The Professor in Me

02/18/2011 03:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I am teaching a college class at the end of March. The class will be at a small Catholic liberal arts college in western Pennsylvania.

What will I say to them?

I have already spoken to the president of the college, a friend from law school. I told him I wanted to say something taking off on the theme that "those who refuse to study history are condemned to repeat it." I told him that this was a point made by the philosopher George Santayana in the early part of the last century. But in beginning to prepare the presentation, two problems have emerged.

The first is that the theme creates an enormous number of possible discussion topics. One would think a theme might narrow things down a bit, sort of like a topic sentence in a paragraph. But this theme is a "no-go" on that score. In fact, it does the opposite, creating an almost infinite number of emblematic moments.

Some are fairly self-evident to any of us over fifty. It is, for example, fairly obvious that, in the run up to Iraq, W and Cheney and Rumsfeld never read Robert McNamara's mea culpa account of US hubris in Vietnam. McNamara, a former chief executive of the Ford Motor Company, was JFK's and LBJ's Secretary of Defense in the '60s and substituted statistics (body counts, bomb tonnage, numbers of bombing runs or "sorties") for any real knowledge of the history and culture of Vietnam. Though warned by the French, victims of their own ill-fated effort at Dien Bien Phu in the early '50s to preserve their influence on what had previously been a French colony, the so-called "best and brightest" (McNamara was among the famous "whiz kids" or proverbial geniuses at Ford when Kennedy tapped him for Defense) doubled down in Vietnam, claiming (erroneously) that if Vietnam went communist Thailand and the Philippines were sure to follow, and that (again erroneously) if they just dropped more bombs and deployed more troops, all would be well.

It didn't turn out that way.

For years now, the revisionist conservative history on Vietnam is that we "cut and run" just as things were getting better. According to this view, a new commanding general, Creighton Abrams, and a new strategy, counter-insurgency, was beginning to take hold and create success in the early '70s, just as the overwhelming majority of Americans turned against the War. I have my doubts. Counter-insurgency was not going to end corruption in the South Vietnamese government, nor was it going to tip control in the north. Unlike in Korea, a stalemate was not really possible because there were too many ways into the south (many through Cambodia and the famous Ho Chi Minh trail) and too many indigenous fighters (the famous, or infamous, Viet Cong) living in the south's villages.

But let's for a moment assume the revisionists on Vietnam are right. One would think that W and Cheney and Rumsfeld would have embraced that revisionism and learned from it before decamping into Iraq. Here, however, is the bad news.

They ignored that "history" as well.

The failure in Iraq was a failure to both accurately anticipate how the the country would look once Hussein's regime fell and to deploy sufficient resources to maintain and rebuild the nation at that point. Neo-conservatives hate nation building and spent all of the 1990s condemning Bill Clinton for it. Nevertheless, when General Petraeus finally came to them with the counter-insurgency surge strategy in 2007, they were just embracing nation building by another name. For that is what Petraeus' counter-insurgency strategy was and is -- a studied effort to deploy troops as ambassadors of de-centralized security and service so as to give locals the space to rebuild their lives and their economy and create stakeholders in that new reality. It basically sucks the oxygen right out of the local bad guys. But it takes resources. Lots of them. And for four years W's Administration never committed the necessary resources to that effort. They weren't nation builders.


That's just one topic. I could also tell the students I'll be talking to that the run up to the financial collapse in 2008 was just a replay of what went on in the 1920s before the Great Depression -- speculative stock buying and selling run amok with little or no underlying value and a corresponding absence of regulatory oversight. Or that the thirty year period of conservative emergence and governance that began in the mid-1970s was a lot like the 19th century's Gilded Age -- the economic returns from enormous productivity gains (owing to nationalization of the American market thanks to railroads in the Gilded Age, and computerization of the home and workplace in our own time) migrated almost exclusively to the top. Or that Abu Ghraib was not really a "unique" event -- just ask the Native Americans.

Too much to say. I'll have to make choices.

And then there's that second problem. It turns out that George Santayana did not say that "those who refuse to study history are condemned to repeat it." What he said, in his book Life of Reason, is that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." More importantly, as his students have noted, his point was really more a part of his theory of knowledge rather than any sort of exhortation to learn from history so as to avoid colossal errors. Apparently, however, the notices have been sent out and my appearance has been tied to the wrong quote. And the wrong context. And it's all on me, because I gave them the wrong quote. And context.

I hope the students don't catch me.

If they do, I'll be forced to tell them the truth.

Which is this...

Even their professors make mistakes.