Saturday, September 04, 2010

Taking Guidance from Lessons of History

Chapter 8 of Margaret MacMillan's Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History is titled "History as a Guide". She says, and I think she is right, that we all use analogies from the past in our decision making. The point of the chapter, and indeed of the whole book, is that sometimes this is done well and sometimes poorly.

It seems to me that one has to understand both the historical event and the present problem to do this well. For example, the French in World War I failed to recognize that the Civil War had suggested that massed frontal attacks on entrenched troops armed with artillery and relatively rapidly firing weapons with relatively good accuracy was likely to fail, relying on earlier analogies with less relevance to European warfare in the second decade of the 20th century. They then assumed that strong defensive positions such as had worked in the World War I would work in the fourth decade, not realizing that mechanized warfare had again given advantages to attacking forces if well used.

The Germans in World War II may have been more effective in using the analogy of Sherman's march to the sea, or similar precedents, that warfare that bypasses dramatic engagements in order to move quickly to destroy the enemy's industrial and economic base and the morale of the enemy population can be an effective approach to defeating the enemy nation. In both cases the French appear to have missed the fact that the technology used in the preceding battles was in important aspects different from that in the battle to come.

Similarly, President George W. Bush seemed to miss the fact that the history, culture and socio economic conditions in Saddam Hussein's Iraq were different than those of Hitlers Germany in drawing analogies from the latter to guide his decisions with respect to the Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11.

MacMillan makes the point that major decisions or war or peace involve debates among key policy advisors and actors as to which historical events are the most appropriate from which to draw lessons, and what those lessons should be. For that process to work well, one should both know about a large number of historical events and understand each of them well. One should of course, also be able to argue them well, and the process is likely only to work well with decision makers who understand the use of such analogies and can make reasoned decisions among them, using the best analogies well.

Of course I am making a point at a very high level of abstraction. Public policy probably can benefit if advisors know a lot of history (both in terms of breadth of knowledge and depth of knowledge) and a lot about the circumstances in which they hope to apply the appropriate historical lessons, and if decision makers know how to utilize their advisors and their advice well in making decisions.

MacMillan makes her argument citing lots of examples, giving short shrift to the defense of the reading of each event that she cites and its implications. She is a very well known historian, but I found myself wondering whether all of her judgments were valid, and thus whether all of her examples were credible evidence for the point she was making.

Incidentally, Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies suggests that one of the reasons that the Spanish conquerors were successful in defeating the much larger forces of the Inca and Aztec Empires was that they had books which allowed them to have mastered a much larger number of historical examples of how to identify and take advantage of the weaknesses of opposing states. This sounds reasonable, and adds to the belief that profound knowledge of history may be a guide to current decisions.

This is one of a series of posts on Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History:

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