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The Angry Economist

Mistakes Of History: Real World Problems That Our "Intelligentsia" Would Rather Avoid Discussing
Posted by William P. McGowan, Ph. D. on Sep 17, 2006 - 10:00:00 PM

UNITED STATES— One of the axioms of history that everyone repeats without much thought is "those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat it." With the recent five-year anniversary of the attacks on the United States, this phrase is being applied to the Global War on Terror. Critics of the war claim our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is another one of those instances where our leaders have forgotten their history.

Or rather, maybe this time it's the other way around. 

Though the conventional wisdom has decided that Iraq is another "quagmire" like Vietnam, what has become increasingly apparent to me is that this conventional wisdom is being invoked by people who don't know their history very well, either.  This is perhaps best exemplified by the anxiety over the duration of the engagement, which is now moving on three years. It seems that the pundits forgot how long the Vietnam conflict lasted.  If you count it from its origins in 1945, when Vietnamese nationalists "Uncle" Ho Chi Minh went into the jungle and onto the warpath, to the last American helicopter out of the country in 1975, it was a thirty-year war.  Even if you only start counting from the first "advisors" in 1961, the American part STILL lasted 14 long years. And then there's Korea. Officially, THAT war has never ended.  There is a cease-fire in place, but no "peace" treaty.  My point is, as a "war," Iraq and the Global War on Terror haven't been that long lived. 

Perhaps the most important "lesson" we've already forgotten about Vietnam is that at no time did the Vietnamese leaders ever threaten the sovereignty or existence of their enemies, the United States. That's not the case with Al Qaeda. They have stated repeatedly that their goal is to wipe out the Western way of life.  Hitler told us what he was going to do before he did it, but no one believed him, either.  In the Post-WWII era, Western leaders wisely adopted a more "believe them if they say it" approach to foreign policy.  That seems to be missed today.

Another "mistake of history" that our intelligentsia seems to be making is in underestimating the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the world today.  While some in Los Angeles are more concerned about what's coming out of a drunk, Hollywood actor/director's mouth than they should be, they are giving precious little attention to Iran and what that country's leader is saying about Jews in general and Israel in particular.  Throughout Europe, there is a tangible sentiment that if Israel would simply go away, the problems of the Middle East would be solved.  Seventy years ago, thoughts like these gave birth to the Holocaust.

On the bright side, history shows us that the "intelligentsia," have been behind their middle class contemporaries when it comes to understanding basic things like terrorism and anti-Semitism. What seems hard for the intelligentsia to grasp is that evil exists and it cannot be bargained with—it is obvious for regular folks.

There’s nothing political about it.

As a nation, we have always been a people who went ahead and just got stuff done, regardless of what our intellectual betters told us was possible at the time.  So I guess I'm hopeful that while the supposedly smart people continue to THINK they define the debate, the rest of the American people will ignore them and get on with getting things done.

You can reach William P. McGowan at



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