by Jason Flanagan,
Dr Jason Flanagan is Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of Canberra
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Executive Summary

  • The so-called War on Terror and related invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq provoked the widespread application of historical analogies by policymakers and pundits alike.
  • The debate surrounding the Iraq invasion centred around two competing analogies, namely Munich and Vietnam.
  • In turn, this debate sparked scholarly discussion as to which historical lessons were the most appropriate.
  • What was lost in a debate centred upon the competing lessons of Vietnam and Munich was the profound need for an understanding of Afghan and Iraq history.
  • While the Bush administration has oftentimes been accused of applying the wrong lessons in Iraq, the greater failure was one of applying the wrong history.

Research would suggest that all policymakers employ historical analogies, albeit to varying degrees, when reaching and justifying decisions, and this seems particularly true in the case of foreign policy crises. The CIA worried so much about the use of historical analogies within its own organisation that in the 1980s it commissioned a course for its senior analysts on the subject through the Kennedy School at Harvard. As they report in Thinking in Time, the creators of that course – Ernest May and Richard Neustadt – reportedly told students that their aims were akin to those of a junior high school sex-education class, declaring: “Since they are bound to do what we talk about, later if not sooner, they ought to profit from a bit of forethought about ways and means.” As in junior high sex education, May and Neustadt’s classes addressed behaviour more inevitable than recommended.

May and Neustadt found that policymakers generally used history badly, seizing upon the first analogy that came to mind without stopping to analyse the case or test its fitness to the situation at hand. Subsequent studies have generally reinforced their conclusions as to both the centrality of historical analogies in foreign policy decision-making, and the problematic nature of analogical reasoning. Foreign policy crises confront decision makers with overwhelming amounts of complex information amid intense time pressures. In this atmosphere historical analogies represent a tempting cognitive shortcut, simplifying the current situation, offering insight into its nature and significance, and suggesting policy responses. If they are to contribute to effective decision-making, however, the choice of analogy to be applied is of vital importance. How such choices are made, however, is perhaps the primary problem identified in the literature.

Research tells us that policymakers are most likely to retrieve historical analogies that share surface similarities with the situation at hand, similarities that are readily apparent at first glance. Moreover, people tend to believe that those historical analogies that are the easiest to recall, that are in that sense the most obvious, are also the most valid. The analogies most at hand, however, generally come from events that had significant consequences for themselves and/or their state, particularly if they experienced those events firsthand in some way. Policymakers are also more likely to draw analogies from foreign policy failures rather than successes. We not only tend to analyse failures more than successes, and hence know them better, but failures also tend to be more memorable than successes.

Beyond the individual historical analogies that a policymaker might retrieve on the basis of their own knowledge and experience are so-called master analogies. Master analogies, which are generally grounded in traumatic life-changing events, can linger for generations. The most obvious contemporary examples of such analogies are those related to the Munich Conference of 1938 and the Vietnam War. The lessons of Munich assert the vital necessity of opposing aggression, no matter how slight, through the early and effective use of force. It holds that any effort to appease an aggressor only serves to strengthen them and encourage further, more threatening, aggression. The lessons of Vietnam, in contrast, are not so simple. While many have argued that the United States failed to learn the lessons of that war, in reality it took too many lessons from it, all of which are complex and oftentimes contradictory.

This multiplicity of lessons surrounding Vietnam can be traced back to the bitterly divisive nature of the war itself. Early and deep divisions contributed to an ongoing lack of consensus as to the cause of the war’s ultimate outcome, in turn preventing the drawing of a discrete set of agreed upon lessons. Kenneth Campbell has teased out five broad schools of thought on the lessons of Vietnam, beneath which lies a great deal of complexity surrounding specific lessons. It must be noted, however, that the popular memory of Vietnam is something very different. Vietnam has become shorthand for failure and “quagmire.” It raises the spectre of a protracted and indecisive conflict in a distant land, where victory proves out of reach and where immeasurable blood and treasure ultimately only leads to withdrawal and the abandonment of the nation’s original objectives. If Munich recommends the quick and decisive use of force, Vietnam warns of the dangers of foreign military adventures and wars of choice.

Foreign policy debate in the United States has all too often boiled down to a debate between these two master analogies, with those favouring intervention deploying the Munich analogy and those resisting intervention deploying the Vietnam analogy. One need look no further than the American-led wars against Iraq for examples of this phenomenon. The Munich analogy was absolutely central to George H. W. Bush’s deliberations in the 1990/91 Gulf War. For example, when announcing the deployment of United States armed forces to Saudi Arabia in August 1990, Bush argued that the world was on the brink of a new age of peace and freedom, but warned the audience: “But if history teaches us anything, it is that we must resist aggression or it will destroy our freedoms. Appeasement does not work. As was the case in the 1930’s, we see in Saddam Hussein an aggressive dictator threatening his neighbors.” Throughout the war the President characterised Saddam Hussein as “Hitler revisited” and used phrases like “blitzkrieg fashion” and “Death’s Head regiments” to describe the behaviour of Iraqi forces. Commenting on the President’s reliance on the Munich analogy, Barbara Spellman and Keith Holyoak have argued that it “would not be an exaggeration to say that the United States went to war over an analogy.”

If analogies played a central role in the debate surround the Gulf War, they seemed to play an even greater role in the 2003 Iraq war. Proponents of the invasion relied heavily on World War II analogies, while critics reached for the opposing Vietnam analogy. Assessing the significance of this historical debate, Andrew Nagorski declared in the pages of Newsweek in April 2003:

If President Bush manages to convince the world that the war was necessary to avoid even worse consequences, a repeat of the disastrous appeasement policies of the 1930s that only encouraged Hitler, then he can emerge morally vindicated. But if the critics can keep much of the world convinced that this is a case, like Vietnam, of American imperial overreach, it will be a public-relations nightmare. A lot – an awful lot – depends on which historical analogy gains popular acceptance.

In its application to Iraq, the Munich analogy needed to be reinterpreted. For example, in March 2003 Bush described how in the twentieth century “some chose to appease murderous dictators, whose threats were allowed to grow into genocide and global war,” and warned his audience: “In this century, when evil men plot chemical, biological and nuclear terror, a policy of appeasement could bring destruction of a kind never before seen on this earth.” In this version of the lesson, “appeasement” in the form of continued diplomacy towards Iraq would lead not to further aggression, but to the possibility of a “smoking gun” in the form of a “mushroom cloud”.

The Bush administration’s use of Munich is deeply unsurprising. As Jeffrey Record has rightly noted, in the last sixty years every American president, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, have relied upon and routinely invoked the Munich analogy in foreign policy crises. The Bush administration’s use of WWII analogies, however, also revealed a very different use of history. It was not a case of diagnostically applying the Munich analogy to understand the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and the response such a threat required. WWII history, memory and myth were used more widely to understand American identity, to create a set of obligations that went along with that identity, and to instil a sense of confidence in the ultimate outcome of the war. Tellingly, Bush’s reliance on World War analogies began well before the dramatic events of 9/11, and can be traced back to his election campaign in 1999.

As David Noon has discussed, in the early 1990s the golden anniversaries of everything from the Pearl Harbor attacks to VJ Day, and the popular culture outpouring such anniversaries provoked, turned the 1990s into a decade-long homage to the so-called “greatest generation.” From the outset, Bush’s campaign tapped into this widespread revival of WWII memory and mythology. In a September 1999 speech delivered at the Citadel, Bush tellingly declared:

My generation is fortunate. In the world of our fathers, we have seen how America should conduct itself. We have seen leaders who fought a world war and organized the peace. We have seen power exercised without swagger and influence displayed without bluster…We have seen American power tempered by American character. And I have seen all of this personally and closely and clearly.

Such rhetoric clearly served a number of purposes for Bush, who was in a sense campaigning against Clinton more than Gore. On one level it allowed him to characterise himself as being schooled at the feet of the “greatest generation” at a time they were being venerated, as well as to associate himself more generally with his father’s proud military past. On another level it was also part of a larger successful campaign to characterise the Clinton years as a period of drift and uncertainty, during which time the United States lost its sense of moral clarity at home and national greatness abroad, an approach which included the “appeasement” of Saddam Hussein.

Bush’s use of WWII analogies also reflected a more general tendency to use certain histories and collective memories to certain purposes. The line “In the world of our fathers, we have seen how America should conduct itself” is perhaps the most telling. The Bush administration consistently used American history to understand and advocate how America should conduct itself in the War on Terror. At the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, Bush declared: “In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America, because we are freedom’s home and defender. And the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time.” Similarly, in December of that year he spoke to the crew of the USS Enterprise, saying: “Many of you in today’s Navy are the children and grandchildren of the generation that fought and won the Second World War. Now your calling has come. Each one of you is commissioned by history to face freedom’s enemies.”

The Bush administration did not utilise WWII analogies to analyse and classify complex international threats such as al-Qaeda or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but rather more narrowly and specifically to understand and articulate America’s reaction and national purpose in the face of the 9/11 attacks. To put it differently, history was used not to understand them, and why they did what they did, but to understand us, and how we should react. In much of Bush’s rhetoric, the 9/11 attacks and the threat posed by Iraq were characterised as a test of this generation’s mettle, similar to the way WWII had tested an earlier generation. As Denise Bostdorff has explored, Bush’s use of the WWII analogies can best be understood as a component of a modern version of the Puritan rhetoric of covenant renewal, with Bush urging younger Americans to uphold the faith of the WWII generation and to recommit themselves to the nation by supporting the war on terrorism.

Overwhelmingly, the criticism of Bush’s use of history, particularly with regard to the Iraq War, relates to his choice of “lessons.” Many have challenged the suitability and applicability of Munich and related WWII analogies, and there have been multiple book-length studies of a perceived failure to learn and apply the lessons of Vietnam. The deeper failure, however, is not in the choice of lessons, but in the choice of history. While there were repeated suggestions that the American people would rise to the test posed by international terrorism and rogue regimes, as the “greatest generation” had risen to the test posed by Nazism and totalitarianism, there was little understanding the very different histories of these various enemies, and how those differences would affect the final outcome.

The consequences of this narrow use of history were perhaps most obviously revealed in the reconstruction phase of the Iraq war. Here the successful American experiences of nation-building in post-WWII Germany and Japan were repeatedly invoked by Bush administration officials. As a number of commentators have discussed, however, there were many profound differences between Germany and Japan on the one hand, and Afghanistan and Iraq on the other. While past American successes in Germany and Japan gave Bush administration officials (ungrounded) confidence in the ultimate success of their mission, their lack of understanding of Iraqi history and culture all but doomed it to failure from the outset. As Mats Berdal has discussed more broadly in Building Peace after War, despite superficial acknowledgements that ‘history matters,’ the deliberations of Western governments contemplating intervention in conflict and post-conflict settings has consistently betrayed a profound ignorance of the complex historical legacies they will encounter and the grave significance such history would have for the success of the mission.

Given the US focus of a vast majority of the literature, it can be tempting to dismiss the Bush administration’s problematic use of history as further evidence of the United State’s being, in J. William Fulbright famous words, “severely, if not uniquely, afflicted with a habit of policy-making by analogy.” Such an impression is potentially reinforced by the fact that John Howard and Tony Blair – Bush’s primary partners in the so-called “coalition of the willing” – seemed to reject the application of historical lessons altogether. This was particularly true of Howard. When asked in March 2003 if he saw any parallels between Iraq and past conflicts, the PM argued that you “don’t seek parallels with history when you make decisions about contemporary events,” but rather must “deal with a situation as you find it.” Like Blair, he asserted that it was “very hard to find any parallels to this situation because the world was different before we had international terrorism operating in a borderless environment.” Whatever his assertions, however, Howard leaned as heavily on history as Bush did, and in very similar ways.

Howard repeatedly invoked the Munich analogy in his justifications for Australian involvement in the War on Terror. For example, in a speech in October 2001 Howard described how it “was the refusal of free peoples and free men and women to recognise the nature of the challenge in the 1930s that bought about the terrible events with such awful consequences of World War II,” and warned that the “one thing we can be certain about and that is this, that history tells us if we turn away from threats in the vain hope that they will disappear of their own volition, we will be sadly mistaken.” Similarly, when outlining his reasons for joining the international coalition against terrorism a couple of weeks later, he declared: “Even a cursory reflection on history must lead you to the irrefutable conclusion that passive indifference in the face of evil achieves absolutely nothing. The threat will remain, growing more ambitious and more powerful and feeding on the unwillingness of decent nations to decisively confront and defeat it.” He warned the audience not to “forget the most hard learned lesson of the twentieth century, that evil cannot be appeased.” Howard’s use of Munich thus mirrored Bush’s. The lesson was reinterpreted and broadened to warn of the dangers of not recognising and forcefully standing up to “evil,” rather than merely standing firmly against aggression.

More significantly, just as Bush drew upon WWII memory and myth in making the case for the Iraq War, so too did Howard put Anzac and the “diggers” to the similar use. Under Howard the Anzac legend became a hegemonic myth of Australian identity, defining the nation’s birth and encapsulating its core values. When presenting medals to World War I vets in 1999, Howard repeated Charles Bean’s description of the Anzac spirit as standing for “reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never admit defeat.” Revealing just how central he placed the Anzac legend to Australian identity, Howard said of Bean’s description: “I can’t think of a more beautifully, evocative description of what I always thought the Australian spirit to be.”

Howard described Australia’s military history in terms of a repeatedly demonstrated willingness to fight and die for freedom. For example, in his 2001 Anzac Day speech Howard declared that in everything from World War I to the Korean War and beyond “Australians have shown themselves willing to fight, and if need be die, for the cause of freedom.” In celebrating the nobility of past generations, Howard also made it very clear that such a history came with its own debts and obligations for contemporary generations. For example, on Anzac Day 2001, after paying homage to past heroes, Howard went on to argue: “Anzac Day should not only be about the past. We would be a shallow people if all we sought on this day each year, was to bask in the pale reflected glory of others’ deeds. We would be foolish if we felt our own safety assured by the service and sacrifice of earlier generations. Australians are neither shallow nor foolish.” In that same speech the PM argued that one of the primary purposes of Anzac Day was “to each pledge anew our determination, not merely to dwell upon the legacy of the past, but also to build upon it.” At this stage, some four months before the terrible events of 9/11, Howard defined the building upon that historical legacy in terms of extending a culture of self-reliance and creating a just and strong society. After the events of September 11, 2001, however, the legacy of the past came with much more weighty obligations. In the wake of that terrible attack Howard called upon the Australian people to once again go forth a defend freedom and other Australian values, as they had in past wars.

Of the values encapsulated in the Anzac legend, Howard held up “mateship” as the most significant and uniquely Australian. Indeed, as Graham Seal has argued in Inventing Anzac, while the diggers were described as possessing all the virtues mentioned above, “it is the notion of undying loyalty to one’s mates that both distinguishes the digger’s Australian-ness and his ability as a warrior.” In the wake of the 9/11 attacks Howard would call upon Australians to, as the Anzacs had done before them, to “stick by their mates” Great Britain and the United States and once again go forth to defend freedom. For example, in his address to the joint meeting of the US Congress in June 2002 Howard said of Australia: “Most of all, we value loyalty given and loyalty gained. The concept of mateship runs deeply through the Australian character.” He went on to assert:

Australian and American forces fought together for the first time in the Battle of Hamel, in France, in World War I. … From that moment to this, we’ve been able to count on each other when it has mattered most. Let me say, and I know I speak on behalf of all of my fellow Australians, in saying that we will never forget the crucial help that America extended to us during the darkest days of World War II. Without that help, our history and our society would have been totally different.

Successive generations of Australians and Americans have fought side by side in every major conflict of the twentieth century; in the jungles of New Guinea, in Korea, in Vietnam, in the Gulf, in skies and oceans around the globe and now, in another new century, among the rock-strewn mountains of Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, given the history of loyalty and “mateship” between the two nations, when America came under attack “Australia was immediately there to help.”

Howard expressed similar themes towards Great Britain. For example, at the dedication of the Australian War memorial in London in 2003 he discussed how “History will always record that for 12 desperate months, Great Britain, with precious help from Australia and other Commonwealth allies, stood alone against the spreading darkness of Nazism. We remained united in that struggle until final victory was won.” In this same speech, Howard argued:

History’s lesson is that evil will always dwell within the world – in the past represented by armies rolling across national borders, in this new century finding form in acts of indiscriminate terrorism inspired by distorted faith. Such intent can be defeated by the willingness of decent men and women to put aside the comfort, safety and security of their own lives, to understand that militarism and totalitarianism and terror are creeping sicknesses that will inevitably spread if left unchallenged and unchecked, and by the willingness of nations to stand together in mutual defence of the common values which underpin the progression of man.

In such speeches Howard cast Australia’s participation in the War on Terror as a continuation of the Anzac tradition, with Australia standing reluctantly but bravely alongside its mates in defense of the mutual values they held dear. Daniel Nourry has gone so far as to argue that given the nature and significance of the Anzac myth, Australia was all but compelled to join the coalition of the willing and fight alongside its “mates” in Iraq.

To date much of the debate about the “lessons of history” and their application to the War on Terror has boiled down to a debate about which lessons matter. The deeper problem, however, is related to the question of which histories matter. In the United States and Australia, we almost exclusively invoked our history in our approach to the War on Terror. History was not used to diagnose and analyse the threat posed by al Qaeda or Iraq, but rather those enemies were made to fit our chosen histories. Such enemies were seen, to use Bush’s words, as “heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the twentieth century” who followed “the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism.” In the face of such enemies the Allies would once again march forth, shoulder-to-shoulder, in defense of freedom. In his analysis of the “Good War” myth of WWII, Michael Adams has argued that rather than assisting analysis, the myth has become a substitute for it, demanding “unquestioning faith in a past golden age,” with proponents at times coming close to “ancestor worship.” It was in a sense this kind of “ancestor worship” that informed our foreign policy; with the inevitable result that we were unprepared for the complex realities we would face on the ground in Iraq. Indeed, if we go back to 1975, the dire consequences of such a lack of historical understanding was the primary lesson that John K. Fairbank drew from the Vietnam War. He argued that the root cause of the American failure in Vietnam was “the profound American cultural ignorance of Vietnamese history, values, problems and motives,” and concluded: “Ignorant of Buddhism, rice culture, peasant life and Vietnamese history and values generally, we sent our men and machines to Saigon. Now we are out, and still ignorant, even of the depth of our ignorance.” When using the lessons of history we must think as much about our choice of history as our choice of lesson.

Further Reading:

Adams, Michael C., “The “Good War” Myth and the Cult of Nostalgia”, Midwest Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 1, 1998,  pp. 59-74.

Bostdorff, Denise M., “George W. Bush’s Post-September 11 Rhetoric of Covenant Renewal: Upholding the Faith of the Greatest Generation”, Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol.89, no. 4, 2003, pp. 293-319.

Campbell, Kenneth J., A Tale of Two Quagmires: Iraq, Vietnam, and the Hard Lessons of War, Paradigm, Boulder, Colorado, 2007.

Hemmer, Christopher, Which Lessons Matter?: American Foreign Policy Decision Making in the Middle East, 1979-1987, State University New York Press, Albany, New York, 2000.

Jervis, Robert, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1976.

Macdonald, Scot, Rolling the Iron Dice: Historical Analogies and Decisions to Use Military Force in Regional Contingencies, Greenwood Publishing Group, London, 2000.

McDonald, Matt, “”Lest We Forget”: The Politics of Memory and Australian Military Intervention”, International Political Sociology, vol. 4, 2010, pp. 287-302.

Neustadt, Richard E., & May, Ernest R., Thinking in Time: The Use of History for Decision Makers, Free Press, New York, 1986.

Noon, David Hoogland, “Operation Enduring Analogy: World War II, the War on Terror, and the Uses of Historical Memory”, Rhetoric and Public Affairs vol. 7, no. 3, 2004,  pp. 339-66.

Record, Jeffrey, Making War, Thinking History: Munich, Vietnam, and Presidential Uses of Force from Korea to Kosovo, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2002.

Spellman, Barbara A., & Holyoak, Keith J., “If Saddam Is Hitler Then Who Is George Bush?: Analogical Mapping between Systems and Social Roles”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology vol. 62, no. 6, 1992,  pp. 913-33.

Citation: Jason Flanagan, Whose History Matters?. Australian Policy and History. November 2015.


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