'Learning From History': A Goal? A Delusion? A Trap?

Joshua Roberts / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, as part of The Atlantic’s discussion of the 15th anniversary of the disastrous invasion of Iraq, I wrote a post called “The Inevitability of Ignorance.” Its main point was about the necessity, and the impossibility, of trying to “learn” from successes and failures in the past.

Everyone has heard the Santayana chestnut/homily/warning about “those who cannot remember the past….” But even the most earnest efforts to apply yesterday’s lessons can cause missteps across tomorrow’s terrain, with its inevitable surprises and differences.

Is this frustrating and contradictory? Yes, but in that it is like most other important challenges in statecraft and in life. (For instance: Should the United States be “idealistic” in its approach to the world? Yes. Must it also be self-interested and practical-minded? Also yes. The goal is to manage the tradeoffs, with the needle pushed as far as possible in the idealistic direction. As one of our presidents said about this contradiction more than 40 years ago*:

We live in a world that is imperfect and which will always be imperfect—a world that is complex and confused and which will always be complex and confused.

I understand fully the limits of moral suasion…. But I also believe that it is a mistake to undervalue the power of words and of the ideas that words embody. In our own history, that power has ranged from Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream."

As a tool in managing this contradiction, I also mentioned the insightful book by Ernest May and Richard Neustadt, Thinking in Time, which is about the difficulty and utility of looking for historic patterns and clues.

Now, several readers weigh in—on the specific failures born of amnesia I mentioned, Lyndon Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam and George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, and on the larger struggle to “learn” from the past only to the right degree.

First, about Vietnam and over-learning the “lessons” of Neville Chamberlain at Munich. A reader writes:

Firstly, Johnson, like everyone else, took the lesson from Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, that it was a tragic error resulting in the horrors of WWII.  This is accepted wisdom to this day.  

Obviously we can’t change history to know how it might have played out had Britain gone to war in 1938, but hypothetically, it could have played out similarly or even worse, as difficult as that may be to imagine.  Britain wasn’t any more prepared for war with Germany in 1938 than it was in 1940 and might have been summarily defeated with a Nazi King George returning to rule the British empire in alliance with Hitler.

Second, see the song, “The General” by Dispatch.   https://youtu.be/pttsNzq-R04

On the specifics of the Iraq decision, from my oft-quoted (because oft-insightful) friend Mike Lofgren. During the years in question he was a senior congressional staffer:

From my contemporary Capitol Hill vantage point, I saw the Iraq war develop a little differently.

First, it was not a question of people having blind spots and misreading history. I can say without qualification that the Bush administration was itching for war, and it cherry-picked evidence that would be used to backfill the premise. That is a distinctly different human situation than tragic actors caught in a cruel prisoner's dilemma.

The invasion was inevitable well before the spring 2002 timeframe you mentioned. During Bush's very first national security council meeting (within days after his inauguration) Iraq was targeted, as Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill later recounted to Ron Suskind. By December 2001, I began seeing emergency supplemental budget requests from DOD that supported a huge troop buildup in the Persian Gulf—this at a time when the US military was starved for troops on the ground in Afghanistan. As a consequence, bin Laden slipped away at Tora Bora, because Bush was putting military assets elsewhere. [JF note: This was a sequence I discussed in “Bush’s Lost Year,” back in 2004.]

As for the WMD "evidence" that was selectively leaked to the press, I actually looked at it. The Energy Department debunked the whole aluminum tubes myth, and the State Department's assessment was highly qualified. There were other qualifications as well, consigned to footnotes. (BTW, intelligence assessments should be read like GAO reports and corporate quarterly statements: most of the headline verbiage is fluff; the real information is in the footnotes and appendices).

I'm willing to bet the majority of congressional members did not read it—they voted with their gut, or they voted from party loyalty, or, like the Democrats, they voted yes either from fear of having to explain it to their constituents like grownups, or to avoid being smeared by Karl Rove's noise machine.

If Hollywood wrote a script about the Bush administration's decision-making, it would not be a tragic "strain of command" film like 12 O'clock High or Failsafe, but rather a black comedy like Dr. Strangelove.

On the learning from the World Wars, a reader writes:

I enjoyed your article yet disagreed with your conclusions.

You noted that each president tried to learn from past mistakes of his predecessors. You also concluded that they were mistaken to do so. [JF: Not exactly—the point was the risk of over-learning. But let’s go on.]

I agree the mistakes of WWI led to WWII. Everyone needs to learn from these two worst wars in history.

To say Vietnam and the two Iraq wars were mistakes have not been proven at all. Keep in mind that our body count is way down since WWII. We have not had another called WWIII by whoever is left alive.

So we are to believe that these are a series of mistakes instead of generational and institutional learning from mistakes and perceived mistakes. Just because a war becomes unpopular does not mean it is not justified….

Figuring out if the war needed to be fought is as difficult before as it is after the war is over. We will know when God tells us and not before.

On the value of the “premortem.” This is one of several messages from readers endorsing this concept, promoted by the economist Daniel Kahneman:

Your mention of "tragic imagination" reminded me of the Premortem, a risk management approach recommended by Daniel Kahneman.

In a premortem, one imagines being in the future and that a decision being considered has led to failure, and thinking of the reasons why. This is a simple approach that frees one to more openly consider risks which might normally be dismissed.

I mentioned in my piece that actual generals, from Grant and Eisenhower onward, tend to be more cautious about future military commitments than armchair generals for whom war is an abstraction. A reader who is a West Point graduate takes up that point:

My first point is related to your observation of other military and veterans of wars: “Therefore, they said, the United States should do everything possible to avoid invading unless it had absolutely no choice. Wars should be only of necessity. This would be folly, they said, and a war of choice.”

a)  I think all military leaders and veterans would say this?  As General Douglas MacArthur said in his 1962 speech at West Point, “On the contrary, the soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”

b)  But I think there is a caveat to this thought:  I believe that they would also offer that "if" we must go to war, then we should go overwhelmingly, quickly & violently, and above all else victoriously.   It matters how you ask the question.

c)  The bar for not going to war "unless absolutely no choice" is specious in many respects..... i.e., we (the United States) can always decide not to go to war under any circumstance even if we're attacked first and even when it is morally right.  

Second, "unless absolutely no choice" is in the eye of the beholder. The point at which I may make the decision to go to war is not the same as the other 350 million Americans….

Lastly, and I'll stop, I am a big proponent that the decision to go to war will always be flawed (as you point to as well) primarily because it is a political decision….

Neither the Dems nor the Republicans hold the high moral ground on taking this nation to war.  Especially since the Congress has abdicated it's responsibility since WWII.  This is where I believe this Inevitability of Ignorance comes from.   We as a nation have forgotten how this great nation should go to war:  a Congressional Declaration of War.  

This ensures that the country is fully mobilized (shared burden), and that we are prepared for total war every time we go to war….  

It took me 20+ years away from West Point to finally understand General Douglas MacArthur's statement:  In war, there is no substitute for victory….

That is why I strongly reject the notion that at some point in a war or conflict, that war is not worth it.  It only becomes not worth it the minute our elected leaders decide they no longer want to or can win a war.  From that point forth, all soldiers killed are in vain.

Finally for today, on the possibility of “learning” at all, from a reader in the upper Midwest:

I must take issue with your claim that the U.S. is destined to keep over-learning the lessons of the last conflict.

From day one, I never felt any confidence that the Iraq (or Afghan) war would bring anything good to the region, and I have seen precious little evidence that our leaders in Washington are using this experience to bring needed caution and insight to the notion of attacking North Korea or Iran.

It would be far too easy to imagine somebody again standing before Congress claiming that we have to attack them “over there" before they attack us here. I can easily imagine another speech by a respected general saying we simply have to stop these countries from developing weapons of mass destruction.

The potential for new wars of opportunity against either of these two countries seem more likely now than ever before…

In short, I simply do not see any evidence that leaders of either party have learned a single thing from the gross mistakes made in our recent wars of opportunity.… We have never held accountable those who lied us into the war.  So——we have not seemed to learn even the most basic truths about those two wars of opportunity, much less can I agree that we have over learned…..

I would honestly prefer that you are correct about this, but I cannot see it.

* This was Jimmy Carter’s speech laying out the thinking behind his human rights strategy, delivered as a commencement address at Notre Dame University four months into his presidency. I was Carter’s head speechwriter at the time and was involved in this speech.