Sunday, November 19, 2006
The search for historical parallels: is it a waste of time and energy?
There are a number of historians and and a host of amateurs who spend considerable time and energy attempting to identify past situations and outcomes that parallel some present situation. They do so to draw conclusions about the probable outcome of the situation at hand, and to support a lesson to be applied now by those in charge of policy and command of forces. In most cases of these prognostications, I submit that there are significant dangers in applying them:
1) Interpretation of past events through historical records is not a perfect science, and the records are most likely imperfect; 2) Objectivity of the historian is immediately questionable, since he started out to find a parallel--in his estimation--which is a biasing process; 3) It is extremely difficult to believe that sufficient parallism exists between events, timing, communications, states of mind, the available tools (of warfare, for instance), and the manifold intangibles of leadership, belief in a cause, motivation, training, scalability and insight, to name just a few aspects for the comparison between now and then.
There is one area, however, that makes study of history pay. That area is the practice of deception of fallible human beings. In warfare, deception is a major weapon, and historical lessons in how to deceive the enemy can be put to effective use today, if properly updated technologically.
The other useful aspect of historicism is to frame the debate about the current situation with pseudo-effective parallels from the past in the minds of the people concerned, the objective being to influence government policy and direction. Some would call this dishonest, wouldn't they?
Using the Vietnam quagmire comparison with our current Iraqi situation is an example of this framing. The comparison is superficial at best, and falls apart the minute equivalent details are brought to bear.
The one similarity I can agree with is the role played by the media in creating a climate of defeat in the minds of many Americans at home, and snatching defeat from victory at the last moment! This technique has been 'very helpfully' refined and extended since the Vietnam era, to the point that it has taken the media only three or four years to reach the public and the government with its defeatist attitudes, instead of the ten years it took back then.
There is much to be said for common sense and simply thinking one's way through a problem, instead of burning minds up looking for parallels from the past to guide the way.