The “Better Comparison”

Interesting verbiage, here. In the discussion of what Washington’s reading these days to try to figure out what to do next in Afghanistan, the focus seems to be on institutional lessons learned. While Josh makes a good point on what to read, the more interesting one, I think, is how some comparisons are being described as being more appropriate than others:

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), long an advocate of the narrative detailed in “A Better War,” warned that while Vietnam may appear to have some parallels to Afghanistan, the better comparison is Iraq, where many of the same commanders now managing the Afghan war learned the value of surging more troops into a battle zone. “Vietnam fell to a conventional invasion of the North Vietnamese military,” Mr. McCain said. “The closest parallel to Afghanistan today is Iraq, the strategies that succeeded and the generals that succeeded.”

So, if we want to learn anything, we apparently need to find the case study that’s most similar or closely related to the one we’re interested in. Hmmm. Not sure how that’ll result in new knowledge. More like a recipe for reinforcing what we already think we know. Comparative case studies can certainly help establish generalizable observations, but that doesn’t mean they have to have identical characteristics.

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