The McChrystal Affair: Pity the Poor Historian

There is good reason to pity the poor historian, who has been tested especially severely during the recent McChrystal-Obama imbroglio as the eruption of historical parallels and lessons have ranged from the wrong-headed to the off-kilter.

Henry Kissinger is a good example of the wrong-headed. This policy heavyweight, who should know his history and a bit about Vietnam policy, seems to have forgotten both. His Washington Post op-ed on 24 June warns that Afghanistan policy runs the risk domestically of repeating the Vietnam pattern: a sudden collapse of public support bearing scant relationship to military realities. Kissinger has it all wrong. Public support of the Vietnam War eroded slowly, not rapidly. It was solid but not overwhelming when Lyndon Johnson committed troops in mid-1965; it was split well before the dramatic Tet offensive in early 1968; and it continued a steady decline during the Nixon-Kissinger years. The public withdrew its support precisely because it increasingly understood that U.S. forces were caught in a stalemate.

Kissinger’s history is not just wrong but probably irrelevant. While unsettled, public opinion on Afghanistan has moved in a less linear fashion. Fears of a repeat terrorist attack, the absence of a draft, and lower casualties than in Vietnam combine to create a different dynamic this time around.

On the international side of the Afghanistan problem, Kissinger manages to add historical insult to injury by bringing the domino principle out of retirement. He predicts that if the United States does not “prevent jihadist Islam from gaining additional momentum,” then (you guessed it) the repercussions will cause damage regionwide and (and even more broadly) “weaken governments in many countries with significant Islamic minorities.” Kissinger seems not to have absorbed the critiques of the domino theory that flourished in the 1960s and were borne out in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. But who wants to give up an argument, however threadbare, that can cut through so many political complexities so neatly and create such a simple, compelling justification for intervention virtually anywhere?

Alas, historians trotted out for instant analysis did only marginally better, settling for the obvious but not entirely relevant parallels such as the MacArthur-Truman collision during the Korean War, the McClellan-Lincoln conflict during the Civil War, and even Roosevelt’s firing of Stilwell during World War II. But none of these cases involves the special stresses created by counterinsurgency and nation building.

A more relevant and potentially more instructive parallel is the American pacification of the Philippines at the beginning of the twentieth century. Finding the right political-military mix of carrot and stick was the key to success, and getting there produced sharp tensions between civilian and military leaders, especially after William Howard Taft arrived to become civil governor in 1900. He favored a “policy of attraction.” The commander of U.S. forces in the Philippines, General Arthur MacArthur (yes, the father of the Korean War MacArthur!) wanted to win by pounding the population into submission. He was openly contemptuous of Taft and his civilian associates and told them so. Taft responded by working his contacts in the McKinley administration and getting the pompous and egotistical commander unceremoniously recalled. No surprise, however, that the Philippines is, even more than Korea, the forgotten war. It carries an imperial taint embarrassing to any commentator tempted to suggest Afghanistan parallels.

Another, potentially revealing place to look for parallels would be with the decade-long Soviet effort in Afghanistan. Moscow sought without success to build a client state and to crush the armed opposition. What might we learn from how party leaders and their generals in the field managed the job? We ignore this recent past for the same reason Americans arriving in Saigon in the late 1950s and 1960s ignored the still fresh French record in Indochina. The newcomers were confident they had what the French lacked — abundant resources, proven know-how, and good intentions. They could not lose. Or so they thought. The sad conclusion seems to be that Americans who have trouble coming to terms with their own past can’t begin to think about learning from the experience of others.

So you can see why it’s a bit much watching the policy establishment and media tailoring the past to suit conventional wisdom and nationalist conceits. The next time you run into any historians, offer a hug. They probably need it.

Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His ten books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.