Peter has an excellent post on analogies of war, and how useful/not useful they may be in constructing policy. I would only add that analogies are more than simply a technique for the legitimation of pre-conceived policies; policy makers themselves are not immune to the kind of analogy guided thinking that Peter discusses. The Munich analogy is popular because it’s an effective device for bashing anyone who opposes aggressive foreign policy action, but its employment isn’t just strategic. For the same reasons that analogies appeal to the all of us, they appeal to those who formulate policy. I don’t doubt that people in the Bush administration desperately want to think about the situation in Iraq as analogous to that of Korea, or Germany, or Japan.George Packer:
This exercise in justification by faith posits a visionary President with the courage to ignore temporary bad news. By this light, Bush’s habit of declaring A to be B—for example, claiming that the surge reflects the public’s desire for a change in war policy, or interpreting increased violence in Iraq as a token of the enemy’s frustration with American success—becomes a sign of clarity and resolve, not delusional thinking. When everything is turning to ashes, take the long view. Last December, Senator Richard Durbin, of Illinois, described a meeting at the White House in which Bush discussed Harry S. Truman and the foreign policy of the early Cold War—initially unpopular, ultimately vindicated by history. According to Durbin, Bush implied that he will be similarly remembered.
I suppose that I would also add a mild caveat to this:
Quibbling over the accuracy of a historical comparison—Korea, Vietnam, Germany—misses the larger significance these analogies the contemporary policy debate. As historical commonplaces, analogies are rhetorical tools to define a debate and legitimate its resolution.
Right, but challenging the public understanding of a particular analogy by challenging its evidentiary basis can be a valuable, if time consuming, endeavour. The salience of some analogies disappears over time, as the generations that experienced the original events pass. The Guns of August, for example, don’t resonate like they did in 1940. I’d like to think that the Munich analogy is standing on its last legs, not simply because of the Vietnam and Iraq experiences, but also because it’s progressively been shown to be empirically hollow. Large scale transformations in historical memory, and consequently the analogies which are derived from that memory, have happened in the past, and a recognition of the relevance of analogy can help reinforce the importance of the historian’s project.
Oh, and everyone should read Analogies at War.