Stop with the Hindsight ... Or Should We Rerun All Our Wars?

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Mr. Fleming's new book, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I , was published by Basic Books last year. He is a member of the corporate board of HNN.

I am disturbed by the lack of thoroughness in the much publicized probe of who is to blame for the terrorist attack on 9/11/2001. Why stop with the current war? Why not go back and weigh in the balance the judgment of our leaders in the opening rounds of America's previous wars?

Let's start with the American Revolution. John Adams frequently admitted he knew nothing about military matters. That did not stop him from being a principal player in perpetrating the disastrous first year of the War for Independence. The central idea of the Continental Congress's strategy was a"general action" -- one big battle -- that would end the war quickly in America's favor. On paper, the rebels had the manpower to overwhelm the presumably small army that Britain would be able to send to their soil. Militia -- brave virtuous farmers who would race to the battle from their firesides -- would turn out by the thousands and easily defeat the spiritless"mercenaries" in George III's army. There was no need for a large regular army, which might endanger American liberty.

Imagine everyone's surprise when a British fleet of 400 ships showed up in New York harbor in July of 1776 and put ashore an army of 33,000 men -- some ten thousand more than General George Washington had in his mostly militia army. The royal army proceeded to thrash the Americans every time they got close to them. The militia ran away by the thousands and did not stop until they had reached the security of their firesides in Connecticut and Massachusetts. A desperate Washington retreated into New Jersey, where he called on the 17,000 militia on the state's rolls to turn out to fight the invader. A mere 1,000 showed up, and most of them went home in a few days.

General Washington rescued us from this idiotic strategy. In the midst of defeat and disarray, he kept his head and announced that henceforth, the American army would never risk a general action. Henceforth, they would"protract the war." As for the militia, Washington realized they would never fight until they saw a trained regular American army in the field, capable of confronting British regulars with cannon, cavalry and bayonets. For the rest of the war, which lasted another five years, Washington made sure this"Continental" army stayed in the game until we won a knockout victory at Yorktown in 1781.

Even more dolorous was the distance between reality and assumption in the opening days of the Civil War. When the secessionist southerners in Charleston, South Carolina, fired on the American flag over Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln called out 75,000 volunteers for 90 days. He apparently thought the muscular idealists of the North could subdue the effete slave owners of the South in three months. Alas, the 90 day time frame forced Abe to order his generals to invade Virginia before the untrained enlistees went home. Confident Republican congressmen rode out to Bull Run with the Union amateurs to watch the fun -- and joined the mob of blue-clad refugees fleeing back to Washington DC after their horrendous defeat. It dawned on Lincoln that he was in a war that eventually cost 600,000 dead.

World War I began with a presidential assumption that made Lincoln's 90-days-to-victory look owlishly wise. President Woodrow Wilson called on America to declare war on Germany presuming that he would not have to send a single American soldier to France. Brainwashed by British propaganda, he thought the war was as good as won. His army chief of staff put a memo in the files to this effect, a month after Congress voted for war. The Democratic leader of the Senate, questioning the reason for an emergency appropriation of $3 billion, said to the Army's spokesman:"Good lord, you're not going to send soldiers over there, are you?"

Add to this fiasco the arrival of British and French military missions who cried:"We want men, men, men!" and admitted the Germans were winning the war. Throw in a conference with British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, who told Wilson about the secret treaties the Allies had signed, dividing up Germany's African colonies and Turkey's Middle Eastern provinces and you have a benumbed president realizing his crusade to make the world safe for democracy was just another war to make the battered globe safer for imperialism. The eventual death toll was 50,300 dead in a mere five months of fighting on the western front.

On the eve of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had long since shed Wilson's idealistic illusions. But he clung to some fairly serious unrealities of his own. One was the racist conviction that the Japanese were terrible pilots and mediocre sailors. It was their bad eyesight and monkey-like forebrains, don't you know? Desperate to stop Adolf Hitler's rampage through Russia, FDR cut off Japan's flow of oil from the United States to provoke a clash that would get the U.S. into the war against Tokyo's ally through"the back door," as Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes called it.

We all know what happened next: The December 7, 1941, Japanese assault that sank battleships and destroyers in Pearl Harbor and killed 3200 American sailors. Talk about embarrassment! It was especially acute, when we factor in President Roosevelt's knowledge that the Japanese were going to attack us somewhere. We had broken their codes and knew they were committed to war. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox visited FDR in the White House at 1 p.m. on December 7."He was white as a sheet," Knox later told his naval aide."He expected to get hit but not hurt."

Korea? Here the big blunder took place several months before war began, when Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced that the United States did not consider the peninsula part of its sphere of vital interests. It was a virtual invitation to a communist assault and they accepted it with alacrity. When President Harry S.Truman brushed aside Acheson's grievous misstatement and sent in American troops, he discovered that he had only lightly armed, semi- trained soldiers from the army of occupation in Japan to counter a North Korean army, equipped with tanks and heavy artillery. The U.S. Army was forced to retreat to a toehold around the port of Pusan and begin creating an army to repel the invaders and restore American prestige.

Vietnam? Let us simply say President John F. Kennedy badly underestimated the staying power of the Viet Cong guerillas, the political and military fragility of the South Vietnamese and the grim resolution of the North Vietnamese army. The war can be summed up in a 1966 conversation I had with my friend Major Charles Adams, back from his first tour in Vietnam. I was writing a history of West Point and had acquired a deep respect for Charlie's opinions. He had led an airborne company in the Korean War and was, in my opinion, the epitome of the soldier who could think as well as fight.

"Are we going to win out there?" I asked."Not any time soon," Charlie said in his blunt Texas way."Why not?" I said, astonished."Because the North Viets have got experienced sergeants. In the South they take a guy out of a rice paddy, slap some stripes on his sleeve, and tell him he's a sergeant. He isn't and won't be for maybe five years. It's the sergeants that win the battles, Tom."

Is there an answer to this catalogue of wrong assumptions? I found it one night in 1970, talking to ex- President Harry S. Truman. We began discussing America's various wars, about which he had an encyclopedic knowledge. We eventually got around to noting some of the mistakes we made in the past."Always remember this, Tom," Mr. Truman said."Any six year old's hindsight is worth a president's foresight."

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David J. Fitzpatrick - 4/23/2004

John Dean has written a scathing account of the Bush Administration. I assumed that was of whom you were speaking.

Otherwise, I end this "debate". It is a waste of time.

Bill Heuisler - 4/23/2004

Mr. Fitzpatrick,
Your feigned uncomprehension is becoming a hinderance to intelligent debate. Recall who brought up the blame-game in this discussion: it is the subject of the article. If you wish to change the subject - or set time parameters - please consult the author.

Your eager presumption of (John) Dean speaks volumes.
Most intelligent observers remember Howard Dean's remarks about the President. John Dean has been proven a liar in the Liddy libel case and he's beneath notice to most.

Now you need a history lesson:
You wrote, "The place was a mess when JFK took office. And do we want to talk about the mess of the Bay of Pigs?"
On June 16th after a conference with SVN Minister, Nguyen Dinh Thuan, the United States agreed to increase the 685-man MAG, to assign training specialists and to send US officers into the field to observe SVN troops in action.
When? In 1961, Mr. Fitzpatrick. Look it up and learn.

And, as most serious historians are aware, failure of the Brigade at Playa Jiron was due to last-minute withdrawals of air support and a halt of Seventh Fleet participation in the landings due to an apparent loss of nerve by JFK or RFK. Not a mess, a betrayal. Do you perpetuate Vietnam and Cuban myths out of ignorance or partisanship?

Since you refuse to even address a 9/11 Commission conflict of interest by the Number 2 in Reno's Justice Department (who was on the short list for DCIA under President Clinton) I'll assume a partisan explanation for your benightedness and your inability to spell my name.
Bill Heuisler

David J. Fitzpatrick - 4/23/2004

Mr. Heuilser writes, "Ike never blamed Truman for Korea, but he did blame Acheson's misstatements in statements and in books. JFK did not inherit a 'mess' from Ike, but decided to resist Communism in his famous speech. Ike had only sent a few A-Teams to VN - hardly a mess...yet. "

I guess that's the difference between Ike and Bush? Ike waited until after he left office to blame others but, while in office, he accepted responsibility?

Regarding JFK, Ike and Vietnam, please allow me to suggest that it is Mr. H. who needs to go read a good book. The situation in SVN was falling apart by the fall of 1961, which prompted the Taylor-Rostow mission to Saigon. One of the major problems in SVN was the military and economic aid the Eisenhower admin had sent to SVN had been wholly inappropriate. This aid to SVN began when the Eisenhower administration told the gov't of SVN not to particiapte in the reunification elections of 1956 (required by the Geneva Accords). There would have been no mess to fix had those elections taken place. Having told the GSVN not to participate, the Ike admin became obligated to provide massive support (far more than "a few A-Teams") to the GVSN because Ike understood that at some point in the future Ho Chi Minh would go to war with the now illegitimate gov't of SVN. And, as noted above, that support was ill-thought out and, in many cases, counterproductive. Read George Herring, "America's Longest War," or any other work of serious scholarship on the Vietnam War. The place was a mess when JFK took office. And do we want to talk about the mess of the Bay of Pigs? Yes, years afterwards, Ike caught flak from "the Best and the Brightest." At the time, however, JFK shouldered the burden, as a true leader should (and let me make clear here that I am far from an admirer of JFK--a very problematic president he).

Mr. H. tells us: "Clarke blamed President Bush during the 9/11 hearings, Gore said the President betrayed his country, Kennedy made similar charges, Dean also, McAuliff and his troops have spread other noxious gossip on TV News Shows about how the President knowingly allowed 9/11 to occur. Has all this unpleasantness slipped your mind?"

Clarke also blamed the Clinton administration. Clarke also blamed himself (what a unique concept!). Clarke, also, worked in BOTH administrations.

Gore and Kennedy's remarks were in regard to the intelligence (failure, SNAFU, exaggeration, lies--I'll let the gentle reader choose which words they think appropriate) regarding the alleged WMD in Iraq. This is comparing apples to oranges, but we can talk apples if Mr. H likes. It is clear to me that the Bush admin made it up as it went along regarding WMD in Iraq. The ultimate proof of the administrations lies? The fact that we went to war. Had we truly thought that Iraq had the capabilities that the Bush admin claimed we would not have gone to war. What could be a surer way to provoke the use of WMD than going to war with the announced purpose of regime change? Our careful handling of North Korea, whom we know has WMD, makes clear this is so.

Dean? John Dean? What does he have to do with this? He's not in gov't. My point was that, historically, people serving in presidential administrations have avoided blaming past administrations (and therefore Mr. H's references to Gore and Kennedy miss the point in this area, as well).

TV News Shows? See comment about Dean above. Also, Mr. H., apparently, does not watch CNN (Hannity), MSNBC (Scarborouogh), or Fox (the entire network, but esp. O'Reilly's "Nothing but Spin" zone), all of whom have prime time shows that do nothing but support Bush and bash Clinton, Kerry, Gorelick, et. al. That's their right, and that's fine, but please don't complain to me about the gossip that has been spread on TV news shows.

No, I have not forgotten the subject of the original post. The evidence in unconvincing, and my point is that the Bush admin's targeting of Gorelick as being the culprit behind the fialures that led to 9/11 is truly unprecendented in our history.

Michael Green - 4/22/2004

I am sure that Mr. Fleming was being ironic. The irony here is that the 9/11 Commission can, by studying history, serve a purpose that most of us in the history biz worry about: learning from the lessons of the past. Knowing the history leading up to the attacks can illuminate what we need to do or avoid in the future. To assign blame for what happened on September 11 is wrong and ridiculous. It is far more important to assess why the Bush administration lost any right to the respect of the civilized world by using underhanded tactics to involve the U.S. in a war with Iraq and condemned hundreds of Americans to die. It is also interesting to ponder whether that is the history that Mr. Fleming would prefer to leave by the side of the road.

Bill Heuisler - 4/22/2004

Mr. Fitzpatrick,
Your history is flawed and your memory is selective.
You wrote, "JFK never blamed Ike's failures for the mess he inherited, as well he might have. Ike never blamed Truman, as well he could have."

Ike never blamed Truman for Korea, but he did blame Acheson's misstatements in statements and in books. JFK did not inherit a "mess" from Ike, but decided to resist Communism in his famous speech. Ike had only sent a few A-Teams to VN - hardly a mess...yet.

Clarke blamed President Bush during the 9/11 hearings, Gore said the President betrayed his country, Kennedy made similar charges, Dean also, McAuliff and his troops have spread other noxious gossip on TV News Shows about how the President knowingly allowed 9/11 to occur. Has all this unpleasantness slipped your mind?

Have you also forgotten the title of the subject article? My argument concerns the fitness of Gorelick to be on the Commission since she played a distinctive role in The Wall. There was an important quote of her memo in my last post. Did you forget that also? Or couldn't you respond?
Bill Heuisler

DONALD F MERSEL - 4/22/2004

Who said this guy was a serious historian? There is a lot of comedy out there when it comes to George Bush Jr., but none of it is funney.
Read Worse than Watergate by John Dean and get the real scoop.

DONALD F MERSEL - 4/22/2004

This defense of not being reflective about the causes and consequences of wars is the most silly I've seen.
How about mentioning the lying that President Johnson did when he went to Congress about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
This is similar to today's problem of a stained Whitehouse beset with secrecy and lies to both Congress and the American people.
There was a march to war with Iraq regardless if it were involved in terrorism or not. The old scores to settle were there and {President} Cheney and Sec. of Defense Don Rumsfeld just went on their merry way fighting the Gulf War.
{President Cheney} will be sitting to explain the Administration's pre-september 11 activities and its involvement with Iraq. George Bush's son will accompany him---oh, yes---the titular head of our government playing the role Reagan played for George Bush Sr.
George Bush Jr. doesn't know that much about the world and needs Condi Rice and Cheney to tutor him. I hope this will be the last time we will have a President than should be part of the "No Child Left Behind" program when he was going to school.

David J. Fitzpatrick - 4/22/2004

LBJ never blamed his debacle in Vietnam, as well he might, for JFK's failures there. JFK never blamed Ike's failures for the mess he inherited, as well he might have. Ike never blamed Truman, as well he could have.

Truman took full responsibility for the intervention in Korea. Not aware of him blaming some minor figure in the Roosevelt administration.

FDR did not blame isolationist Republicans in the Senate (e.g., William Borah) for our nation's utter failure to perform a responsible role in world affairs in the 1920s and 1930s, a failure that helped to precipitate the Second World War.

Wilson did not blame Taft's ignorance of and disinterest in European diplomacy for the outbreak of and American entry into the Great War.

I could go on.

But now we apparently have identified the great failure that led to 9/11: had a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration done exactly what Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Heuisler thinks she should have done (never mind about such niceties as legality, constitutionality, much less simply doing what the two previous administrations should have done but had neglected to do), 9/11 would not have happened.

Makes me feel great to know that we have a national leadership that not only will not admit to its mistakes, but cannot think of any mistakes it has made (after last week's press conference I now understand why the president's handlers do not allow him anywhere near the press), and what mistakes it does uncover are always someone else's.

I guess, therefore, the motto of the Bush administration must be "The Buck Stops There."

Bill Heuisler - 4/22/2004

Mr. Fitzpartick,
Clarify a court decision? This was a prosecution memo to cops and agents. Gorelick's March 1995 memo did far more than clarify, it specifically demanded Law Enforcement go beyond the legal strictures of the Court. She explicitly asserted that the precautionary measures she sought to install, which ultimately became The Wall, "go beyond what is legally required...prevent any risk of creating an unwarranted appearance that FISA is being used to avoid procedural safeguards which would apply in a criminal investigation".

This means a Deputy Attorney General hampered national security by compelling agents to be less thorough in order to promote civil liberties for suspect terrorists. This wasn't a judge's decision, the memo limited evidence to be examined by a judge before any decision.

The Deputy Attorney General limited investigative scope and that goes to the heart of the commission's inquiry. Minimal impact is something for the Commission to define.
Bill Heuisler

Daniel B. Larison - 4/21/2004

If there is one piece of wisdom in Prof. Fleming's uninteresting litany of all the many horrible decisions by past presidents, it is that the refusal to take lessons from national history dooms the country to reliving the same preposterous mistakes each generation. Prof. Fleming seems to be of the opinion lately that the study of history exists to exonerate the Bush administration from its myriad failures, so that the practice of maintaining historical perspective becomes a clever way to feign indifference to all government failures, but there might just be a more valuable purpose: to learn and avoid the same errors, and to discern what those errors were in the first place.

'Hindsight' is just about the only way in which our government can be held to account--by blaming officials after the fact when things go terribly wrong. For all the hindsight, we have so far been lacking in this crucial area of actual accountability, and this is the real problem: the review is not purging the government of the incompetents who failed. There are obviously identifiable people responsible, but only in the field of government would such manifest incompetence be written off with the free pass, "We were trying really hard!" We have trusted them so completely and irrationally that their manifest failure to fulfill their duties ought to give everyone pause, if not to prompt outrage.

Perhaps another piece of wisdom from Prof. Fleming's uninformative article is that one should not either start a war or get into a war in which one has no real stake, especially when peaceful solutions exist and are more reasonable than getting into wars that inevitably become larger and more destructive than anyone could 'foresee'. One does not need to have the gift of prophecy to know that wars are always messier and more horrifying than they were intended to be--if there is practically only one constant in history, it is this. The fact that Lincoln and Wilson made poor choices that caused terrible damage does not somehow exonerate later presidents from blame for doing the same. If FDR provoked an attack from Japan and had advance knowledge of some attack (and he certainly did), this is not something for jokes and tiresome articles, but something with which we should excoriate his memory publicly every Dec. 7.

Perhaps in the very first war in history, the error of genuinely believing it would all be over after one easy battle could be forgiven. But modern American presidents--those that read, anyway--have access to a vast treasure of human experience that could tell them that wars are always more costly and dangerous than the impish ministers and politicians say. History might have informed him of the lengths to which radical groups will go to deliver their message. The fact that a sneak attack had worked against U.S. defenses in the past ought to have made it an obvious possibility for the present, even if it were not in the same precise form, but the present administration, like the last, was so much more interested in uttering pious phrases about WWII than examining the causes of our involvement in it.

Perhaps a president might have learned the correct lesson of that war: stay out of fights that don't concern you, lest you get dragged in at great cost and endless commitments afterwards. In that sense, the original responsibility for 9/11 rests with all those who pushed the Gulf war on our country and set the whole chain of events in motion--this might be the product of someone viewing the question with some historical detachment. Prof. Fleming's sarcastic tone and his underlying message of "Why bother?" are disappointing; Prof. Fleming is a much better historian than this, even if his HNN articles never seem to show it.

Of course, getting dragged in is precisely what Roosevelt wanted. Given the administration's difficulties with the truth and factual evidence in the past two years, I would no longer be surprised if the same immoral decision had been taken by this administration to be less than zealous in sorting out these reports of impending threats. If Iraq was an obsession from the beginning, who's to say that the administration was less than thorough in its response to terrorism, whether by carelessness or design? It's a perfectly reasonable idea--just as reasonable and possible as Roosevelt's actual obsession with entering the European war.

This is why, in theory, we have commissions and boards of inquiry: to determine just what it was that the executive branch was doing about these threats. Exercising hindsight here is no different than what we do at elections every two years: we scrutinise, question and oppose actions that representatives took, having seen the results of those decisions. Perhaps it is unfair--after all, maybe the representatives hadn't thought it all through. But this is their job, indeed their sole function as representatives: to consider the measures before them with a view to their consequences for their constituents. The president's role is no different in principle: he is obliged to pursue these matters, and he cannot hide behind snafus and intelligence "walls". He is not solely responsible, but he is ultimately responsible for everything that goes on under him--a real president, worthy of our respect and trust, would acknowledge that and try to fix it.

Though no one familiar with our government would mistake the current commission for anything other than a superficial probe for the sake of show, it may reveal something. Spare us the lament about how unnecessary or unreasonable such a process is! If this commission can even put a little pressure on the administration to give up some information, that is a start. It's called representative and accountable government, and without the application of hindsight, however 'unfair' or obnoxious it might seem, that system cannot properly function.

It is not just that the Wilsons and Roosevelts of the world were devious about their plans for provoking a fight and creating a cause for intervention, though this alone should condemn their foreign policy along with that of Mr. Bush, but that the public repeatedly accepts the same tactics and deceptions from their presidents. It is only then with hindsight that the public realises that it has been led astray.

Perhaps there is a third piece of wisdom in this otherwise dreary article--don't ever, ever trust the president to make the right decision in matters of war, and absolutely never let him start a war on his own. This is none other than the wisdom of the Founders, who vested the war powers in the representatives of the people and the states. Those representatives have cravenly and inexcusably squandered those powers and abandoned their duties. When the time comes to start using hindsight for the war in Iraq, for instance, those congressmen will also have something to answer for along with the criminals who launched the invasion.

David J. Fitzpatrick - 4/21/2004

Why should she sit? Because her only "crime" was to clarify in a meaningful and usable way a court decision that had been made nearly ten years before. She didn't construct the wall, the court did. The Tempest in a teapot is the allegation the Gorelick is somehow responsible for what happened. In fact, calling the allegations against Gorelick a tempest in a teapot gives them far too much credibility. The charges are scurilous and Ashcroft had to have known better.

If we don't like the court ruling, then we change the law. The court did not create the law, in this case, it merely interpreted existing law. If the United State Congress wishes to change the law, thereby rendering the court's decision null and void (and also thereby making the Gorelick memo meaningless), it should do so. I am quit certain that the President would sign into law such a bill.

Merely case law? There is no such thing as "merely" case law. Our legal system is based on case law. The Gorelick memo tried to make administrative sense out of a decision reached by a court. She was in no way wrong for so doing. Indeed, it was her job to do so, which raises this question: why had not the Reagan/Bush Justice Departments done their jobs in this field, a failure which did indeed hamstring FBI invesitgations because there was no clear guidance emanating from the the JD regarding the implications of the court decisions?

Gorelick's impact, whatever it might have been, was so minimal as to be unimportant. And one person does not a commission make. The Commission's findings will not be tarnished because she clarified the meaning of a court decision that should have been clarified years before. In other words, the fact that she did her job should not disqulifiy her from service on the commission.

Bill Heuisler - 4/21/2004

Mr. Fitzpatrick,
Tempest? More a blanket. Law Enforcement failed the US because of ever-more-stringent Judicial decisions that hampered rather than clarified the mission of finding the truth about potential criminal actions. The Moussawi warrant refusal was based on Fed. Regulations, not Laws or Statutes, and the Gorelick memo added smothering weight to what had been merely Case Law - it did, after all, come from a Deputy AG.

So it's a matter of degree. We agree on almost everything except your teapot. Explain why Gorelick should sit as a Judge/Commissioner on an issue she affected, no matter how much? Isn't deciding whether it's a teapot or not the job of the 9/11 Commission?
Bill Heuisler

David J. Fitzpatrick - 4/21/2004

The wall was built during the Reagan adminstrsation by a decision of a United States District Court. Throughout the remainder of the Reagan adminstration, through the first Bush administration, and into the early Clinton years, the FBI complained that it had no clearly written guidance about how to implement the court's decision. The FBI, then, welcomed the Gorelick guidance, as it gave its agents concrete rules to follow and allowed them to structure investigations without fear that they might be in violation of the court's decision, a decision that was nearly a decade old by the time that Gorelick wrote the memo (this is, to me, the astounding discovery in all of this--that neither the Reagan nor Bush I admiinstrations issued instructions on the subject!)

The fact of the matter, then, is that this memo actually improved the existing situation. Whether or not that situation is desirable is open to debate, but Gorelick merely made it clear where the "wall" was so that the FBI could do its job more effectively.

The truly sad thing here is that Attorney General Ashcroft must know this is the case, but he went ahead and exaggerated (the kindest word I can find) the memo's importance. This has to tell us something about both the Attorney General's character, and it suggests that the intellectual smoke screen he has thrown up is being used to obscure some truly ugly truths about HIS justice department.

David J. Fitzpatrick - 4/21/2004

Do I have this right? Does a serious historian (which Mr. Fleming apparently claims to be) really mean to suggest that it serves no purpose to look at the reasons America entered into its wars, and to assess blame if there is any blame to be assessed.

Does he really propose that we cannot criticize Lincoln because of the ill-thought out circumstance that led to 1st Bull Run, and there are no lessons that we might learn from those mistakes? Ditto FDR's ill-thought out diplomacy that led to Pearl Harbor? Ditto Truman, Ike, JFK, and LBJ for their fallacious assumptions and their terrible decisions that led us deeper and deeper into Vietnam? I could go on.

If so, what, then, is the purpose of a serious study of history? If we cannot come to an understanding about why things happened the way they did, and if we cannot assess blame, if appropriate, history will become nothing more than one of the categories for Trivial Pursuit.

I wonder: does not Mr. Fleming's Book, "The Illusion of Victory," render judgments about people and events (heck, the book's title appears to render a judgment)? If it does, it would seem fair to conclude that Mr. Fleming opposes, not the rendering of historical judgment, per se, but the judgments that clearly are coming from the 9/11 Commission.

If this is the case, he is, at best, guilty of a severe case of intellectual inconsistency.

Ben H. Severance - 4/21/2004

Good analysis, Don. There is a reason why events like 9-11 (and Pearl Harbor for that matter) are labelled "surprise" attacks. U.S. intelligence certainly needs to do better, but Americans all too quickly succumb to a security paradox: we want our government to thwart every threat, but resist any measure that might move the nation toward a police state. Anyway, the fact that this country has suffered no subsequent terrorist attacks over the last two and half years suggests that the Bush Administration is doing something right in defending its citizenry. Maybe the Patriot Act, which so many understandably denounce, has quietly pre-empted similar 9-11s. Personally, I can accept a temporary, and qualified, suspension of due process if it saves thousands of lives.

Don McArthur-Self - 4/21/2004

Although I have read many of Mr. Fleming's books and articles, and enjoy his writing and respect his analysis and opinions, I'm not exactly sure where he was going with this essay.

Certainly, both elected officials and historians have a duty to exercise hindsight, and to try and learn from errors made in the past. This is what the 9-11 Commission is, ostensibly, for. It is a wise and worthwhile undertaking. As for other wars, Mr. Fleming himself, and countless other writers, students, and private citizens devote innumerable hours and pages to examining past wars and our mistakes in them.

My problem with the 9-11 commission is that it appears to have become hopelessly corrupted - on both sides of the aisle - by partisanship. Instead of trying to figure out what, structurally, hampered our ability to monitor and pre-empt terrorist attacks, the commission increasingly seems to be hunting for some "smoking gun" or place to lay blame.

Although the commission's work is unfinished, it seems increasingly clear to me based both on testimony, the sequence of events, and other publications (notably "The Age of Sacred Terror" by Daniel Benjamin and Stephen Simon) that the basic problem was that prior to Sept. 11, 2001, there were few in the U.S. government who really understood the dimension of the threat, and, given other concerns, priorities, political and legal realities, interagency breakdowns, and the tendency of the U.S. media to oversimplify, they were unable to significantly change the direction of U.S. policy.

Al- Quaeda became a serious threat during the Clinton years. I don't think that one can look back and be too critical of the Clinton administration's response; the pulbic and Congress did not comprehend the threat and Congressional Republicans were hostile to and suspicious of the administration. Bush was only in office for eight months and was still in the process of assembling the new administration, with divided priorities and facing uncooperative, suspicious, and angry Democrats in the Senate.

Let's stop pointing fingers, accept the fact that our political leadership will never be perfect, and try to adapt our institutions and laws to confront a fanatical, shadowy, and de-centralized post-Cold War threat.

And as an aside, I hope that the "Iraq intelligence" commission can do a better job. Since three administrations spanning 1991-2003 were convinced - in public statements and behind the scenes - that Iraq possessed "Weapons of Mass Destruction" and the ability to manufacture them, the question seems to be less one of "did the evil Bush administration manipulate the country" and more one of "how on earth did 13 years of American intelligence gathering come up so (apparently) short?" Answering that question would provided far better long-term results.

Kevin Shanks - 4/21/2004

This piece of... "writing"... is a waste of time for so many reasons I can't begin to list them, but I'll try:

1) The headline -- It doesn't really jibe with the article, which is saying, in essence, hindsight *is* often better than foresight. And who said anything about "re-running" past wars? Dumb.

2) Straw man -- The 9-11 Commission was established to investigate, uh, 9-11. Why get all tongue-in-cheek lathered up about its "failure" to investigate past wars. Dumber.

3) Shameless self-promotion -- With a "new book" out, the writer's motive is clear: Cobble together a string of biting but tendentious historical "blunders" and make them "relevant" by putting 9-11 in the lead paragraph. Ewww... Something smells fishy.... Dum... well, you catch my drift.

Bill Heuisler - 4/20/2004

Professor Dresner,
Your casual words illustrate my concern. Not only are we tossing blame heedlessly, but we're not even examining the real problem because of partisan CYA concerns. The aformentioned malice in the US Senate is bad enough, but remember, those vengeance-driven Senators disregarded our security even after 9/11 - and they continue today.

Professor, are you even aware of the implications of the
1995 guidelines set forth in a classified memorandum written by the Deputy Attorney General? Probably not.

Deputy US Attorney General Gorelick's "Instructions for Separation of Certain Foreign Counterintelligence and Criminal Investigations," separated counterintelligence and criminal investigations and prevented coordinated investigations of terrorists. The CIA could not share intelligence on 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar (in the US in early 2001) with the FBI because of Justice Guidelines put into place in 1995. The FBI wasn't allowed to put al-Qaida specialists on the hunt for Almihdhar and Alhazmi. Also, the FBI couldn't get a warrant to search Zacarias Moussaoui's computer because of Justice's 1995 Guidelines.

The Gorelick memo is not "foot dragging".

Prohibited from mounting a serious search for Almihdhar and Alhazmi, an FBI investigator wrote to HQFBI that someone would die because of the policies. FBI HQ wrote back, "We're all frustrated with this issue. These are the rules. NSLU does not make them up. But somebody did make these rules. Somebody built this wall."

The person who helped build the wall was one of the 9/11 commissioners. So, the 9/11 commission has uncovered a major reason for 9/11 and it was a work-product of one of the commissioners. Would you agree that the words, "foot dragging" are inadequate?

Another example: Last week, 9/11 commissioner John Lehman said, "it was the policy (before 9/11) and I believe remains the policy today to fine airlines if they have more than two young Arab males in secondary questioning because that's discriminatory."

Foot dragging? Bush mistakes? Look again, Professor.
Bill Heuisler

Jonathan Dresner - 4/19/2004

Mr. Heuisler,

I wasn't actually talking about the pre-September 11, 2001 problem -- and I agree that partisanship needs to be carefully considered before it is allowed to interfere with policy, though I'm pretty sure the Democrats would point to earlier foot-dragging from the other side as precedent -- as much as I was about our national responses and diversion into Iraq.

In fact, the Bush administration is vigorously arguing that any mistakes they made before the 9/11 attacks were legacy errors, so in fact they must be "old-fashioned" mistakes.

And I'm quite satisfied with my level of partisanship and reason, thank you very much.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/19/2004

If the purpose of this essay is to shift our focus forward, so that the nation as a whole looks more closely at where we are and where we may be going, I would agree, although I wish Mr. Fleming had just said so.

However, if it really is a more general critique of evaluating the performance of leaders, I find that very, very questionable. While such evaluations can be very tricky to do fairly, they are a reasonable use of history

Bill Heuisler - 4/19/2004

Dr. Dresner,
Bush made old-fashioned mistakes? That's all you can dredge up? Perhaps your partisan blindness needs some reminders. One simple series of facts will do, facts ignored since the inception of the blame game and the 9/11 Commission - and now blithefully ignored by you.

President Bush was deliberately hobbled for partisan reasons by Senate Democrats after he took office. Remember how Abner Mikva said President Bush didn't deserve to get his people in because he hadn't won a mandate? (NYT article, I think, in early 2001).

Less than half Bush Cabinet and sub-cabinet appointments had been confirmed by 9/11. Even after the attacks of 9/11 the Senate delayed confirming critical nominees to several agencies crucial to the War on Terror.

According to the Brookings Institution's Presidential Appointee Initiative, dated November 1, 2001, "one in four senior positions that are key to the government's terrorism response at home and abroad remain unfilled."
On October 31, 2001, "The front-line positions without a confirmed permanent appointee include Undersecretaries of the Air Force and Army, the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Chemical and Biological Defense Programs, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, the Deputy Director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, and the Deputy Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration."

That's October 2001. Bush's mistakes, Professor? Let's stop this nonsense, there's plenty of blame to go around and it doesn't help when historians join in partisanship. I expect more reasoned comments from you.
Bill Heuisler

Jonathan Dresner - 4/19/2004

Wars start by mistake almost by definition: War is an inherently bad idea, which can only be justified under the most dire circumstances and which any rational person (and soldiers throughout history have echoed this sentiment) will avoid at almost any cost. Does that mean that we should excuse our leaders from responsibility for their errors, their deception, their lack of foresight?

Does that mean that repeating the errors of the past in perpetuity is OK? No, though perhaps it does mean that a little more perspective is useful. Bush made old-fashioned mistakes, not egregious new ones. Somehow that doesn't help as much as I thought it would.