Why Reading History Books Matters

The day before yesterday and a few days before that I made allusions to and wrote about Dr. Brydon and what happened during the First Afghan War. In late 2001 I was pretty darn convinced that what is happening today was going to happen unless we fixed Afghanistan, first and foremost. Not only was it our duty, but it was in our long-term vital interests to rebuild the country. We did not. Although we pretended to, now, sadly, the consequences of our pretensions result in the suffering of others.

Today William Arkin reveals the very depressing (now it is, then it was triumphalist), but unsurprising, mindset which prevailed all over Washington in late 2001 about Afghanistan:

In the end, Rumsfeld, Franks and Washington in general could not exploit the tactical success delivered by air power. No one in the intelligence world evidently understood the Taliban or the Afghan situation well enough to anticipate or recognize what was happening. Washington thus failed to formulate a post-Taliban strategy.

There are many reasons for this but one of them is crystal clear: policymakers (and most Americans) are utterly ignorant of history. I hated the international relations program I was in a few years ago for precisely that reason: there was no history. The students knew nothing of history and most were there because they wanted a job with the government. As one told me, “You know, little work and great benefits.” Of course, we learned a lot about flow charts, the foreign policy bureaucracy and a few useful IR theories but we learned absolutely no history, we did no case studies and role playing? Who are you kidding? Instead we took statistics and argued that international politics were rational and predictable as long as you had the right theory or model for your computer to run. (Much like the markets these days.)

In my opinion, history is a critical, essential tool in the formation of foreign policy. The value it provides is similar to the value stock charts and earnings histories provide investors and how a person’s family medical history informs her doctor. As ever mutual fund prospectus in the world says, “past results are no indication of future results.”

Indeed, history won’t tell you where you are going, but it will help you understand how you got there. Ideally it helps the policy maker formulate solutions for moving forward, as well. We ignore history too much in this country and we (and others) suffer because of it.

Afghanistan is the epitome of my point.

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Sean Paul Kelley

Traveler of the (real) Silk Road, scholar and historian, photographer and writer - founder of The Agonist.

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • puts the ball in the court of those who propose action that flies in the face of previous history – like occupying Afghanistan – to justify how this time it’s going to be different.

    But it also puts the ball in their court to convicingly explain how this time the explanations of why it’s going to be different this time are correct – when all the previous sets of explanations (ie from the British or Soviets) of how this time it’s going to be different weren’t.

  • It may be trite, but it’s true: those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it…which is why it can reasonably be said that “Iraq” is Arabic for “Vietnam”. Sad that leaders never have to sacrifice their own lives on the altar of their own ignorance, isn’t it?

    The good may die young, but it’s because the ignorant and corrupt sent them into the maw.

    Last in line for a Nobel Prize, but first in line for pie

  • …discourse. If you’re trying to understand the history for its own sake, in my view all of those “this times” actually were different, as will be this “this time” as well.

    Added the below later to elaborate:

    It seems to me that the default position in the study of history is that events are historically particular (i.e., that each certain sequence of events is to a very large degree unique). I think the onus is on the observer hoping to draw the parallel between events how and why one event should be mapped onto another. In the case of Afghanistan there’s certainly lots of reasons for drawing parallels (same country, same terrain, many of the same ethnic groupings, etc.) but there’s lots of reasons why each of these circumstances is unique.

    Asserting that the burden of proof is on the party seeking to demonstrate that what happened before won’t happen again doesn’t seem to me to be in any real way superior to placing the burden on the guy who says it will happen again. It seems to me that the former position simply sounds attractive to the listener because of the rhetorical framing around this particular issue.

    “We declared war on terror, it’s not even a noun, so, good luck. After we defeat it, I’m sure we’ll take on that bastard ennui.” – Jon Stewart.

  • What is happening in Afghanistan may or may not have been avoidable. But they didn’t try to avoid it – and it was the default presumption.

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