To be sure, lessons can be gleaned from the study of past wars, as did Thucydides, answering some of the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘why’, and ‘so-what’ questions. These putative takeaways may be constructively exploited—albeit within distinct limits.Exploited, as the military historian Trevor Dupuy said, to “determine patterns of conduct [and] performance . . . that will provide basic insights into the nature of armed conflict.” The stuff of grand strategies and humble tactics. But here’s the rub: What’s unlikely is that those historical takeaways will lead to higher-probability outcomes in future war.
The reason for this conclusion is that the inherent instability of war makes it impossible to pave the way to victory with assurance, regardless of lessons gleaned from history. There are too many variables, which rapidly pile up like grains of sand and get jostled around as events advance and recede. Some philosophers of history, such as Arthur Danto, have shed light on the whys and wherefores of all this. That is, history captures not just isolated events but rather intersections and segues between events—like synapses. These intersections result in large changes in events, making it numbingly hard to figure out what will emerge at the other end of all that bewildering change. It’s even more complicated to sort out how history’s lessons from past wars might translate to reliable prescriptions for managing future wars.
But the grounds for flawed historical prescription go beyond the fact that war’s recipe mixes both ‘art’ and ‘science’. Even in the context of blended art and science, a little historical information is not always better than none; in the case of war, a tipping point must be reached before information is good enough and plentiful enough to matter. The fact is that war is both nonlinear and dynamic. Reliable predictions—and thus prescriptions—are elusive. Certainly, war obeys physical laws; the problem is just that we can’t always get a handle on the how and why that happens, in face of all the rapidly moving, morphing parts. Hence in the eyes of those caught up in war’s mangle, events often appear to play out as if random, at times lapsing into a level of chaos that planners cannot compensate for.
This randomness is more familiarly known as the ‘fog of war’. The fog stems from the perception of confusion in the mind’s eye. Absent a full understanding of prevailing initial conditions and their intersections, this perception drives decisions and actions during war. But it does so unreliably. Complexity thus ensures that orderliness eludes the grasp of historians, policymakers, military leaders, and pundits alike. Hindsight doesn’t always help. Unforeseeable incidents, which Carl von Clausewitz dubbed friction, govern every aspect of war. This friction appears as unmanageable ‘noise’, magnified manifold when war’s tempo quickly picks up or acute danger is at hand.
The sheer multiplicity of, and interactions among, initial conditions make it impossible to predict every possible outcome or to calculate their probabilities. Such unpredictability in war provides a stark challenge to C.G. Hempel’s comfortable expectations:
“Historical explanation . . . [being] aimed at showing that some event in question was not a ‘matter of chance’, but was rather to be expected in view of certain antecedent or simultaneous conditions.”To the contrary, it is the very unpredictability of war that makes it impossible to avoid or at least contain. The pioneering of chaos theory, by Henri Poincaré, Edward Lorenz, and others, has shown that events associated with dynamic, nonlinear systems—war among them—are extraordinarily sensitive to their initial conditions. And as Aristotle observed, “the least deviation . . . is multiplied later a thousandfold.”
Wars evolve as events—branching out in fern-like patterns—play out their consequences. The thread linking the lessons from history to future wars is thin and tenuous. ‘Wisdom’ gleaned from the past inevitably bumps up against the realities of wars’ disorder. We might learn much from past wars, including descriptive reconstructions of causes, circumstances, and happenings, but our ability to take prescriptive lessons’ forward is strictly limited. In describing the events of the Peloponnesian War,
“If [my history] be judged by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future . . . I shall be content.”Yet is our knowledge of history really so exact? The answer is surely 'no' – whatever the comfortable assurances of Thucydides.