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In calmer times, historical analogies usually aren't very controversial things. During times like these, however, people can sometimes be a bit prickly about which parallels you choose to draw between current and past events. People can get so defensive, in fact, they attack the whole idea of drawing analogies at all.
We've all heard the analogies between the Iraq war and the Vietnam War, World War II, the Lebanese Civil War, and other conflicts. Usually, someone with their back up already will say something like, "Look, there's no way Iraq is like Vietnam. Where are the triple-canopy jungles? The safe havens in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam? The substantial support from other superpowers? You're talking crazy talk."
Obviously, no event is completely analogous to another event. Analogies can easily be misplaced. But how do you know you have a good historical analogy?
The best place to start is John Stuart Mill, one of my favorite philosophers (see On Liberty) and someone very interested in this analogy issue. Mill said that you could identify a good comparison in one of two ways:
- The method of agreement. If you are looking at examples that are completely unalike except in one way, that characteristic A always accompanies characteristic B, then there's some fundamental connection between A and B. If you look at all the wars in history, for example, and you find that (A) commanders who had simple operational plans (B) had drastically higher rates of success, then you can say that there's a connection between operational simplicity and the odds of victory.
- The method of difference. If you compare things that are completely alike, except for one set of characteristics that vary in some consistent way (as A changes, B changes), then you have a connection between A and B. You might look, for example, at all the Afghan wars involving foreign powers--the 19th century British occupation, the 20th century Soviet invasion, the 21st century US invasion--and look for some patterns. Same location, same ethnic groups, and in the last two cases, even some of the same people. However, if you find that, all other things being equal, (A) a greater focus on training and equipping local Afghan forces (B) produces better results against insurgents, then you might have a relationship between A and B.
It's tough to find cases that are completely alike, or completely unalike, but you do your best. I think that the people who pooh-pooh an anlogy because they don't like the message are in a state of historical denial. You can pick apart the analogy, you can argue over the conclusion, but you can't say that analogies don't make any sense at all.
The Vietnam analogy was something that used to really get people's dander up. It doesn't seem to have that effect now. I'm not sure if it's just the passage of time or the post-Desert Storm bolstering of our confidence in US military power, but the Vietnam specter has lost some of its frightfulness. Today, of course, you see parallels between Vietnam and Iraq all over the place (click here, here, and here for some quick examples). Sure, there are no triple-canopy jungles in Iraq, but that's a detail, as we've seen, that matters only at certain levels of strategy. Jungle and desert warfare have different rules at the operational and tactical levels, to be sure. That doesn't change US grand strategy, theater strategy, or technical considerations. Nor does the terrain necessarily change some basic principles of counterinsurgency at the operational or tactical levels.
Go ahead and be bold in making historical parallels. Use analogies, but use them wisely. Just don't let anyone tell you that you can't make analogies at all. If that's the case, every life-threatening situation in which we find ourselves will be brand new, and we'll have no past experience to help us through it. That's a far more frightening prospect than admitting, perhaps, that we've found ourselves in a quagmire again.