Category Archives: History

Learning from the past

See our victory in WWII by what didn’t happen afterwards

Summary: On Memorial Day we remember the sacrifices by those who fought in America’s wars. But let us also remember the victories they won. None greater than in WWII. Here the eminent historian Martin van Creveld reminds us of what people expected for the post-war world. We did much better than that, showing what we are capable of doing in the future.

When after many battles past,
Both tir’d with blows, make peace at last,
What is it, after all, the people get?
Why! taxes, widows, wooden legs, and debt.

— Francis Moore in the Almanac’s Monthly Observations for 1829. We did much better.

From Clement Attlee's 1945 general election campaign against Churchill.

Clement Attlee’s 1945 campaign against Churchill.

 

The Things that did Not Happen

By Martin van Creveld
From his website.
7 May 2014
Posted here with his generous permission.

 

Seventy years ago, World War II in Europe came to an end. No sooner had it done so — in fact, for a couple of years before it had done so — people everywhere had been wondering what the post war world would look like. Here it pleases me to outline a few of their expectations that did not become reality.

Communism sweeps through Europe

In 1945, much of Europe — and not just Europe — was devastated. Tens of millions had been killed or crippled. Millions more had been uprooted from hearth and home. Scurrying about the continent, they were desperately seeking to rebuild their lives either in their original countries or elsewhere. Entire cities had been turned into moonscapes. This was true not only in Germany (and Japan), where British and American bombers had left hardly a stone standing on top of another, but in Britain (Bristol, Coventry), France (Caen, Brest), Belgium (the Port of Antwerp), the Netherlands (Rotterdam and Eindhoven), Hungary (Budapest), and Yugoslavia (Belgrade). Transportation and industry were in chaos.

With unemployment, cold — the nineteen forties witnessed some of the harshest winters of the century — and even hunger rife, many expected large parts of the continent to go Communist.

In fact, it was only Eastern Europe that became Communist. And then not because its inhabitants, war-ravaged as they were, liked Communism, but because Stalin and the Red Army forced it on them. Many west-European countries, especially France and Italy, also witnessed the rise of powerful left-wing parties. So did Greece, which went through a civil war as vicious as any. None, however, succumbed to the red pest. By 1950 production was back to pre-1939 levels. By the late 1950s, though eastern countries continued to lag behind western ones as they had begun to do as early as 1600, most of the continent was more prosperous than it had ever been.

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Advice from a sage about America and its future. Listen to this man.

Summary: This morning’s post looked at the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) as an example of the Republic’s decay. To more clearly see this process, this post consults an expert who knows America, has personal familiarity with such things, and writes with the perspective of time and distance. We should listen to his words.  {Part 2 of the 2 posts today.}

“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”
— Attributed to Otto von Bismarck.

Contents

Part one (this morning)

  1. Partners at the creation
  2. The Trans-Pacific Partnership

Part two

  1. The fall of the old regime
  2. Conclusions
  3. For More Information

(3) The fall of the old regime

“Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
— attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson.

The slow-mo Bush-Obama reformation of America’s political structure exploited the twin shocks of 9/11 and the Great Recession. But their successful rapid and massive changes required our apathy and passivity, plus the low vitality of our institutions (especially Congress and the press).

Such decay is commonly seen in history. In Caesar: A Biography Christian Meier describes something similar during late Republican Rome, as its people no longer wished to carry the burden of self-government. This post turns to Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). He describes a similar period in The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution (1856) — writing about the transformation of his own nation, the final acts of which he saw. These paragraphs could be written today (that’s bad news).

The character of the people

This passage describes the hard times preceding the French revolution, but in a different way also fits our times, as increasing inequality and slow economic growth erode away the middle class. The Boomers begin a retirement for which they’re largely unprepared, while many Millennials face downward mobility — lives less prosperous than those of their parents.

In such communities, where men are no longer tied to each other by race, class, guilds, or family, they are too ready to think merely of their own interests, ever too predisposed to consider no one but themselves — to withdraw into a narrow individualism where all public good is snuffed out.

Despotism, far from fighting against this tendency, makes it irresistible since it deprives all citizens of shared enthusiasms, all mutual needs, all necessity for understanding, all opportunities to act in concert. It confines them to private life. They were cooling in their feelings for each other; now despotism freezes them solid.

… every man feels endlessly goaded on by his fear of sinking or by his passion to rise … Almost no individual is free from the desperate and sustained effort to keep what he has or to acquire more.

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The first rule of American war is not to believe what we’re told

Summary: Another war starts with its barrage of propaganda on America, raising the usual questions. Can we learn from experience? Will we demand accurate information and better analysis, laughing at those who have been so often wrong?  Today’s post provides some context that might help you decide what’s happening, or at least create useful doubts.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“‘Truth,’ it has been said, ‘is the first casualty of war’.”
— Philip Snowden in his Introduction to Truth and the War, by E. D. Morel (1916).

Ministry of Truth

Contents

  1. Update from Ukraine.
  2. About previous clashes with Russia.
  3. Compare Ukraine with Vietnam.
  4. Conclusions.
  5. Other posts in this series.
  6. For More Information.

(1)  Update from Ukraine

The US Army announced that “about 300″ soldiers from the 173rd Airborne arrived in Ukraine on April 14 “to begin a six-month training rotation with Ukrainian national guard forces”. The NY Times describes the training in the upbeat prose typical of its stenographers repeating what they’re told, with a few specifics (“The courses will train 705 Ukrainian soldiers at a cost of $19 million…”). Canada has sent 200 trainers, Britain has sent 35, and perhaps Israel has sent some as well.

There’s no mention of involvement by US Special Forces, the premier trainers of foreign armies in the methods to fight civil wars, beyond a bland announcement by Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) of deployments to train local troops in “Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia involving several hundred personnel from U.S. special forces”.  No mention of direct involvement of US special operations troops, the covert tip of DoD’s spear — but then we shouldn’t expect to be told.

Relive the cold war

(2)  Compare it to previous direct confrontations with Russia

As usual with American geopolitical analysis, many “experts” quickly lose their perspective at the first hint of conflict, venting breathless warnings that we’re in a new Cold War — perhaps even sliding to nuclear war. It led them to predicted scores of great power wars since WWII; every month brings a new crop of war rumors (last year the hot “news” concerned war between some combo of Japan, the Philippines, and China).

Back on Earth, nuclear powers tend to walk lightly around each other after their first close call. For the US and Russia that was a close brush with death in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (see the tapes of the NSC meetings described in Virtual JFK; you’ll have a far higher opinion of him after reading it). For India and Pakistan that was a not-close but still scary moment during Kargil War in summer 1999.

One glimpse of atomic death convinces national leaders to avoid direct confrontations of armed forces, relying instead on proxies willing to die for the interests of their great power sponsors. After centuries of experience, western governments have become expert in managing these.

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Notes from the Victory Parade in Moscow about our amnesia, & peace

Summary: Yesterday Russians celebrated their history, the 70th anniversary of VE Day. On the day marking this great shared accomplishment, America displayed our ignorance with a pointless gesture of the kind that damages the amity among nations and prevents diplomacy.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

2015 Victory parade in Moscow.

2015 Victory parade in Moscow. Photo by RIA Novosti/Maksim Blinov.

 Lest We Forget: a note about our past and present

By Simon Hunt, Simon Hunt Strategic Services. Posted with his generous permission.

On Saturday 9th May Russia held the Victory Parade in Moscow to mark the anniversary of The Great Patriotic War — as Russia’s defeat of Germany is called. Victory came at a terrible cost. Combat deaths totaled some 10 million Soviets plus another 17 odd-million civilians and prisoners of war of which about 70% were ethnic Russians. About 15% of the Soviet Union’s population was wiped out by the war. Only 3% of Soviet kids who graduated in 1941 survived the war. In contrast, Germany lost 3.5 million people, America 400,000 and the UK 280,000. Still huge numbers but nothing like those that the Soviet Union lost. Continue reading

Assassination as Policy in Washington: How It Failed Then and Fails Now

Summary: The horrific effects of our long War on Drugs have spread like heroin through the Republic. Wasted resources, wrecked communities, eroded rights. This post looks at a lesser-known example, how it accustomed us to use of assassination. Even less-known is that it failed then just as its failed in the War On Terror.  Today is the 3rd of today’s series about our FAILure to learn, with lessons from the past that we have ignored at great cost. It’s a weakness that can bring the greatest of nations to its knees. If American’s leaders won’t learn, its citizens can.

Why do they hate our freedom?Flying Terminator

Excerpt from The Kingpin Strategy
Assassination as Policy: How It Failed Us, 1990-2015

By Andrew Cockburn at TomDispatch, 28 April 2015.
Posted with their generous permission.

The Kingpin Strategy Arrives

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was the poor stepsister of federal law enforcement agencies.  Called into being by President Richard Nixon two decades earlier, it had languished in the shadow of more powerful siblings, notably the FBI.  But the future offered hope.  President George H.W. Bush had only recently re-launched the war on drugs first proclaimed by Nixon, and there were rich budgetary pickings in prospect.  Furthermore, in contrast to the shadowy drug trafficking groups of Nixon’s day, it was now possible to put a face, or faces, on the enemy.  The Colombian cocaine cartels were already infamous, their power and ruthless efficiency well covered in the media.

For Robert Bonner, a former prosecutor and federal judge appointed to head the DEA in 1990, the opportunity couldn’t have been clearer.  Although Nixon had nurtured fantasies of deploying his fledgling anti-drug force to assassinate traffickers, even soliciting anti-Castro Cuban leaders to provide the necessary killers, Bonner had something more systematic in mind.  He called it a “kingpin strategy,” whose aim would be the elimination either by death or capture of the “kingpins” dominating those cartels.

Implicit in the concept was the assumption that the United States faced a hierarchically structured threat that could be defeated by removing key leadership components.  In this, Bonner echoed a traditional U.S. Air Force doctrine: that any enemy system must contain “critical nodes,” the destruction of which would lead to the enemy’s collapse.

In a revealing address to a 2012 meeting of DEA veterans held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the kingpin strategy’s inauguration, Bonner spoke of the corporate enemy they had confronted.  Major drug trafficking outfits, he said,

“by any measure are large organizations. They operate by definition transnationally. They are vertically integrated in terms of production and distribution. They usually have, by the way, fairly smart albeit quite ruthless people at the top and they have a command and control structure. And they also have people with expertise that run certain essential functions of the organization such as logistics, sales and distribution, finances, and enforcement.”

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Machiavelli warns us against listening to Iran’s exiled terrorists

Summary:  Our foreign policy consists largely of repeating mistakes from the past. This post examines two example — one from a decade ago, one from today — along with a comment by Machiavelli chastising our folly. This is the 2nd of 3 posts today about our FAILure to learn, each with a lesson from the past that we have ignored to great cost. If American’s leaders won’t learn, its citizens can.

Amnesia: the dark descent
For an individual or people to profit from experience it must be remembered (avoid anterograde amnesia). Greatness for a nation requires learning from history (avoid retrograde amnesia). We seem to have both kinds of amnesia. We live in the now, playing on the information highway.  We have the ability to do better. Remember our past; every day is a teachable moment.

Our leaders’ refusal to learn

This post gives another example of our leaders’ fascination with failed tactics: helping anti-American insurgents to overthrow regimes of our rivals. We’ve repeatedly done so since President Carter authorized Operation Cyclone, helping set the Middle East aflame by overthrowing secular regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and (in progress) Syria — all replaced by jihadists. Future historians will think us mad.

A key part of this strategy has been listening to the siren songs of exiles. Such as Ahmed Chalabi, who sold Bush a fabric of lies about how easily he could govern Iraq as our puppet once we gave it to him. We held Iraq for 8 years before its government forced Bush to sign a Status of Forces agreement that booted us out.

Since we do not learn from experience (or even remember it) Congress prepares to respectfully listen to Maryam Rajavi, a co-leader of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) — a group on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups from 1997 to 2012 — removed after a multi-million dollar program of payments to influential DC figures (the free market in selling America) despite its history of anti-Americanism and (of course) terrorism. She’ll urge Congress to overthrow Iran’s elected government — again. Its people still hate us for doing so in 1953, and installing a tyrant. Will doing so a second time win any friends in Iran or elsewhere?

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Stark evidence from our past about our inability to learn today

Summary: Nothing shows our FAILure to learn more than how we’ve repeat so many of our mistakes of Vietnam in Afghanistan. No hegemon, no matter how powerful, can survive a rapidly changing world, filled with rivals and foes, if it doesn’t profit from its experience. Today is FAILure to learn day, with 3 lessons from the past that we have ignored, to great cost. If American’s leaders won’t learn, its citizens can.  {1st of 3 posts today.}

“Hegel says somewhere that all great historic facts and personages occur twice, so to speak. He forgot to add: ‘Once as tragedy, and again as farce.’”

— Opening line to Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1869).

Vietnam: closer than you think.

Here is the final pages of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972), describing how Nixon took ownership of the Vietnam War from LBJ — much as Obama did from Bush. I was going to change the names to those from our war in Afghanistan. But why bother? The parallels are obvious.

Remember, because every day is a teachable moment.

Henry Kissinger

————————————————

About the same time Henry Kissinger, who had emerged as the top foreign policy adviser of the Administration (in part because he, like Nixon, was hard-line on Vietnam, whereas both William Rogers, the Secretary of State, and Mel Laird, the Secretary of Defense, had been ready to liquidate the war in the early months of the Administration), was asked by a group of visiting Asians if the Nixon Administration was going to repeat the mistakes of the Johnson Administration in Vietnam. “No,” answered Kissinger, who was noted in Washington for having the best sense of humor in the Administration, “we will not repeat their mistakes. We will not send 500,000 men.” He paused. “We will make our own mistakes and they will be completely our own.” There was appreciative laughter and much enjoyment of the movement.

One thing though — Kissinger was wrong. To an extraordinary degree the Nixon men repeated the mistakes and miscalculations of the Johnson Administration, which prompted Russell Baker to describe it all as “the reign of President Lyndon B. Nixonger.” For step by step, they repeated the mistakes of the past. They soon became believers in their policy, and thus began to listen only to others who were believers (they began to believe, in addition, that only they were privy to the truth in reports from Saigon, that the secret messages from the Saigon embassy, rather than being the words of committed, embattled men, were the words of cool, objective observers).

Doubters were soon filtered out; the Kissinger staff soon lost most of the talented Asian experts that had come in with him at the start of the Administration. Optimistic assessments of American goals, of what the incursion into Cambodia would do, of what the invasion of Laos would do — always speeding the timetable of withdrawal and victory — were passed on to the public, always to be mocked by ARVN failure and NVA resilience.

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