies, he and his policymakers ignored some others, which they are paying for now.

The Serbs' once-obscure, now famous, loss of Kosovo to the Turks in 1389 is not relevant by itself. But the way Slobodan Milosevic exploited the 600-year-old battle to center Serb nationalist passions in Kosovo should have rung more bells in Washington. The White House thought the odds favored Milosevic cracking quickly under a little bombing, as he did in 1995 when NATO bombed the Yugoslav Army in Bosnia. This misread history. Any sophisticated analysis of Milosevic would have made it clear that he would fight harder to hold Kosovo, the symbol of his exploitation of Serb nationalism.

Clinton reads a lot of history, but he apparently skipped some important chapters. Discounting the need for ground troops fit the polls, but it was bad negotiating strategy and worse historical odds- making. It's foolhardy to tip your hand to an adversary. The big lesson so far from this war is that the best all-purpose government answer is: "We don't speculate on military contingencies." Moreover, Clinton didn't take full account of the military's real 60-year record of strategic bombing, which is spotty. After World War II, the Pentagon commissioned the Strategic Bombing Survey, which found that Allied bombing contributed far less to victory over the Nazis than had been assumed. Two decades later, "carpet bombing" of North Vietnam did little to break Hanoi's will. And we know how little effect bombing has had on Saddam Hussein. Air power is essential in war, but mostly in support of ground troops. Assuming high-altitude bombing can work alone is ahistorical.

No one actually believes wars can all be quick and bloodless. (The fact that the United States suffered few casualties in the gulf war was obviously more a product of luck and wide-open desert geography than of some new style of antiseptic combat.) But condescending Washington seems to think that the rest of the country won't stomach any bloody fighting, especially if it's on TV. …

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