Friday, August 26, 2005

Bruce Kesler, who has been active in politics since the Nixon administration ( I believe Nixon disdained Kesler as a " hippie") and writes for several venues, sends me interesting things on a regular basis. Today, in " Analogy Inanities" at The Democracy Project, Kesler takes on the " Iraq is Vietnam" meme, currently enjoying renewed popularity among the MSM lightweights:

"We are being smothered in asserted analogies between Vietnam and Iraq, between the 1968 or 1972 presidential elections’ candidates, issues and outcomes and those predicted for the 2008 election three-plus years hence, or between various mid-term Congressional elections and that of 2006. Almost all of these analogies are fairly worthless, in one or more of logic, facts, causes, knowledge, or connections. They may fill space in pundits’ columns, activists’ causes or politicos’ campaigns, but are pretty poor indicators of understanding the present and, especially, understanding a still quite unclear future.

Analogies are basically illustrations serving arguments. By drawing a picture of a previous event, and drawing a parallel picture of a current event, then inferring or pointing out the similarities, a conclusion is argued.

The logical quality of the analogy depends upon the empirical facts, or as close to that as one can get, of what is included and excluded from the past and current situations, and of the causal factors and the connections between cause and effect in each case and between cases. The persuasive power of the analogy depends upon the extent of fact-checking knowledge by and available to the listener, the relevance and appeal to the listener of the connections made, and the presentation of the analogist.

These latter “emotional” factors, naturally, are more important to the ignorant or partisan than is logical quality. Counter-arguments based on facts and logic are aimed at the more cognizant or open-minded. Counter arguments more based on the emotive factors are necessary for reaching or neutralizing the determinedly ignorant or partisan, but the arguer’s integrity depends upon taking much care to not stray into poorly defensible argumentation.

Sometimes analogies are useful to argumentation, or to begin to understand a difficult subject by using a set of different simple cases, and some actually contain high logical and persuasive quality.

More often, there are more factual and contextual differences than similarities between what is presented as the previous case in the analogy and the current case, the causal and logical connections within and between the two are even more extended than presented, and thus the conclusion argued is more tenuous than real or instructive.

I am not contesting Santayana’s famous dictum, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I am saying that it is incomplete and inadequate. The elements that can make an analogy of greater quality or worthlessness apply, of course. In any event, and even for the best of analogies, it is still essential to deal with the current and probable details and differences. Getting lost in a past event or one’s understanding of it can be as or more dangerous than not knowing the past. It can also restrict one’s imagination, thinking and planning as to the present and future actions that can result in a more favorable outcome.

Great pundits, activists and politicians recognize that the future can be made, not just repeated

Analogies are powerful tools for horizontal thinking. A fact recognized by many higher educational institutions that rely on the MAT to screen prospective graduate students. Well constructed analogies emplasize the parallel nature of operational premises or major structural features of two dissimilar things. Poorly constructed analogies rely on superficialities or non-critical aspects to try and draw a hasty generalization.

In my view, the Iraq and Vietnam fall into this category as Iraq is about as much like South Vietnam as it is like the Moon, something recognized by more perceptive antiwar types. Perhaps we should have a contest to see what other specious antiwar Iraq analogies we can inject into the debate. Bonus points for historical obscurity. The winner is the first blogger who finds somebody on the Left using their slogan seriously.

I open with " Iraq will be America's Agincourt !"


First a minor correction. Mr. Kesler began his activism with the Johnson administration, though the earlier hippie reference stands.

Secondly, Mr. Kesler writes in reference to comments section:

"There is not a space limitation at Democracy Project, outside of decent writing. Beyond about 1-thousand words can be carried over on to a connected page, as was done with my debut post about the sad state of ombudsmen (third in a series I've been doing). The reason that I did not go further into illustrations or analyses of examples is that I wanted to concentrate the reader's attention on the framework of analysis, for the reader's own critical thinking, without distractions of my further views or the reader's own dispositions.

for the discouraged conservative, i give you: Thermopylae! sure, we're fighting for freedom. it may even make a difference. but those unwashed barbarian hordes will keep at us and find the back way in until they've killed every last man and woman.

Kesler would be more persuasive if he gave some (any) specifics in how the current analogies to Vietnam fail. He validly points out the problems, in general, of historical analogies, but they're givens when trying to do historical analogies.

Frankly, one of the things that I find most disturbing about Iraq is a place where the analogy to Vietnam fails: Vietnam is located in a relatively unstrategic place. It was possible to make arguments about Communist creep, dominoes, etc, but all that was nothing compared to sitting on top of some large part of the world's oil reserves, sitting next to one of the world's great theocracies, and generally being adjacent to a number of trouble spots in the world today.

That worries me.

Which side of Agincourt do you mean? The French outnumbered the English 10-1 and had better weapons.

I think it is more akin to WWI where both sides keep throwing people and equipment into the meat grinder in hopes that something will change.
Hey Sean,

I like that one - though I think the Persians were relatively hygenic as far as hordes go :O)


I believe that site ( an organizational webpage rather than a blog) keeps all posts under a relatively low word limit.

You pointed out some significant differences yourself between Vietnam and Iraq. As you said, the latter is intrinsically important in a strategic sense while Vietnam was a backwater. On the other hand, the looming potential of nuclear escalation of the Cold War that worried LBJ is absent.

Currently we are muddling through in Iraq - barely at times - because the administration chose to gamble on scraping by with minimum numbers while fumbling away almost every political opportunity that presented itself. Nation-building on the cheap is more expensive in the long run than doing it right from the beginning.
Agreed that for most purposes Vietnam is a weak or, more often, misleading analogy. I've always preferred Lebanon for understanding the ways the situation on the ground could evolve (badly), and the risks and dilemmas the US was likely to face both militarily and politically, caught within a constantly shifting 19-dimensional game of chess -- Lebanon on steroids, indeed. Of course, Lebanon didn't present the geopolitical risks that CKR points to in Iraq.

The best use I've seen of analogies to Vietnam is by Laurence Freedman in a WaPo piece from January -- the Iraq Syndrome. He pretty much avoids trying to make any comparison of Vietnam with Iraq. Instead, he focuses on how the US deals with largish "small wars." He highlights Rumsfeld, the Army, and public opinion dynamics.
On the other hand, the looming potential of nuclear escalation of the Cold War that worried LBJ is absent.
Certainly the Strangelovian mutual destruction of the US and SU Cold War mirror images is absent, but thoughts of Israel's nuclear removal of Iran's nuclear capabilities is not absent.

The reactions at home, including the political direction of warfighting (that's why not enough troops), resemble Vietnam. Part of the reason they resemble reactions to Vietnam is because everyone's so jumpy that Iraq may come to resemble Vietnam. That's a self-fulfilling prophecy, but real nonetheless.

But we're not to 1968 yet.

"Vietnam" is the box and there are an aweful lot of people incapable of thinking outside the box.

The analogy we are looking for is not to another war, but to another event that provides the cognitive framework that people operate within for the rest of their lives. Everything is interpreted with reference to that event.

Take for instance the Confederacy. There were people (are people) for whom the Lost Cause became the context through which they interpret everything. We see it with slavery and segregation, where people are still called Uncle Toms and house [slaves] and today's reality is interpreted though a framework established in the 1950s.

WW1 had a similar effect on the British and French which resulted in their reluctance to confront Hitler for fear that another Great War would be the result.

The reality is that Iraq is like nothing we have faced before. So we need to direct our intellectual capabilities toward the enemies and circumstances we face not on some cognitive phantom.
Very incisive point Phil. One that explains the enduring quality of Vietnam as a touchstone.
Well, I suppose I have to agree that all historical analogies are by their nature inexact, and so beating up on the Viet Nam - Iraq analogy is somewhat misplaced.

That being said, it is perhaps useful to identify what parts of the analogy are useful, what parts are less useful.

Certainly in terms of structure, analogy to Lebanon, as I have pimped for some time now and Nadezdha also mentions supra, is far more useful in terms of the amorphous, many sided nature of the 'enemy(ies).'

Without making any claim to knowing that much about Viet Nam, it would strike me that lessons to be extracted are largely in the realm of poorly structured American analysis and thinking about the country(ies) in question, the poor use of expert resources and the excessive self-referentiality / believing one's own hero mythology to the detriment of cold and clear eyed analysis of the real drivers of the other side(s) of the conflict.

Or in short, letting political ideo-mythology drive analysis, rather than expertise. I would suggest there are parallels, and probably both derive from a relatively (emphasis there) poorly developed foreign analysis function that is also deeply distrusted by 'domestic powers/decision drivers.'

Of course, in re Thermopylae one should note the Imperial Persians were quite the cultured lot, probably better washed than our Greek heroes. Mere detail that, though.
never meant that 'unwashed' comment to be taken seriously. strictly from the Greek perspective, since they called them (all outsiders?) 'barbar'-ians :-)
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