Wednesday, March 02, 2005

To compare or not to compare?

There is something I have noticed over the last few months: the tendency of people to compare the situation in Iraq with other situations. For some it is a repeat of Vietnam, for others the insurgents are comparable to the American Revolutionists, for others yet Bush’s Global War on Terror is like Reagan’s war against the “evil empire” of the USSR. Everyone can find parallels to support their comparisons. And just as quickly, critics can point out why this isn’t the case. But it made me wonder, why are people trying to compare this conflict with past conflicts?

I think it can be explained by the fact that humans function through prejudgment. It is the basis of our decision making process and how we see situations. As children, this ability isn’t highly developed, so we are less prejudiced, and less likely to be surprised should something out of the ordinary happen. For example, if a five year old is in the park with his father and sees a flying donkey, he will probably squeal with delight and point it out to his father. The father on the other hand, will be shocked, and won’t be able to accept that a donkey can fly. He may actually be scared, in addition to being bewildered, because it just doesn’t fall into his knowledge of possible things. He will try to find a reason for the flying donkey: i.e. it must be attached to a wire and is being carried by a helicopter or something.

This explains the phenomenon in more detail, [using the example of prejudice in social relations]:

[… human beings categorize. Since there are millions of observations a person will never make first hand, the tendency is to generalize based on the most memorable cases. This allows for misconceptions, the organization of information into the wrong categories, because when we encounter a new situation, we naturally try to fit it into an existing category.[…]

The function of categorization is essential to human mentality; without it we would drown in chaos. The prejudgments we make are not necessarily wrong. They only become prejudicial when they are not altered or abandoned after exposure to new knowledge. People have a tendency to select certain experiences from memory, exaggerate them and interpret them into a prejudiced opinion. Since these opinions simplify life, they are not eager to let go of them. This makes prejudice difficult to gauge, because a person will defend his attitude by providing a deceptive, yet plausible, excuse for it. No one readily admits his dislike or hatred for others without trying to justify it. [...]

When new situations crop up in life, we like to compare them to past situations to see how we can best deal with them. It also makes us feel less helpless, it is kind of the equivalent of reading the last pages of a novel, before reading the whole book. While this is a necessary tool, it can also handicap us in our ability to have an open-mind about situations. When we compare the situation in Iraq to previous situations, we are like the teachers who expect the younger sibling to perform scholastically like the older sibling. This can essentially condemn it to live in the shadow of its predecessor, and to eventually live up to that expectation.

There are comparisons that can be made, which are correct in certain contexts. However, it is unfair to the actors in these events. It denies them their own volition and individuality. There are definitely lessons to be learned from history, but we also shouldn’t condemn ourselves to living in the past.


Blogger ac blue eagle said...

I like the way you think. There is a tendency to compare Iraq to Vietnam, but I think that is a tendency of the media more than anything else. That is, I think, because the media thought it owned the Vietnam War, and I think it would like to own the war in Iraq the same way. Owned? Yes, the media of that time in Vietnam and then of today. I say owned because most of what people knew about Vietnam they learned from the media of the day, newspapers, radio and, more importantly, televsion. There was no where else to get information on the war. That has changed this war, however, with all the blogs. So, today, you don't have to depend on one or two outlets for information on what's going on in Iraq. You just check the blogs, like the one you linked to the other day. Then, bingo, you have a whole different view of the war--and the people who fight it.
Anyway, keep writing. You do well.

2:22 AM  
Blogger Sminklemeyer said...

i agree with ac. great post. i have always noticed this but never written about it. frankly, i think wwii and vietnam were harder wars than this one. however, iraq is certainly not without its challenges for the warfighters. it's tough to rebuild and kill at the same time. ac, how much rebuilding took place in vietnam?

9:13 AM  
Blogger Chris said...


I tried to post a comment on this post yesterday, but blogger ate it or something. Blogger is really starting to become unreliable.

I have always said that to compare one moment in history to another is usually wrong. I think I've said that on this site a couple times too.

But weren't you comparing Bush to Lincoln and Iraq to WWII not too long ago?

2:13 PM  
Blogger CaliValleyGirl said...

MJ...I was waiting for your

Nope, I never compared Lincoln to Bush. You insisted I did, but I didn't.

What I did, compare and constrast causes of war. Because I talked about the American Revolution, WWII and Iraq, you jumped the gun, and said I was comparing Lincoln to Bush, which I tried to later explain that I wasn't.

What I was trying to say in the other post, was that history has shown us that going to war for one reason, doesn't mean that the war will necessarily be fought for that reason. As we are both scholars of history, I am sure we can agree that listing wars and their causes, isn't the same as saying that these wars are the same.

Like this post said, it is impossible to judge any situation as completely new. We need to compare and contrast aspects. But to just expect the situation to turn out the same as a previous one, is not fair.

Oh, and don't get me started on has literally eaten a few of my posts lately...and then as if to make up for the infraction, it will post them double later. But it still can't keep me...I love this forum!

3:25 PM  
Blogger Sminklemeyer said...

you two are really developing that sort of raw relationship only found in the blog world. mj, what do you do for fun? valleygirl, what's your favorite food? oh, this one time at blog camp, i stuck a keyboard in h...

11:22 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I thought your post might be a setup :)

Again the other day I tried to post another comment to this one, and blogger messed it up. I hope this one works. If not, then I will think you have banned me.

I'm not sure I can thoughtfully distinguish causes for war and war itself. But I get what you are saying.

So I could compare Bush attacking Iraq in 2003 to Hitler attacking Poland in 1939 and I would not be comparing Bush to Hitler? Afterall, they both claimed to be taking preventive actions.

I don't think anyone could get away with the comparison I just made without being labeled un-patriotic or anti-American here in the states. Rightfully so I must add.

Always fun girl.

4:21 AM  
Blogger CaliValleyGirl said...

MJ...I can see that we are splitting hairs here, but my original article was about causes of war, and how they changed over time. So I named a few examples.

By naming these examples, I wasn't trying to indicate that any cause was more or less worthy than the other, or any war more or less rightous than the other. Or similar. I was just trying to show that there were other wars which started for a certain reason, but weren't fought for that reason. I wasn't trying to say that Bush was trying to free the slaves of Iraq, or that Bush was promoting pan-Americanism. I was just saying that both those wars had been started for certains reasons, which eventually morphed into something else over time.

As you exemplified with your Bush/Hitler example, if making a comparison between the actors was my aim, I would have had to been clearer, as obviously, it can go either way.

I was just trying to give examples of wars where the causes and reasons for fighting differed.

That is all. I don't see how listing wars and their causes suddenly means that these wars were the same. That is like listing people and their original hair color before coloring it and after, and then saying that blonde is the same as brown. I was just pointing out that they both went through a coloring process. I know this is a pathetic example, but perhaps by taking it out of the context of war, I can make my point clearer. But once again...I might just be splitting hairs.

I am having serious difficulty here seeing eye to eye to you, with what you assert I am saying. Anyways, thanks for the criticism...I have a tendency to blow a lot of flowers out of my a**, and it's good that someone would point that out.

And I wouldn't go banning anyone just for not agreeing with me. What's the point in having a blog then?

11:24 AM  

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