It is widely said that there is an ancient Chinese proverb to the effect that “a fool learns from experience, a wise man learns from the experience of others.” Whether or not this is correctly quoted, President Bush appears to have learned one way or the other about the uncertainties of war given his statement a while ago that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” This phrase refers to a military aphorism attributed to the 19th Century Prussian Field Marshal and Chief of the General Staff, Helmut von Moltke (the elder). While von Moltke may not have said it in exactly those words, the idea is reflected in several places in his writings and the wisdom therein is thus on offer to the wise man who wishes to learn from the experience of others.
This brings us to the possibility of learning useful and even important lessons from the study of history, something long advocated for students of military affairs by figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte and our friend von Moltke. Many people, especially politicians, are demonstrably fond of citing various lessons from history to support whatever action – or inaction – they are advocating. But as most historians (and some politicians) know, history can be a slippery instructor and it is often hard to be certain that the right lesson has been learned.
For those interested in knowing more about the possible uses and abuses of history and its lessons, there are two books in particular that should be looked for:
“Historians’ Fallacies, Toward a Logic of Historical Thought” by David Hackett Fischer, (1970, New York, Harper & Row, LoC 69-15583), and,
“Thinking in Time, The Uses of History of Decision Makers” by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, (1986, New York, The Free Press/Macmillan, ISBN 0-02-922790-9).
In the first book, historian David Fischer attempts to set out a disciplined and logical approach to the study of history and the analysis of historical events – and in the process examines the myriad ways in which historians and others can get it wrong. He hangs this attempt upon a list of fallacies that he has found committed by historians and the users of history, grouping this list into 12 categories each with some 10 to 12 member fallacies: Fallacies of Question-framing; Fallacies of Factual Verification; Fallacies of Factual Significance; Fallacies of Generalization; Fallacies of Narration; Fallacies of Causation; Fallacies of Motivation; Fallacies of Composition; Fallacies of False Analogy; Fallacies of Semantical Distortion; and Fallacies of Substantive Distraction. Personally, I find it difficult to find any of the listed fallacies that cannot be used in connection with much of the debate in recent years over the war on terror, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the debate on who demonstrates the greatest support for the troops. Nevertheless, I would draw the special attention of the reader to the Fallacies of False Analogy, Fallacies of Question-framing, Fallacies of Verification, and Fallacies of Causation.
Richard Neustadt and Ernest May based their 1986 work, “Thinking in Time,” on their experience teaching an innovative course at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, in which they sought to instruct high-level public officials and their aides on how to use history in their decision-making. The book discusses some 30 historical case studies used in their classes to reflect upon the misuses of historical analogy and on proper ways to draw upon historical examples in addressing contemporary issues. The selected case studies range from the secession crisis leading up the outbreak of the American Civil War, the creation of Social Security in 1935 and separately its reform in 1983, the question of defending South Korea in 1950, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the subsequent 1979 issue of the presence in Cuba of a Soviet military brigade, and a number of cases relating to different aspects of the conflict in Indochina that became the United States’ Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. The book includes appendixes providing additional detailed information regarding the catalog of case studies, the analytical methods presented in the course of instruction, and discussion of the different courses that the authors have prepared and taught drawing upon these ideas.
A central argument almost inevitably raised in any discussion of the use of history in decision-making or the making of historical comparisons in discussing contemporary issues is the idea that history does (or does not) repeat itself. Personally, I am not in complete disagreement with either side of this debate. On the one side, I have to agree that history does not appear to have ever repeated itself exactly, despite the fact that people confronting the same or similar problem or challenge will often respond in the same or similar ways. But it is this very observation that leads me to counter-argue that “No, history does not repeat itself, but people do.”