Comments: Op-Ed Day

Anne -
As I wrote earlier, I have always found it very interesting to watch how history is (mis)used in policy debates. Iraq is Vietnam; Iraq is not Vietnam (but it will be if the United States pulls out too soon). This struggle is like WWII, or the Cold War. The Iraqi leaders are the founding fathers, and 2005 is their 1783 (the President made that analogy). Saddam was Hitler; no, Bush is Hitler. Or Ceasar. America is Athens or Rome.

Are we incapable of analysis without recourse to intellectually sloppy analogies? People like Roberts use history to dumb-down arguments, to explain complex policy positions and decisions to the simple-minded. Who would argue that the United States should "stay the course" if Iraq is Vietnam or if the country is 1933 Nazi Germany?

Beware of historical analogy - when you hear or read one, chances are that someone thinks you are an idiot that can be swayed by unexplained, underexamined comparisons.


Posted by Col Steve at January 17, 2006 11:57 AM

With all due respect to the Col., as an historian and purveyor of historical analogies myself, I have to protest. Yes, there are bad historical analogies and many times they are a kind of shorthand for what the writer thinks the reader thinks about the historical source being cited ("Nazis = bad powerful psychopaths"; "Vietnam = dumb war" etc.).

But there are good historical analogies as well, ones that use the history carefully, that explain up front what they mean to draw from the history, that admit to differences or slippages and that illuminate the issues.

And, to be honest, the cautionary value of these analogies is worth considering. As you say, Who would argue that the United States should "stay the course" if Iraq is Vietnam or if the country is 1933 Nazi Germany?. I've been wondering the same thing myself. No, I don't think we're Germany 1933, but I don't ignore the troubling similarities between Republican/rightwing politics and tactics and those of early 20th century fascists. I don't think Vietnam and Iraq are perfect analogies to each other, but the degree to which the administration and military have failed to implement what seem like the obvious lessons of Vietnam are of great concern.

History is, among its other virtues, a moral discipline. We don't like to talk about it much, but one of the great values of studying history properly is the chance to recognize when one might be going down a really bad path.

Posted by Jonathan Dresner at January 18, 2006 03:09 PM

Jonathan - I don't think our positions are so different. You write:

"But there are good historical analogies as well, ones that use the history carefully, that explain up front what they mean to draw from the history, that admit to differences or slippages and that illuminate the issues. "

Exactly what I meant by "unexplained, underexamined comparisons."

Where we may differ to a degree.

Echevarria writes, "The distinguished historian Sir Michael Howard once admitted that the past, which he aptly referred to as an “inexhaustible storehouse of events,” could be used to “prove anything or its contrary.”"

I don't disagree with your last statement, but using history in such a manner requires, quoting Echevarria again, "learning to be critical of the history that historians write, by building a habit of rigorously scrutinizing facts and sources, and of detecting biases and specious arguments, and by developing an eye for penetrating the myths that surround the past." The 30 second spot or 500 word column "shorthand" uses of history in policy debates rarely try to do more than appeal to a (hopefully) superficial understanding of the analogy by the audience.

Posted by Col Steve at January 20, 2006 02:37 AM