OCTOBER 26, 2013:
I'm writing quite a bit lately for a set of magazines owned by the Weider History Group, which is in turn owned by a wealthy individual who loves history and publishes the magazines from afar as a sort of sideline to his main business (I don't know what that business is). I've done pieces for Military History, am doing one now for MHQ, i.e. Military History Quarterly, and have written as well for American History and Aviation History, all Weider magazines. This coming issue I have two pieces in Military History, one of them an installment in a one-page series that appears every issue that they call What We Learned, and the other a feature on the Russians in Afghanistan during their own bloody, disastrous war there. Both relate to learning from history.
And they offer an instructive contrast. Briefly, the little piece in the series specifically about learning from history tells the story of the Nazi raid on Fort Eban Emael on the Belgian border that came at the start of the Nazi invasion of France, and whose success enabled the Germans to run around the end of the Maginot Line and roll up French resistance from its flank. They did this in an innovative manner. The Fort was thought to be impregnable, it bristled with artillery, was deeply dug in, the concrete fortifications were extremely thick, it backed on a canal and covered all the bridges over the canal. It did look impregnable. But it was vulnerable from above, from gliders. No one had ever thought of using gliders in warfare before. It turns out Adolf Hitler, of all people, had thought of it. The gliders, which are silent, of course, flew into the interior of the fort, took the Belgian defenders completely by surprise, and captured it, losing only a few men in the process.
The Germans used gliders only one more time in WW II, in Crete, and that was disastrous for them. But the British and Americans had taken a long look at the battle of Fort Eban Emael, and they had learned from it. On D-Day British and American gliders swarmed into the fields of Normandy, they were used in the invasion of southern France, and by the end of the war something like 10,000 of them were in use. Helicopters soon displaced them, but the lesson of the Belgian fort had been learned.
Now the Russians in Afghanistan. That deadly country has a long history of being invaded. It straddled the ancient Silk Road from Asia to the Middle East, it bordered India, always a target for invasion, and over the centuries various Asian and Middle Eastern empires had incorporated it into their realms. But seldom for long. Eighty percent of it is mountainous, the tribes living in those mountains have never felt warm and friendly to outsiders, and they have become over the dozens of generations they have been there a warlike people. During the so-called Great Game of the nineteenth century, the struggle for power between Russia and Great Britain for hegemony in Central Asia, Afghanistan was always an issue. In the late 1830s the then ruler made overtures to the Russians. and the British, alarmed, invaded the place. They conquered it soon enough. But then they learned that while you can conquer Afghanistan, you cannot subdue it. The country is wild, the Afghan tribes can always take to the heights, and to pursue them there is suicidal. In 1840 the British, having made no progress, their forces much weakened by attrition, decided to leave. They left with guarantees of safe passage from the Afghans. One British officer and a few Indian sepoys made it out of the gorge they were ambushed in alive. Twice more after that the British became involved in Afghan affairs, never with much success.
When the Russians went in in 1979, intervening in a civil war to protect their southern flank from Western influence, the British ambassador to Russia went to see a contact in the Russian military and brought him some of the historical records of the British failure in Afghanistan. The Russian officer thanked him for his efforts, and said those classic words: "This time it will be different."
It wasn't. It was an unmitigated disaster, and the civil war continued after the Russians left. They had accomplished, at the cost of what some think was 75,000 Russian and perhaps a million Afghan lives, absolutely nothing.
And of course the Americans went in in 2001/2 with the same expectations of an easy victory, and easy control of the country, ignoring all of the country's previous history. We all know the results. You cannot subdue Afghanistan.
I have written a lot of history and read a great deal more. I never get tired of it. My book about the British attempt to find the Northwest Passage over the top of North America in the nineteen century is full of examples like this, brave men challenging an extremely hostile, unforgiving environment again and again and again, never making much progress, starving, dying of scurvy, freezing to death--and never seeming to learn anything from their experience. And what I find most amazing, most fascinating, is how we seem absolutely to refuse to learn from the past. I wrote about Napoleon invading Russia in 1812, losing hundreds of thousands of men, and then the Nazis doing the same in 1941 to the same end--death and destruction. Supply lines are too long; the Russian winters are brutal; Russia has too many people; and it's their land. Don't go there. But the Nazis went anyway, and millions died. Human beings are stupid. No other conclusion seems possible.
I saw a talk given once by the great American historian Gordon Wood, and someone in the audience asked him about what we can learn from history. He said you can't learn specific things, specific strategies to follow (although the British and Americans did learn to use gliders). What you can learn, or should, he went on, is prudence. Caution. You can learn to pause, to reflect, to think about the consequences of what you're doing. Americans, it seems to me, are particularly bad at this. I read one book about the Middle East before we went into Iraq in 2003: T. E.Lawrence's SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM, his account of the war he fought with his Arab guerrilla forces against the Turks during World War I. It was, and is, a beautiful, poetic introduction to the reality of life on the ground in the Middle Eastern deserts. I knew, from reading just that one book, that invading Iraq was a fool's game, that it was an utterly different culture from our own, that these desert tribes had no interest, and probably never would, in democracy, in voting, in choosing their own leaders. Iraq on the surface is modernized; but underneath that it remains tribal, traditional, religious, and in a deep sense, medieval. They're still busy blowing each other up over there, Sunni vs. Shiite, tribe against tribe, clan against clan. Did American leaders even understand this? Had they read a book, or anything, before they stumbled in their unfathomable ignorance and arrogance into this deadly maze?
People are not the same everywhere. They do not all want the same things. And who are we to tell them what to want? And will we ever learn?