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Lessons from History Not Learned

The modern world, filled with rapid changes and global challenges, continues to confront a historical truth: humanity’s tendency to repeat the same mistakes, despite the age-old mantra of learning from the past. This persistent challenge is particularly evident in the field of geopolitical decisions, where understanding different cultures, traditions, and religions becomes crucial, especially in potential armed conflict situations.

Michael Howard, a renowned military historian, observed that a recurring element in wars throughout history is the cultural predisposition to conflict, which can involve political leaders as well as the entire population. Some cultures view armed conflict not only as acceptable but even as a natural and right solution to resolve tensions. In this context, Pierre Servent, a military strategy expert, emphasizes the significant role that local culture plays in shaping human behavior in war.

Despite globalization bringing some uniformity, fundamental differences between peoples remain. These differences are often overlooked, especially by those cultures that consider themselves more advanced and evolved, like Western ones. This lack of understanding, often rooted in a sense of superiority, translates into strategic errors and poorly calibrated geopolitical decisions.

Barbara W. Tuchman, a renowned historian, highlighted the variety of needs and aspirations among different cultures, particularly criticizing the Western tendency to impose its own vision of freedom and democracy, as evident in the so-called “Arab Springs.” In these situations, the true desire of local populations is often neglected, leading to unexpected and sometimes catastrophic outcomes.

The approach proposed by Howard, that of developing a sort of “detached empathy,” suggests striving to understand the problems and perspectives of others without necessarily sharing their ideas. However, this is easier said than done, given the natural human inclination to avoid empathizing with the “other.”

Recent examples like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Yemen demonstrate how mistakes are repeated. The intensive use of drones and bombings, in contexts where the principle of revenge is deeply rooted, has only served to exacerbate and prolong conflicts. The misunderstanding towards the Eastern world, particularly regarding the Islamic faith, is often pronounced, as highlighted by analysts like Pedro Herranz and Tuchman.

Even the case of China, as pointed out by Brzezinski, illustrates how historical experiences of humiliation and exploitation by foreign powers have left a legacy of resentment and distrust, influencing international relations even today.

Citing Machiavelli and Xenophon, it is absolutely essential to understand the importance of comprehending and gaining the support of local populations in any attempt to influence or dominate another nation. Resistance is fiercer against those who try to impose their command without an authentic interest in the aspirations and needs of the people. Ultimately, the lesson is clear: a deep and respectful understanding of different cultures, traditions, and histories is not just a matter of ethical sensitivity but a strategic imperative for any effective and far-sighted geopolitical policy.

But even the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and the U.S. experiences in both Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq highlight the importance of understanding the local context and adapting intervention strategies accordingly. Let’s briefly indicate the reasons for these failures.

1. Soviet War in Afghanistan: The Soviet Union failed to fully understand the complexity of the Afghan context, with its history of resistance to invaders and its tribal and religious dynamics. This lack of understanding, combined with the determination of the Afghans and external support to the mujahideen (including Stinger missiles provided by the USA), led to the failure of the Soviet intervention.

2. U.S. Intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq: The United States, despite having historical examples like the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and their own experience in Vietnam, repeated similar mistakes. In Afghanistan, they underestimated the resistance and resilience of the Taliban and the complexity of the local context. In Iraq, despite some initial successes under the command of General Petraeus, the intervention faced enormous challenges due to cultural, social, and economic diversity, and difficulties in establishing a stable and accepted government.


These examples show that knowledge and respect for local culture and history are crucial in any military or peacekeeping intervention. Strategies that may work in one context can fail in another. The approach of French General Hubert Lyautey in Algeria and Morocco, which combined military actions with social and economic development and respect for local traditions, offers an example of how a deep understanding of the local context can lead to more positive outcomes.

Military history is rich in lessons on how cultural understanding and adaptability are crucial aspects for the success of any operation in foreign lands.

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