Eliot Cohen: On History and War ... An Interview

Historians in the News

The new counsel to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talks about the uses of history, in Iraq and everywhere else wars are fought.

Up to a point, Eliot A. Cohen’s curriculum vitae looks like that of many high-flying American academics: a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. at Harvard, academic posts at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, eight books, and so on. But he also was just named counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

He has been the director for Pacific and Atlantic issues of the Department of Defense Policy Planning Staff and spent five years at the United States Naval War College, including a stint as acting chairman of the Department of Strategy. He directed the Gulf War Air Power Survey, the Air Force study of operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and has been a member of the National Security Advisory Panel to the National Intelligence Council, and the Defense Policy Board. He has put in six years in the U.S. Army Reserve, with the rank of captain, military intelligence.

I met Eliot Cohen in 2004 at a workshop on teaching strategic studies, participated in one of his staff rides and one of his simulations, and was fascinated to observe the different ways soldiers and academics think and learn about war and politics. I then spoke to him at his office at Johns Hopkins, where he is a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies. We discussed what history has to teach soldiers and politicians, and how such history can be taught.

1. History and Policy

You believe history has great value for soldiers and policymakers, and you left government in part to devote yourself to teaching history to such people. Would you talk about the value of history for policymakers?

There are a number of connections between history and policy, and not all of them are encouraging. There are cheap or superficial lessons of history. Going into Afghanistan, you had all these people saying, “Well, the British were never able to succeed, and the Russians failed, and so you won’t succeed either.” And sometimes this lesson was drawn to mean more than that we’d fail, but rather that we’d have a debacle. This lesson seems at best premature.

This tendency struck me most forcefully during the Bosnian and Kosovo crises of the mid-1990s, when you had a lot of people in the government, particularly in the military, warning against fighting the Serbs and saying, well, in World War II these folks pinned down more German divisions than the Allies did in Italy. They were falling back on a very stylized and actually incorrect version of history.

I had an excellent army officer who’s a paratrooper, fluent in German, a very, very bright fellow. He decided to do a research paper on what, exactly, the Germans had faced in Yugoslavia. He showed that most of those German divisions were about one-third strength, and most if them were not first-rate divisions or even second- or third-rate divisions. A lot of them weren’t even German divisions. And what were the German objectives? They were they trying to hold onto some critical facilities, particularly mines. Did the partisans ever prevent them from doing what they wanted to do? Never in any large way, until the bitter end. It was one of those moments that really struck me. A supposed lesson of history turns out to be no lesson of any kind, because the received version of the history is simply wrong.

You’ve argued that even when the history is right, the lesson can be wrong.

Another characteristic mistake is the misleading analogy. For example, I think a lot of the debate about the United States as an empire is profoundly misleading. Even quite a respectable historian like Niall Ferguson can say something like, in the good old days, the British Empire would send people out to India for eight, ten, twenty years, and that’s what you have to do if you’re going to run an empire. The United States doesn’t do that, so the United States will fail in its imperial mission. Well, think about what the United States is not: It’s certainly not an empire like the British Empire. It isn’t trying to be. There may be other ways in which you can exercise influence or control, and the fact that Americans are not much like former British elites does not mean that we’ll necessarily fail at a different project. Superficial analogies can get you in a lot of trouble....
Read entire article at Fredric Smoler in American Heritage

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