Monday, 17 October 2016

Does History Shape Future Wars?

Posted by Keith Tidman
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,

Thucydides wrote:

“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.


  1. It is the question of the usefulness of history to war -- which is the philosophy of history. There are two general problems in this regard, and here (above) we have the first: the relationship of a science to its outcomes. Drop a pebble into a (natural) pond, and one may know with a high degree of certainty what the ripples will look like in a second's time -- yet little about the pattern they will create in a minute. On such a view, I don't see why, in principle, one cannot hope to improve -- much as weather forecasts have improved in our own lifetime.

    A second problem is this. History is, most broadly defined, the 'total human past'. Yet every history must be a selection and arrangement of facts. One cannot, after all, select everything. A history of war therefore represents an act of choice, conviction, and interpretation regarding the facts. What starts a war? Generals. No, ghouls. Poverty. Microbes. What defines a war? What informs it? What wins it? And so on. All are subject to interpretation, and the product of interpretation themselves. Multiply interpretive factors, and multiply them again, and one cannot hope for the usefulness of history -- because there are, so to speak, no facts.

    The first view, I think, would belong to the era of modernity, which was an 'objective' era. And through its focus on outcomes, it would belong to the end of that era. That was, I think, before our time.

    1. I agree, Thomas, on both counts: your observations round out the essay, as well as add an additional dimension to the topic.

  2. There's also this radical history critique, which insists that all facts are ... in fact ... made up and so history really is a great story - to be twisted and confabulated as required. I wonder what Keith thinks of that...

    1. For some critics to say that ‘all [historical] facts are . . . made up’ is, to my mind, hyperbolic and cynical—even approaching anti-intellectual. Such a notion strikes me as unfounded and unprovable on the basis of evidence or standard argument. There’s a degree of verifiability to historical facts that can be achieved by well-meaning historians through primary and secondary sources, and various correlated methods of investigation, cross-checking, back-checking, and informed interpretation—the stuff of historiography. However, my allusion to a ‘degree of verifiability’ was purposely qualified because history is, certainly, subject to being ‘confabulated’ for all sorts of epistemological—as well as ideological and less noble—reasons by those entrusted to record history and tease out its meaning. Whether intent matters in this regard remains an open question, and probably comes down to individual circumstances. Worth mentioning here, too, is that history is marked by a nontrivial self-correcting mechanism, whereby historians’ accuracy (and even honesty) is put to the crucible of historians following in their wake, who recheck their predecessors’ accuracy and veracity based on newly sorted and newly unearthed facts, as well as by ferreting out and correcting for biases. The outcome is much more than merely a ‘great story’. In this larger context, the brand of ‘history critique’ that attempts to lump all facts as in essence non-facts is characterised as ‘radical’ precisely because the position is arguably insupportable. But—germane to the thread of the essay on war—a wedge indeed exists between the ‘descriptive’ and ‘prescriptive’ roles of history, where, I would argue, history’s utility weighs differently.

  3. If history truly is just a 'great story', then why are humans so eager to retell it over and over again? Perhaps, we are just instinctively searching for some inner comfort by attempting to comprehend the so-called lessons which history gives us. The reality, however, does turn out to be different from the theories we create based on our knowledge of history. And yet the realisation of it is unlikely to eradicate our will to truth however relative it might be.

    Thank you, Keith, for your thought-provoking piece.

    1. Thank you, Bohdana, for your kind words. As for ‘our will to truth’, as you suggest, the urge has insatiably propelled all human intellectual disciplines—from the humanities to the sciences. Historiography’s Achilles’ heel, of course, is that it has not (and likely never will) attain the methodological rigor of, say, a natural science. Hence why reality, as you say, sometimes ‘turn[s] out to be different from the theories we create based on our knowledge of history’. But perhaps history, in order still to enrich our lives, doesn’t have to yield such logical precision and accuracy. Certainly, history’s absence of the natural sciences’ unmatched methodologies is tempered by the arguable desirability to describe, interpret, recalibrate, and share our past (notwithstanding its occasional relativism), in order to stitch a tapestry—however imperfect—of humankind’s behavior writ large.

    2. It is the ‘occasional relativism’ that troubles me. Again, this is the modernist view, which I would have thought has long been eclipsed. In other words, it is very old fashioned. The fact that this post is written by an editor-in-chief of US military history is, to me, disturbing, not because of who wrote it, but because this is likely how the US military is thinking.

  4. It depends what you mean by ‘made up’, Martin. I would see a few possibilities: invented, contrived, or interpreted for instance. I am disappointed by what I see in the discussion as a simplistic reference to ‘facts’, and all that goes with them: ‘accuracy’, ‘honesty’, ‘checking’, and so on. And in keeping with late modernity, some cursory acknowledgement of the subtleties and complexities of facts. One of my professors wrote as far back as 1968 that the ‘objective’ view is dead. Not only is it simplistic and one-sided, but it is dangerous. I shall call it fascist, by definition.

    This is not to say that nothing happened – say, yesterday. Yet imagine yesterday as a vast canvas of relations. An infinite canvas. We describe yesterday then by extracting relations from this infinity, and combining them. It is enormously subjective, and only can be. And not only is the selection of facts subjective, but the very things of which those facts are made are subjective. We are so far apart here on Pi, it is hard to know where to begin. Nothing is value-free. Not even the words which we speak.

    Perhaps an analogy would help. In much the same way as we make massive omissions in our daily life – for instance, where we privilege the sciences over the humanities, pursue business interests at the expense of the environment, or witness the dissolution of a family over personal ambition – so history may be written with or without crucial considerations, and no one may notice it at all. History teaches us nothing, said Hegel. It fixes our inner landscape, and gives us a sense of comfort – and reflects who we are, not what it is.