[VIEWPOINT]Past success can bring present failureThe International Herald Tribune on Tuesday carried an article written by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who won Pulitzer Prizes for history and biography.
Mr. Schlesinger Jr. is the author who coined the word “imperial presidency” regarding former U.S. President Richard Nixon, who used excessive power during the Vietnam War. He wrote that “Three decades ago, we suffered defeat in an unwinnable war . . . Vietnam was hopeless enough, but to repeat the same arrogant folly 30 years later in Iraq is unforgivable.”
He also said, “History is the best antidote to delusions of omnipotence and omniscience [of the United states],” quoting the words of Winston Churchill: “The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward.”
As individuals, we learn lessons from our own respective experiences. Regardless of whether they were pleasures from success or bitterness from failures, they are all helpful in finding our way now and in the future. Anyway, direct experiences that we ourselves have had are more valuable than indirect ones learned from others. Therefore, there is a tendency for people to rely on their own experiences when they make decisions, and the more critical the crossroad they are at, the stronger the tendency they have to stick to their own experience. Therein lies the pitfall.
There is a fable about a farmer in China’s Song Dynasty who abandoned farming and waited under the trees all day long for a rabbit to hit itself against a tree after seeing a rabbit die after hitting a tree trunk by accident. If a person relies only on his personal experience in making decisions, there is the possibility he will be caught in the trap of waiting under a tree for a rabbit.
If the policymakers of important national affairs rely only on their personal experiences, the results can be disastrous. Therefore, wise public figures try to reach out beyond their personal experiences and learn history lessons. When they do, it lowers the likelihood of making an error in an important decision. I think Mr. Schlesinger Jr. pointed this out.
In Japan, which has recently managed to escape from the mire of its economic recession, people are pushing the country not to repeat the same mistake by learning their lessons from history.
Two volumes that I read last weekend reflect that atmosphere in Japan. The books, “Why Japan Repeats the Same Mistake” published by the Forest of Wisdom Publishing Company and “Why Did We Lose the War?” published by Bungei Shunju analyze the cause of Japan’s failure in the Pacific War from all sides.
The former, in particular, deals extensively with the Battle of Midway, which was a watershed event in the war. The headline of its preface reads: “The wise man learns from history and is a fool from personal experience.”
The author points out that Japan was totally devastated after provoking the Pacific War against the United States, because the country was intoxicated over its triumph in the Russo-Japan War (1904-1905). It was “the revenge of the experience of success.” What he meant to say was that the cause of Japan’s defeat was not only the big gap in national power between Japan and the United States. In the Russo-Japan War, Japan defeated Russia by employing the military tactics of hand-to-hand combat for the army, and big-ship guns for the navy.
Admiral Heihachiro Togo led the victory, although a large number of Japanese soldiers’ lives were sacrificed, by launching a surprise torpedo attack on the Russian ships at Port Arthur. He was almost deified by the Japanese people.
So, there was no one who could dare criticize his military strategy by the time the Pacific War started.
The Japanese navy, which had the tradition of keeping a strict seniority system in its promotions, carried out a large-scale personnel reshuffle right before the Battle of Midway, thus reducing the morale and combat capability of its fleet to half. On the other hand, there were no major personnel changes in the U.S. military except for the necessary promotions and demotions to prepare for a war.
The authors of the books say that Japan’s repeated failures, such as its economic failure in 1980s, came about due to an intoxication with a “Japan is No. 1” mythology, the defeat in the “currency war” against the United States and because it lagged behind in the information technology revolution. He compared those things to the Japanese imperial army’s defeat in the Pacific War.
The stronger and more dramatic a person’s experience with success, the more the person tends to cling to that memory. The confessions made by 386 generation lawmakers from both the governing and opposition parties that “the 386 generation progressives have failed because they tried to address problems of the 21st century with a way of thinking they learned in the 1980s,” in a Jan. 3 interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, can be interpreted in the same vein.
I think President Roh Moo-hyun, who climbed to the top job after being a high school-graduated human rights lawyer, cannot be free from “the revenge of success experience.”
Even worse are the politicians who have the illusion that the development model led by the dictators as in the 1960s is an alternative to the post-Roh Moo-hyun era.
In all successful experiences, there are elements of toxin. In that sense, it is insightful that Mr. Schlesinger Jr. said history is the best antidote.
*The writer is the head of the culture and sports desk of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun