The Utility of History


“The historical sense makes its servants passive and retrospective. Only in moments of forgetfulness, when that sense is dormant, does the man who is sick of the historical fever ever act.”
Friedrich Nietzsche On the Use and Mis-use of History

Wikipedia lists 32 different historical methodologies including such diverse approaches as Universal history, the Annals school Social history, Cliometrics and Postmodernism. There are almost as many approaches to history as there are historians. Perhaps even more as every pundit, journalist, politician and talking head have their own versions of the method and meaning of history. There is very little consensus about what history is what it is supposed to accomplish and how it should be done.

In doing history we cannot set up experiments, let alone double-blind tests. Events happen once and their circumstances are complex and unique. We cannot achieve statistical significance; every result is an outlier. Viewed as a science, history is an exercise in data mining, a search to find and fit data to a theory, pre-conceived notion or prejudice. We can, and we often do if we are selective enough, find data to defend almost any theory. In practice we use history to rationalize and justify our unfounded prejudices.

Of course the study of history can help prevent the repetition of obvious mistakes, but will not provide the difference between victory and defeat. Vision and creativity are needed to see beyond history, to envision the future and not merely master the past. Mitchell and Douhet make attempts to see future possibilities and as a result are frequently criticized by those blessed with hindsight. Mahan presents nearly a thousand pages of historical examples in The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 and it’s follow up volume The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812 but his real influence comes from his vision of the future of naval power.

We all know that in World War II the allies fought a just and necessary war against the evils of Hitler and fascism. There seems to be nearly universal agreement on this. Yet this well-known fact may just be an artifact of how decisively the allies won the war and rebuilt the social and political structures they opposed. I have not seen too many fascist histories of World War II and know that something must be missing to have a complete picture. The study of history is not so much a detailed understanding of what happened but rather a chronology of the victors, their power and its interpretations, biases and deceptions.

Complete victory in a just and necessary war against evil tyrants followed by sweeping social transformation is a compelling story. However a compelling postscript is different than an ability to predict the future. These “lessons” of World War II were the model for Iraq, most likely to our disadvantage. They allowed the US to start the war despite widespread protests yet have so far done little to create a model for its successful conclusion.

While the US mistakenly looked to history for a vision of welcomed liberation in Iraq, one could argue that Saddam Hussein made more creative use of similar circumstances in the same region 10-15 years earlier. At the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Hussein faced the situation of demilitarizing some 400,000 young, armed men with few job prospects into a weak and ruined economy after an almost decade-long failed war against Iran. The 1990 invasion of Kuwait made creative use of the army to enforce the “forgiveness” of $30 billion in loans from Kuwait—used, according to Hussein, for their defense. The advantages of this are numerous: control of 20% of Persian gulf oil reserves, productive use of 400,000 soldiers, punishment for Kuwait and a warning for others in region.

Even after the rapid and crushing victory of allied forces and US in the 1993 Gulf War, I would argue that Saddam Hussein was in better shape than before the invasion. This allows him to accomplish a rapid de-militarization without loss of honor. He reduced the number of potential unemployed through casualties in the range of 20,000-200,000 and the capture of 175,000 Iraqis prisoners. He can claim greater prestige within the nation and region for standing up to and defending against US imperialism as well as redirecting the blame for economic hardships.

The uprising against Saddam Hussein that followed the war was viewed in the west as a sign of his unpopularity and eminent demise. However it was possible for Hussein to suppress the revolt and maintain power; something that may not have been possible before the invasion of Kuwait. In the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war, the US saw the after effect of too rapidly demilitarizing one of the world’s largest armies into a failed economy. This could suggest that creatively looking at the situation in front of you is more important than looking at history.

In our culture it is not polite to question the motives and actions of the allies in WWII and it is also imprudent to praise anything about Saddam Hussein. In our culture Hitler and Saddam are synonyms for evil, an objectively fuzzy concept, but nevertheless one of strong emotional intensity—and one that is useful. Think for a moment how you may have felt to hear criticism of the allies or praise of Saddam. It was likely a physical reaction. Muscles tensed, jaw clenched, blood pressure rising. This is not an intellectual response to be used as a ground for objective history. History is emotional and the use of history is an exercise of power. It can be used to motivate populations, deceive citizens or wage wars. This is the real utility of history.

~ by severalfourmany on October 26, 2007.

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