President Bush made an analogy between Iraq and Vietnam last week, a comparison certain to strike nerves in the body politic. The memory of historic events and the modern meanings they acquire are powerful symbols, and a skilled orator or speech writer should be well aware of what they may represent to the intended audience. Lincoln did it brilliantly. It is a more dicey proposition to recast the war in Iraq in a positive light by drawing selected parallels to Vietnam, for this requires that the dominant interpretation of the lessons learned during the war in Southeast Asia are those that support our military strategy in Iraq today. A poke around Blogistan this past week would suggest that this is far from the case.
It is worth remembering that Clarence Darrow's famous line that "History repeats itself" is not the full quotation. The full quip - "History repeats itself. That's one of the things wrong with history." - wryly subverts what is otherwise mere cliche. The idea that we are destined to repeat and relearn from the mistakes of the past is why Shakespeare often works especially well in adaptation and cast in different time periods. It is also what makes this poem effective:
The Hessian in his last letter home said in part
"they are all rebels here
who will not stand to fight
but each time fade before us
as water into sand...
the children beg in their rude hamlets
the women stare with hate
the men flee into the barrens at our approach
to lay in ambush
some talk of desertion...
were it not for the hatred
they bear us, more would do so
There is no glory here
Tell Hals he must evade the Prince's levy
through exile or deformity
Winter is hard upon us.
On the morrow we enter Trenton.
There we rest until the New Year..."
* published in Carrying The Darkness: American Indochina- The Poetry of the Vietnam War (1985, Edited by W.D. Ehrhart, pg. 130