Friday, January 21, 2005

Re: Professor D'Amato's Response to Mr. Ellis

January 21, 2005

Dear Colleagues:

The attached email on the use of history to shed light on the present was received from Professor Tony D’Amato of Northwestern University Law School. A brief response to the email follows it.

Response to Mr. Ellis:

President Bush's legacy is not at all what you or George Washington think it will be. Bush intends to establish permanent American military bases and airports in Iraq. These will not only project American power throughout the Middle East, but will also influence who will buy oil from the Iraqis and Kurds and at what prices. Bush has no interest in saving the Iraqis or removing violence from their country or even in declaring our victory there. Clinton's way of "brokering" the Israel-Palestine standoff was to offer enormous monetary bribes to both sides. Bush will do it much cheaper and more effectively; he'll simply rattle his military arm in Iraq and let the two sides figure out their own way out of their territorial dispute.

As much as I agree with each and every well-chosen reason Dean Velvel gives for bringing historical knowledge to bear upon current events, it has to be what I would call strategic historical knowledge. I think Niall Ferguson has it exactly right: a historian must inquire into the value of the things that people didn't do, and also the things they decided not to do, instead of just reporting the things they did. To focus on the latter, as nearly every historian does, is to adopt a seductive view of history as cause-and-effect, that is, everything that the historian reports as having happened becomes the cause of everything that the historian reports as having happened next. This gives us at best an extraordinarily distorted one-dimensional linear view of a rich three-dimensional past.

Indeed, to repeat one of my pet peeves, it is the reason why history is today so undervalued in the academy. Historians have painted themselves into a historiographical corner that forbids them to look at the past the way past historical players viewed it stragetically day by day, and instead view the past as a coherent narrative that can only be changed at the peril of losing an appointment in a history department by infuriating a tenured historian who has a vested interest in preserving his or her definitive account of the past.

Tony D'Amato

January 21, 2005

Dear Tony:

If I correctly understand one of your major points, you are saying that, in using history to shed light on current problems, one should consider not only what was done historically, but also what was not done, i.e., alternative roads in the wood not taken. This is called counterfactual history, of course. While historians tend to abhor it, I see nothing wrong with considering roads not taken as well as roads taken. So, if I correctly grasp your point, I agree with it.

I would, however, make an additional point. Counterfactuals can be a more reliable guide, one would think, if the counterfactual situation were also factual and successful at some other time or place, and if the course followed instead of the counterfactual one led to bad results. I may have made that sound complicated, but it is actually quite simple. (Geniuses make the complicated simple. I make the simple complicated.)

Here is a readily understandable example of what I mean. For the first few years of the Civil War in the east, Union generals time and again gave battle, lost, and retreated behind the Rappahannock for a few months, gave battle, lost, and retreated behind the Rappahannock again for a few months. Suppose one argues that the Union would likely have been successful earlier if a general had instead given continuous battle -- i.e., had maintained continuous contact with Lee’s army and never stopped fighting it until the rebels had no more men or resources. (Lincoln seemed to believe that something like this was the path to victory for the Union -- after one of the great early battles that ended in a defeat for the Union he said something to the effect that, if there were a battle like that every week, the Confederacy would soon be out of men. And continuous contact between opposing forces was, of course, the way of fighting in the world wars of the 20th century.)

The argument that the Union would have been successful earlier if there had been continuous contact is based on the counterfactual hypothesis of nonstop battle. In this example, the course actually taken early in the war -- intermittent fighting instead of continuous fighting -- produced bad results. The counterfactual situation -- continuous contact and continuous fighting -- was followed later, under Grant, and it produced good results -- it led to the destruction of Lee’s army and the defeat of the Confederacy. That continuous contact succeeded later lends strength to the argument that the course not taken earlier would have been successful if it had been taken earlier.

(I recognize that possibly cutting against this is another fact -- that the Union generals in the east, prior to Grant, suffered from varying degrees of incompetency. Yet, had a general who was a fighter actually done what Lincoln wanted -- had a general who was a fighter grabbed on to Lee’s army to incessantly "chew and choke" (as Lincoln later put it) until the end, it is reasonable to think that Lee and the Confederacy would have been finished off earlier due to much faster attrition. In any event, my point is not that success at another time or place proves the validity of a counterfactual, but only that it makes the counterfactual stronger.)

Sincerely yours,


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