Misleading Analogies and Historical Thinking: The War in Iraq as a Case Study

Robert Shaffer, January 2009

Students come into our history classes well versed in the mantra that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” that history is “useful” in teaching lessons for today. Whether they truly believe this idea is a separate question, and many of us devote a lot of energy trying to make our lectures, discussion questions, and reading assignments “relevant” to the present. But the quest for “relevance” has its own pitfalls, in the overly simplistic analogies that students—and policymakers—make between past and present. Indeed, one of the textbooks that I use when I teach “Theory and Practice of History,” a required course for history BA majors at my university, states boldly in its opening chapter: “Many who believe the proposition that history is relevant to an understanding of the present often go too far in their claims. Nothing is easier to abuse than the historical analogy or parallel.” Authors Conal Furay and Michael Salevouris want students to understand instead that “[g]ood history, on the other hand, can expose the inapplicability of many inaccurate, misleading analogies.”1

For the past five years, I have used a brief article, “Lessons from Japan about War’s Aftermath,” an op-ed piece published in October 2002 by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Dower, to help students see the practical—and even tragic—consequences of applying simplistic and misleading “lessons of the past” to current events and policies.2 I have used the article not only in “Theory and Practice of History,” but also in my classes on U.S. diplomatic history, U.S. military history, and others. I ask students to read and discuss the article on the first or second day of class, as its main points are easily accessible and get students talking, and it provides a wonderful opportunity for students to grapple with the contested nature of the meaning of history and to see how a respected historian used his expertise to try to affect current policymaking.

Dower, the preeminent American historian of postwar Japan and an indispensable authority on U.S.-Japanese relations, responded in his essay to those in and close to the Bush Administration who, in building their case for war against Iraq, put forward the notion that, after an easy military victory over Saddam Hussein’s government, the United States would be able to guide Iraq toward a peaceful and democratic reconstruction along the lines of the post–World War II recovery of Japan. As his essay was a brief, newspaper op-ed, Dower did not provide footnotes or specific references, but news reports on October 11—the day after Congress had voted to give the president the power to initiate war—had indicated that the White House was “developing a detailed plan, modeled on the postwar occupation of Japan, to install an American-led military government in Iraq if the United States topples Saddam Hussein.” Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who favored the invasion, reported on these plans the following week, and added that the “labor-intensive tasks” of the occupation—by which he meant the stationing in Iraq of 100,000 American or other foreign troops—should be completed within a year or two.3

Dower called “the occupation of defeated Japan … a remarkable success,” creating a viable democracy and ending militarism, despite the predictions of many in 1945 that “the Japanese people [were] culturally incapable of self-government.” Nevertheless, he continued, “most of the factors that contributed to the success of nation-building in Japan would be absent in an Iraq militarily defeated by the United States.” Dower then went through about a dozen of the differences between Japan after World War II and what he anticipated the situation would be in Iraq after a prospective war with the United States. A few examples will suffice. While the U.S. retained Emperor Hirohito in office, and he “gave his significant personal endorsement to the conquerors,” nothing similar could occur in Iraq. American planning for occupation in Japan had been ongoing since 1942, and was relatively popular in Japan because it reflected New Deal goals of land reform and encouragement of trade unions; nothing similar could be imagined in a hastily planned occupation of Iraq by the Bush administration. While not minimizing competing political allegiances in Japan, Dower noted that “Japan was spared the religious, ethnic, regional and tribal animosities that are likely to erupt in a post-war Iraq.” Japan’s position as an island shielded it from nations that might resent American occupation or who would wish to intervene for other reasons, while Iraq “shares borders with apprehensive and potentially intrusive neighbors.” Dower concluded strongly: “While occupied Japan provides no model for a postwar Iraq, it does provide a clear warning,” as even in Japan reconstruction was difficult. “To rush to war without seriously imagining all its consequences … is not realism but a terrible hubris.”

Since one goal in having students read Dower’s essay at the beginning of the semester is to encourage them to think about how historians construct an argument, I generally let students confer among themselves for a few minutes to address the following points, working from summary to analysis to evaluation:

  1. Summarize the “historical” part of Dower’s article about Japan.
  2. Summarize Dower’s analysis of recent Iraq.
  3. How does Dower “use” history for an analysis of the present?
  4. How does Dower criticize the use of history by others?
  5. Is Dower’s essay convincing, or can criticisms be raised about his argument?
  6. Why is the date of the article important in assessing its significance?

Students readily identify some of the key points, and the brevity, clarity, and sharp focus of Dower’s essay make it both compelling and appropriate for classroom use. Most students recognize that Dower’s predictions for Iraq have come to pass, and they appreciate that a skilled historian paying attention to specific historical similarities and differences was able to develop such an accurate forecast. Criticisms, of course, have been raised by students, especially about whether the argument about the difficulties of transforming Iraq outweighed the need to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. One of the most perceptive comments by a student came the very first time I used the article, in a diplomatic history class just a few days after it was published, and before the war began. This young lady—who was herself skeptical about the drive to war—noted that Dower acknowledged that many had believed that the occupation of Japan would not lead to the desired results, and so perhaps circumstances in Iraq would similarly surprise the analysts.

I follow the analysis of Dower’s essay with other historical analogies used by both supporters and opponents of the Iraq War, and a discussion of whether these constitute misleading or worthwhile uses of the past to inform present views. These include the use of the terms “axis of evil,” “Islamo-fascism,” and “appeasement,” by advocates of the war; invoking the justice of the American cause in World War II; and comparisons to the Vietnam War, made mostly by opponents of the war, but in August 2007 raised by President Bush himself, in a speech that led to widespread debate.4 Students remember Dower’s arguments, and their broader significance for historical analysis and for the involvement of historians in public debate over current issues; referring to this essay throughout the semester has helped produce more sophisticated comments by students on other topics under consideration.

But much as I admire Dower’s ability in his op-ed piece to puncture one of the glib analogies that, despite his efforts, helped lead to deadly consequences for both Iraqis and Americans, I must note that his analysis oversimplified the Japanese occupation, in order to appeal to a popular audience and to fit the word count of a New York Times column. There is only one brief phrase in the essay that hints at a less-than-altruistic stance by the United States in the occupation of Japan, on “its incorporation in America’s cold war strategy”—a phrase left undeveloped and which readers can easily miss. Absent, too, was any depiction of the U.S. occupation of Japan as one building block toward the “domination” by the United States of the Pacific as “an American lake,” an idea that had been central to one of Dower’s early articles on the topic.5 While Dower’s more recent work adopts a more favorable view of the occupation—in part due to his greater attention to Japanese “agency,” rather than simply U.S. power and goals—he still devotes attention to the “reverse course” beginning in 1947, in which occupation authorities limited the rights of trade union members and the Communist Party, and “brought the government and big business into an ever closer embrace.” This “reverse course” is by now standard fare in textbook accounts of the U.S. occupation, based in part on Dower’s work.6

In other words, Dower juxtaposes a “good” occupation in Japan with what would likely be—and has proven to be—a “bad” occupation of Iraq. By glossing over the limits of reform and the subordination of Japan to U.S. strategic goals in that earlier occupation, Dower’s op-ed could be seen as ignoring the need to develop an understanding of continuities in U.S. foreign policy, continuities that might indicate a long-term trend toward empire. For professors, Dower’s choice to highlight certain ideas and downplay others provides a further opening to discuss with students the constructed and contested nature of history, and how even the most critical uses of history to influence current policy-making may still be shaped by a need to placate popular preconceptions.

Indeed, later incarnations of Dower’s essay did include a somewhat more critical approach to the occupation of Japan. In a longer version, from early 2003, Dower opened by observing that, despite the occupation of Japan by the “Allied powers,” the United States “ran the show and tolerated no disagreement. This was Unilateralism with a capital ‘U’—much as we are seeing in U.S. global policy today.”7 A statement against the prospective war, released on January 24, 2003, which was signed by over two dozen prominent scholars of Japanese history and politics, including Dower, and which was also a revision and expansion of his earlier piece, spelled out more fully than the original that the occupation, which “subordinated the new political system and Japan’s foreign policy to U.S. strategic interests in Asia,” produced “a long-term ‘subordinate independence’” for that nation.8 Thus, the U.S. occupation of Japan might still be the “remarkable success” that Dower called it in his New York Times piece, but its significance is more complex. I must confess, however, that given the constraints of class time I have only moved to these more sophisticated perspectives in my advanced classes.

AHA president Gabrielle Spiegel recently set forth in these pages “The Case for History and the Humanities,” and referred to “the present situation in Iraq” as a prime example of the need for such training. “Whatever one thinks of the merits of the war or the reasons for undertaking it,” she wrote, “it is palpably true that we entered into it without fully comprehending the character of the country.” She concluded that the “exercise of power without historical knowledge is a prescription for disaster.”9 Dower’s attention to historical specificity in his prescient essay on the occupation of Iraq illustrates precisely this kind of historical thinking. History professors would do well to assign his essay to their students, as a concrete, accessible model of the dangers of misleading analogies and the careful thinking involved in “using” history effectively.

—Robert Shaffer is associate professor of history at Shippensburg University.

Notes

1. Conal Furay and Michael Salevouris, The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide, second edition (Wheeling, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 2000), 6, emphasis in original.

2. John Dower, “Lessons from Japan about War’s Aftermath,” New York Times, October 27, 2002. Dower’s books include Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W.W. Norton/New Press, 1999), which received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bancroft Prize and War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon, 1986), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

3. David Sanger and Eric Schmitt, “Threats and Responses: A Plan for Iraq,” New York Times, October 11, 2002; Michael O’Hanlon, “The Price of Stability,” New York Times, October 22, 2002.

4. Useful analyses of the 1930s appeasement analogy are: “Historians Debate Iraq,” The Guardian (London), February 19, 2003, online at http://hnn.us/comments/8816.html and Jeffrey Record, “Retiring Hitler and ‘Appeasement’ from the National Security Debate,” Parameters: U.S. Army War College Quarterly 38:2 (Summer 2008), 91–101, online at www.carlisle.army.mil/usawc/Parameters/08summer/record.htm. For Bush’s comparison of the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and a response by a political scientist (and Vietnam veteran) see: Jim Rutenberg et al, “‘Free Iraq’ Is Within Reach, Bush Declares,” New York Times, August 23, 2007, and Andrew Bacevich, “Vietnam’s Real Lessons,” Los Angeles Times, August 25 2007. Scholarly books by historians of the Vietnam War which compare and contrast Iraq and Vietnam include: Robert Brigham, Is Iraq Another Vietnam? (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2006) and Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn from the Past, Lloyd Gardner and Marilyn Young, eds. (New York: New Press, 2007).

5. Dower, “Occupied Japan and the American Lake, 1945–1950,” in Edward Friedman and Mark Selden, eds., America’s Asia: Dissenting Essays on Asian-American Relations (New York: Random House, 1971), 146–206.

6. Dower, Embracing Defeat, 27, 271–73, 536; see also Walter LaFeber, The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), chapter 9, and Thomas Paterson et al., American Foreign Relations: A History, vol. 2, 6th edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 248–49.

7. Dower, “A Warning from History,” Boston Review, February-March 2003, republished in expanded form in Lloyd Gardner and Marilyn Young, eds., The New American Empire: A 21st Century Teach-In on U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: New Press, 2005), 182–97.

8. “U.S. Plans for War and Occupation in Iraq are a Historical Mistake: An Urgent Appeal from Students of the Allied Occupation of Japan,” January 24, 2003, available online as “The Japanese Model for Iraq Revisited,” on H-Japan, January 26, 2003, at h-net.msu.edu. See also Chalmers Johnson, “Iraq is Not Japan,” Los Angeles Times, October 17, 2003, reprinted online at http://hnn.us/articles/1225.html, for a more critical approach to the earlier occupation. In a sense, Johnson previewed here some of the arguments that Dower would make a week later. However, since Johnson’s language is less temperate, and he does not develop the comparisons with Iraq as clearly, Dower’s article works better for teaching purposes.

9. Gabrielle Spiegel, “The Case for History and the Humanities,” Perspectives on History 46:1 (January 2008), 3–6. Spiegel also provides a powerful critique of the misuse of historical analogies by proponents of the “War on Terror” in “’Getting Medieval’: History and the Torture Memos,” Perspectives on History 46:6 (September 2008): 3–6.