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History’s lessons

Don Rogers

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. OK, sure. Makes sense. But David Brooks, The New York Times columnist, this week made the excellent suggestion that fear of history can condemn us, too.

The context of his column was Iraq. The British occupation of Iraq in the 1920s was uncannily similar to the U.S. occupation now. The low, slow, steady bleed of soldiers’ lives. The insurgency. The bad press and doubts at home. The Iraqis’ failure to form a stable democracy. The government’s tough talk just before the quick pull-out. The chaos the Brits left behind.

A great recounting of the British occupation appears in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs.



The British experience serves as a great cautionary tale for modern America. And critics of the current occupation have much to point at in complaints about the invasion. Look at what happened before; it can only happen again. When will we learn? That’s the drift.

But didn’t we hear something similar about Afghanistan shortly after 9/11? The Soviets failed miserably in their occupation of this “impenetrable” land. Therefore, so would we. Remember the squawking, Quagmire! Quagmire?



Fear of history, as understood by scholars, would have kept the Taliban in power and Osama free to continue plotting with impunity.

This was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s shining moment, and perhaps the beginning of a hubris that has failed us in Iraq. Special forces and airstrikes softened Afghanistan in weeks for the rebel armies to run the bad guys out. The nation, still largely in anarchy, is at least safer for women and the Western world at large.

Maybe Afghanistan was too easy. Rumsfeld and company thought we could do about the same thing to Iraq, which also caved easily. But there was no large rebel army to take it from there. And our time in Iraq went from one blunder to another because we failed to recognize that the Powell Doctrine of massing overwhelming force was the way to go with Iraq. Do that and it’s more than possible that Saddam would have toppled without an actual invasion. A little patience and we would have avoided today’s British-looking mess. And we’d have more of the world on our side.



Brooks’ point, at least what I took from the column, was not to let fear of history end attempts to break it from evil cycles. Learn from the failures of the past, but don’t let them paralyze you.

Listen too much to history and you won’t have a future.


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