Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Iraq and the Vietnam metaphor

Anyone reading this blog knows I consider history indispensible for understanding the contours of contemporary problems. For example, to understand what's happening with the Great Backlash in the so-called Red States, one has to go back to the original populist movement that took place in the Plains and the South a century ago. Or to understand the nature of the conflict in Iraq, it's important to look at the history of European colonialism in Mesopotamia and American Middle East policies over the last half century. Or to understand the limits and risks associated with the current American combination of militarism and meliorism with regards to the Third World, it's important to understand how similar efforts played out in the Fifties and Sixties. In short , history is relevant to contemporary political understanding when it helps to provide a genealogy of the current situation.

However, I'm always squeamish about historical analogies--in other words, claims that "A is a repeat of B"--when A and B otherwise have nothing to do with each other. For example, I recoil from references to the Marshall Plan as a precedent for current aid efforts; or from those who see any effort to avoid conflict as appeasement "a la Munich 1938"; or from people who think that every ideological struggle can and should follow the template of the Cold War; or from hysterics who consider every mass political murder a preview to another Holocaust.

Usually these parallels are made because there appears, from the point of view of the comparer, to be some moral equivalence between the two situation. But alas, morality has nothing to do with history or historical causality. When some past historical event is compared to a contemporary situation to which it bears no direct, linear relationship, one is almost always in the presence of a polemical, ideological argument, rather than a historical argument per se.

For this reason, I'm deeply sympathetic with Christopher Hitchens's latest piece in Slate about why we should reject the historical parallels that some on the left like to draw between Iraq and Vietnam. Hitch correctly points out that the situation in Iraq, especially before the American intervention, was really nothing like the situation in Vietnam. And the main difference, as Hitch also correctly points out, is that whereas Saddam and his Baathists were unredeemably nasty fellows (and the now-allied bin Ladinists even worse), the Vietcong and Ho Chi Minh were genuine national heroes with mass popular followings across the whole of Vietnam.

This doesn't mean I think the Iraq War was a good idea. It was a terrible idea, and a deeply immoral act. But that doesn't make it anything like Vietnam. Moreover, simply considered as a moral act, what we did in Vietnam was far, far more repugnant.

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