The fugitive ran north beside the railway tracks, the bleak wastes of the Gobi blanketed in darkness, towards the streetlamps of Zamyn-Üüd glowing faintly in the distance. By luck passing too close to a sentry tower to be visible on radar, Xu Hongci soon realized that the lights of the Mongolian border town were now closer than those of Chinese Erenhot, and that his month-long flight from the mountain prisons of remote Yunnan was at a triumphant end:

 

I squatted on the ground a few minutes, bidding my weather-beaten, grief-plagued motherland farewell. I didn’t shed tears. I was just sad and angry, confident that sooner or later the Chinese people would rise up to cast off the yoke of Mao’s tyranny and establish a democratic nation. I told myself, ‘On that day, I shall return.’

“It is a common rule of propriety that culturally inferior foreign peoples should respect the Central Kingdom.” So begins a 1374 letter from Ming China’s founding Hongwu Emperor to a regional ruler in Japan. It continues: “One principle in both ancient and modern times has been for the small to serve the great.”

The Circassian sounds like the name of a film; there’s more than enough material here for one. Eşref Bey, or Eşref Kuşçubaşı or any of the other names by which he went, played many roles in his life: brigand, family man, military leader, spy, rebel. He crossed paths if not quite swords with TE Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—with whom he is sometimes compared. But in spite of Eşref’s fame—or notoriety—information on him seems hard to come by in English; he does not even seem (at this writing) to have a Wikipedia page.

It is important for statesmen and policymakers to study and understand history, but the use of historical analogies to inform policy is fraught with dangers. The United States and its allies discovered that the “lessons of Munich” of 1930s Europe, for example, were not easily translatable to wars on the Korean peninsula and later in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 60s.

History does not repeat itself. Every historical event occurs in its own time and circumstances. That is not to say that policymakers cannot learn important lessons from history, but their precise application to current or future events is at best problematic and at worst a recipe for disaster.