Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A possible lesson from history.

I have been reading the chapter on the Dreyfus Affair in Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower. As a vast oversimplification, the difference was between two camps. One which held that the French Army was sufficiently important that its prestige should be maintained, even at the cost of covering the mistake of senior officers and leaving an innocent man in prison. The other held that justice required freeing the innocent and punishing the guilty, including those guilty of deliberate miscarriage of justice. It occurs to me that were the Army unable to admit its defeats in so minor an affair as the conviction of Dreyfus, it would be unlikely to handle information adequately to conduct a war.

I don't know if Tuchman was deliberately seeking to draw a parallel with modern conditions, but it occurs to me that there are lessons to be learned from the Dreyfus Affair that might bear fruit in Iraq and Afghanistan. We learned in Vietnam not to demonize the military for doing what they were ordered by the elected civilian powers to do. We must not forget that lesson. Indeed, I think we need to redouble our efforts to treat the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan with respect, assuring that the nation lives up to its debt to them.

On the other hand, human beings being what they are, we can be sure that mistakes have been made and evil acts committed. Given that such acts are inevitable when so many people are placed in such a position, the nation bears a part of their responsibility, and should own up to it. So too, the military should be asked to consider what it has done badly, how the damage may be ameliorated, and how such errors can be better avoided in the future.

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