Past and Present Come Together


Editor’s Note: This piece on the War on the Rocks Hasty Ambush blog is published in partnership with the Hoover Institution’s Military History in the News.

Mark Twain is said to have remarked that “history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.” Perhaps its most consistent rhyme is the failure of politicians and statesmen to recognize real, palpable dangers despite obvious indications that there are states in the external world that have every intention of inflicting harm. One might have thought that reality was readily apparent in the late 1930s, when Adolf Hitler and his evil minions first imposed their ruthless and murderous will on substantial portions of Austria’s population and then turned their attention to Czechoslovakia. Yet, in spite of the most egregious behavior by German leaders and the propaganda garbage dished out by the evil, club-footed dwarf, Joseph Goebbels, a substantial portion of Britain’s leaders persisted in the belief that one could deal with the Germans in a rational fashion right up to the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.

One should not necessarily compare Vladimir Putin and the thugocracy that he runs at present in Russia to Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler and his murderous crew were exceptionally capable of manipulating the world and, moreover, they possessed an exceptionally capable military instrument. While Putin has proved a master at deceiving his opponents in the West, his military forces represent a fragile instrument—its airborne, spetsnaz, and some air units are extremely capable, but backed up by ill-trained and ill-equipped conscripts of little military value.

Nevertheless, Putin has been willing to take extraordinary risks in the belief that President Obama and the Americans are incapable of responding to his moves. Certainly his actions over the past decade have made it clear that he has not the slightest intention of cooperating with the Western powers and certainly not with Washington’s bizarre approach to the increasingly messy world that its leader and his advisors have done so much to create. Yet, the leaders in Washington, thoroughly ignorant of history and foreign culture, found themselves recently astonished when the Russian aircraft that Putin dispatched to aid his Syrian ally, the butcher Assad, began bombing rebel groups that are not attached to the Islamic State. Given the extensive support that the Russians have been providing Assad’s forces over the course of the Syrian civil war, one can only shake one’s head at the consistent unwillingness of many of the supposed experts advising President Obama to recognize the nature of the regime and its leadership that Putin has created in Russia. But unwilling to recognize realities in the world, the administration has floundered its way from one disaster to another. One can, thus, only look forward to a new administration in January 2017.

Williamson Murray serves as a Minerva Fellow at the Naval War College. A widely published historian and former Air Force officer, Murray was educated at Yale and taught there before moving on to Ohio State University as a military and diplomatic historian. In 1987, he received the Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award. He retired from Ohio State in 1995 as a professor emeritus of history.


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