Never fight a land war in Asia
July 1, 2009 2:30 PM   Subscribe

What are some good examples of failing to learn from history?

I was having a discussion with a friend, and I brought up the trope that "those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it." I was challenged to provide some examples, but all I could come up with on the spot was that America goes through a similar bubble and burst economic breakdown every twenty years or so. So I'm looking for more concrete examples of when a person/society made a mistake that could have been avoided by looking at history. Something like Hitler making the mistake of invading Russia in the winter, which has been proven to be foolhardy in the past by Napoleon, among others.
posted by Hargrimm to Society & Culture (36 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Afghanistan. The USSR's disastrous invasion and occupation should have been a massive, massive caution against the U.S. action in that snakepit of a country. Democracy is no more likely to take hold there than Marxism was.
posted by EatTheWeek at 2:45 PM on July 1, 2009

Afghanistan is not a good example, we are not fighting the same sort of war there that the Soviet's did (they had an immense manpower advantage in comparison to us), and we almost had the thing won before we decided to pull almost everyone out and go into Iraq.

Russia in Winter is probably the best example, because Napoleon wasn't even the first to make that mistake, the Swedes found out the same Maxim several times in the preceding centuries. Russia was too hardcore in the winter for SWEDES, think about it.
posted by BobbyDigital at 2:51 PM on July 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

... and the USSR should have read up on what happened to the British in the Afghan campaign of 1878-1880.
posted by scruss at 2:53 PM on July 1, 2009

Best answer: Well, an extremely timely example is that 100 years ago the U.S. was embroiled in a decade-long war which we got involved in by deciding to "help out" a country "free itself from tyranny", purportedly assisting the Philippines to throw off the Spanish Empire. We waded in expecting it would be a cinch and ended up in a knock-down drag-out messy bloody ten year battle with a host of Muslim insurgent groups that caused much of the Filipino population to resent us and essentially trained a sector of Filipino society in insurgency operations and created a hardened and disruptive rebel element that has persisted down to today and still battles the government there.

And that was back before the totally civilized and enlightened modern warfare of the 21st century we've got now, back when we could do things like desecrate the corpses of Muslim rebels by wrapping their bodies in pig skin. So you can imagine that in many respects it was even nastier than it's been in Iraq.

So today we've repeated all that in Iraq... I don't think that I need to draw the parallels.

Note also that Abu Sayyaf, one of the Filipino Muslim insurgent groups that is descended from those we created during the occupation of the Philippines around the beginning of the last century, is apparently a major confederate of Al Quaeda.
posted by XMLicious at 2:54 PM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

For a non-military example, environmental despoiling destroying civilization is a surprisingly oft-repeated one. Especially on islands but elsewhere too it's amazing how many times "population increases, they cut down all the trees, everyone dies" has happened.
posted by XMLicious at 3:01 PM on July 1, 2009

World War II
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:03 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Vietnam. The French did not succeed, and there was ample indication that the US would not, either.

Barbara Tuchman pretty much wrote a book on what you ask about.
posted by Danf at 3:06 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

As a counter-example, Hitler was well aware of Napolean's invasion of Russia and studied it in depth, I believe.
posted by empath at 3:06 PM on July 1, 2009

I think that a better way to phrase it would be "Those who do not learn the correct lessons from history are doomed to repeat it."
posted by empath at 3:09 PM on July 1, 2009

Mark Sanford/Bill Clinton?
posted by kidsleepy at 3:11 PM on July 1, 2009

In fact, WWII is probably replete with counter-examples of people studying history and learning the wrong lessons -- The Maginot line is another one. Chamberlain's attempt to appease Hitler wasn't because he was oblivious to the lessons of WWI -- he was trying desperately not to send another generation of young men into the charnel house.
posted by empath at 3:11 PM on July 1, 2009

Best answer: OK, something more concrete.

The Confederates WIN the Battle of Fredericksburg when the Union Army performs a frontal assault on a raised, fortified position.

Seven months later, the Confederates LOSE the Battle of Gettysburg when they perform frontal assaults on raised, fortified positions. Some Confederate generals quite literally point to Fredericksburg as an example of what not to do, but through various miscommunications and hubris, Lee plows ahead anyway.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:12 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

The oil crisis of the 1970s. We should have had a 30 year head start on dealing with fossil fuel issues and alternative energy solutions.
posted by availablelight at 3:12 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think a good example would be the Byzantine emperors continually calling on aid from the Europeans against the Muslims after they had been burned by the Crusaders time after time.
posted by empath at 3:14 PM on July 1, 2009

Actually, the Roman Empire had a cycle of repeated civil wars starting with Sulla and Marius. A consul gained too much power, marched on rome and persecuted his enemies -- the senate called for another consul to save them who was even worse and so on. IT didn't really stop until Augustus, and then basically started over again after he died.
posted by empath at 3:18 PM on July 1, 2009

The US stepping into the power vacuum left by the French and British retreating from their colonial possessions after WWII might be another one. France left Vietnam for a reason, after all.
posted by empath at 3:20 PM on July 1, 2009

Hugo Chavez in Venezuala is repeating an economic catastrophe that's played out many other times in other countries.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:22 PM on July 1, 2009

The March of Folly is, indeed a commendable book.

I'd also echo Hitler in the USSR, the US in Vietnam; Vietnam is an interesting one because it has long history as a fervently nationalistic country that has managed to see off far more powerful invaders, or expel them after an initial occupation: the Chinese, the Mongols, and so on. "Invading Vietnam" seems to be up there with "Invading Afghanistan" in terms of futility.
posted by rodgerd at 3:30 PM on July 1, 2009

I think the French appointing Napolean Emperor might be a good example, too. I mean, they had JUST deposed a king a few years before. Though they had tried a republic and that hadn't worked out so well, either, so I can't really blame them.

Though appointing him Emperor the SECOND time is clearly an example of this.
posted by empath at 3:36 PM on July 1, 2009

Best answer: Ok, financial history here. On many occasions in the past, derivatives, for example, stock options, have been ruled illegal in the United States. This has almost always happened after a market crash or a period of sustained bank failures / economic stress.

For example, Vallelado (1991, pg 99) recounts several periods when options trading was outlawed in the United States, specifically during the financial crisis of 1931[ .pdf ].

Agricultural Futures underwent a similar fall from grace, but today both futures and options are commonly traded, even by laypeople without specialised financial knowledge. They are, by many accounts, mainstream financial products and commonly discussed outside of the financial press.

There is no reason to believe that Credit Default Swaps, culpable to a still to be determined extent in the current financial crisis, won't also be subjected to a period of either very, very tight control or completely outlawed for a protracted period.

The takeaway: following almost every financial innovation we can document periods of boom while the products, are first used to correctly mitigate risk. And then later a bust after the products are incorrectly used as tools of speculation.

This always happens in a regulatory vacuum.

In other words, we fail to learn from history. If you take a look at my profile you'll find this history of finance is a subject both near and dear to me, in fact one that I study. I've mentioned the history of finance many times while posting on MeFi. We can learn from history and if we don't; well, I'm clearly preaching to the choir here.

But its really great to read anecdotes from other specialities here.
posted by Mutant at 3:38 PM on July 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think credit bubbles and manias in general are a prime example.
posted by empath at 3:42 PM on July 1, 2009

One could make the argument that almost any popular revolution which ends in a dictatorship is a victim of failing to study history, because it's happened over and over and over again.
posted by empath at 3:48 PM on July 1, 2009

Not a mistake so much as being too slow to adapt to changing conditions, from the Wikipedia article on quinine:
During World War II, Allied powers were cut off from their supply of quinine when the Germans conquered Holland and the Japanese controlled the Philippines and Indonesia. The United States, however, had managed to obtain four million cinchona seeds from the Philippines and begin operation of cinchona plantations in Costa Rica. It came too late, and an estimated 60,000 US troops in Africa and the South Pacific died due to the lack of quinine.
posted by mdonley at 4:08 PM on July 1, 2009

Price Controls are pretty much always a disaster. When the Pharoahs fixed the price of wheat below what was profitable for farmers they stopped farming. Four thousand years later, Hugo Chavez is showing us you can still count on that happening.
posted by codswallop at 4:17 PM on July 1, 2009

The oil shocks of the 70s and 80s could have taught the auto companies that people wanted fuel efficient cars. The Japanese realised that and skewed their production that way.
posted by mattoxic at 4:46 PM on July 1, 2009

Are price controls really always a disaster, in any situation and with any technique? I only ask because I visited the U.K. about ten years ago and I was surprised to find that at that time in the supermarkets a loaf of bakery bread was the equivalent of about 20ยข, easily a tenth of what it was in the U.S. at the time, and it was pretty good bread. I was told by an acquaintance there that it was part of some sort of pricing regime left over from WWII but I've never looked into this more closely.
posted by XMLicious at 5:01 PM on July 1, 2009

Price controls on bread of all things is almost always a disaster. You get shortages and people starve.

Subsidies are different, though.
posted by empath at 5:14 PM on July 1, 2009

I was told by an acquaintance there that it was part of some sort of pricing regime left over from WWII but I've never looked into this more closely.

I don't know the specifics but if price controls can be backed up by government subsidy then it'll give the appearance of working but only because the actual price is hidden. If the government runs out of money to make up the difference (or if that money has become worthless), the scheme falls apart.

In any case, the producers of the bread have to making a profit somewhere or they'll stop doing it.
posted by codswallop at 5:33 PM on July 1, 2009

A classic use of using history, badly, was the Cold War logic of the American intrusion into Vietnam. Drawing upon the lessons of WW2 and the tragedy that came from failing to stand up to the Germans when they started pushing into the rest of Europe, the Americans believed that if they didn't "stop Soviet aggression" in South Vietnam, they'd be making the same mistakes the Allies made in the late Thirties.

Thus, when the French were evicted, leaving the Viet Minh in a position of power, America freaked the hell out. Again, using the lens of WW2, the American military saw the world in terms of chess pieces, and that everything split into two "teams." Vietnam was about to fall into the orbit of the "other side."

And thus, the Americans "made a stand," to stop "Soviet expansion." They saw things that weren't there, because they were misapplying history. That the Vietnamese situation bore little parallels to Europe in the Thirties, well, the people in charge kind of missed that. Only if you were willing to look at the specifics of Vietnamese history, rather than fall in love with Grand Ideals of the Majestic Sweep of History, could you tell.

I'd argue the same thing happened with Iraq. If you examine the language of the pro-war crowd in the buildup to the war, it's clear what they were thinking. They expected that Iraq in 2003 would be the same as Eastern Europe in the 1990s: just remove the dictatorial government, and the people will rise up and seize control and create a freer state. All they need is the chance. Or, maybe, the specifics of Iraq made that not so true.

Again, the Grand Ideals of the Majestic Sweep of History makes fools of many. A common mistake.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 6:14 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Read A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, it's all about how America has still not learned the proper way to respond to genocide.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:17 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Price Controls are pretty much always a disaster.
The use of price controls allowed post-liberation China to accumulate the capital necessary for industrialisation (the "price scissors") while at the same time per capita food grain availability rose (or at worst stayed stable on hostile accounts like Smil's). Nor were they the cause of the Great Leap famines, although they did exacerbate their effect. "Recorded real GNP increased on average by 6.0 per cent per annum between 1952 and 1978. Industrial production grew by 11.3 per cent, and the share of industry in GNP rose from 20 to 44 per cent."*
It certainly wasn't an unqualified success and was abandoned after '78, but nor were the controls themselves a disaster (unlike the frequent ideologically-driven utopian campaigns) and they served their purpose in the circumstances the PRC regime found itself facing in 1949. Personally I don't think robbing the peasantry to build the nation was the right choice, but then that's not the question at issue.
posted by Abiezer at 11:19 PM on July 1, 2009

Best answer: Tulip mania in Holland in the 1600s. Beanie Babies in the 1990s. Both had people speculating on things that were of little real worth.
posted by x46 at 3:37 AM on July 2, 2009

Something fairly concrete: During the 100 Years War the French refused to change any of their tactics despite being roundly beaten by English long bowmen/crossbowmen. Riding in full armor to battle was a noble's right, and hiding behind a hill shooting arrows was sneaky and common, so they kept getting their asses kicked.
posted by The Whelk at 8:47 AM on July 2, 2009

The oil shocks of the 70s and 80s could have taught the auto companies that people wanted fuel efficient cars. The Japanese realised that and skewed their production that way.

So American auto manufacturers produced gaz guzzlers because they're evil and the public bought them because they're stupid? I really don't think so.
posted by onya at 6:47 PM on July 2, 2009

G. H. W. Bush didn't completely storm Baghdad starting a prolonged and hated war. G. W. Bush ignored that peace and took the city.

(take this with a grain of salt. the world was different pre-9/11)
posted by cmchap at 10:30 PM on July 3, 2009

So American auto manufacturers produced gaz guzzlers because they're evil and the public bought them because they're stupid?

No, the manufacturers produced gas guzzlers because they were greedy, and the public bought them because they're greedy.
posted by Rykey at 12:28 PM on July 13, 2009

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