Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Thought About Reasoning from History.

Marvin and Deborah Kalb discussed their book Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama on Book TV. There were a couple of key points made:

  • Different presidents facing different problems at different times have looked back on the U.S. experience with the war in Viet Nam, interpreted that experience in very different ways, and used it to justify or conceptualize very different decisions on their military problems.
  • In general, we do not understand the foreign cultures and countries in which the new military problems occur well enough to deal with those problems well. Perhaps one might extrapolate to suggest that it is easy to draw false analogies if one does not understand the situation in which you plan to apply the analogy.
I dare to suggest that it is also the case that we do not understand Viet Nam and the U.S. experience in Viet Nam well enough (yet, still?) to be safe from false analogies to other situations.

It seems to be obvious that different historians understand the same history in different ways, and indeed that the same historian may understand a single historical event in different ways at different times. Moreover, it seems to be agreed that each generation reinterprets the past according to the issues of its time. Indeed, since culture changes fast enough that each generation's culture differs from that of its predecessor and that of its successor in significant ways. One can conclude that the drawing of "lessons" from history to apply to current decisions is a risky business.

Perhaps one might suggest that a limited time perspective does not help. Seeking analogies from a couple of thousand years of history, and from the history of all regions of the world is likely to yield more accurate parallels than seeking analogies from only one's own lifetime and only one's own country.

Thus I guess I am suggesting that it is better to know a lot about history, about the details of historical analogies and about the situations to which one seeks to apply the analogy if one is to reduce risks to an acceptable level.

Perhaps one can go further and suggest that our top decision makers seldom frame problems in ways that our descendants will think was the most reasonable, that they often miss the key issues on major events. If so, how much are they likely to benefit from historical analogies that they seek to apply?

No comments: