I read with great interest an article in the Wall Street Journal the other day about two books that are all the rage in Washington, DC right now. Apparently, President Obama and his advisers are reading a book titled "Lessons in Disaster" about the evolution of National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy's thinking during the Vietnam War. Bundy began as a hawk and eventually began disillusioned with the war effort. Meanwhile, Senator McCain and many military leaders have read "A Better War" - a book that traces the evolution in strategy and tactics that took place when General Abrams took over from General Westmoreland in Vietnam. The book has become very influential with military experts interested in counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What struck me about this article? First, I hope that President Obama reads both books, not just "Lessons in Disaster" - which is apparently the one he's focused on at the moment. Secondly, everyone reading both books must proceed with great caution. Here we have a classic case of reasoning by analogy that could be very harmful. As people read these books, the natural tendency will be for individuals to reason by analogy from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Yet, we know from research by such prominent political scientists as Richard Neustadt and Ernest May (authors of a great book titled "Thinking in Time" published in the 1980s) that we often reason poorly when we draw analogies. We make mistakes because we focus too much on the similarities between two situations, and we ignore critical differences. Bottom line - Afghanistan is not "just like" Vietnam, and thus, we should take great care in drawing lessons from either of these books as they might apply to our current predicament.