Monday, June 27, 2005

The U.S. Army War College journal Parameters is anything but a dull read. Foreign Affairs could take an editorial pointer or two from the Parameters staff in terms of selecting writers who won't put their subscribers to sleep. Two winners from the current issue. The first article should be of particular interest to some of my more liberal fellow bloggers like praktike, Armchair Generalist and Mithras who check in here on occasion:

"Rescuing the Law of War: A Way Forward in an Era of Global Terrorism" by Michael H. Hoffman.

"The long-term import of recent trends can’t be overstated. The United States is surely—and not so slowly—bestowing legal status and privileges on members of terrorist organizations that have no precedent in the 3,500-year recorded history of warfare. Terrorists are acquiring legal recognition and support of a kind unavailable to members of US and other national armed forces, and for that matter unavailable to insurgents during civil conflict as well. (There are early intimations that the United States may end up unilaterally bestowing similar status and privileges on the members of opposing state forces as well as terrorist organizations.) The notion that opposing forces will ever make these unique legal privileges reciprocally available to the US armed forces simply doesn’t warrant serious consideration"

A counterintuitive opener but an analytically accurate one, as it describes a change to the operative interpretation to the Laws of War that the European Left have been pushing in diplomatic, legal and media circles since the 1970's even as most EU states have effectively demilitarized.

The Euro-Left attempt to excuse unconventional fighters from Geneva Convention obligations and give them as " edge" over pro-Western, conventional, government armies began during negotiations over the Geneva Protocols where our allies aligned themselves to a degree with the Soviet bloc on the issue. Back then, the guerillas were pro-Soviet Marxists fighting
" national wars of liberation". Today they are Islamist terrorists with whose behavior gives them even less claim under Geneva to protection than the Marxist guerillas of yore. " Lawfare", so-called, is not a new phenomenon but an old campaign of the international Left.

The second article to which I'd like to draw your atention, has a great deal of continuity with the debate Cheryl Rofer and I recently had on History and Democracy promotion. Dr. Echevarria lays out a formidible case against oversetimating the uses of history ( or of historians, of which he himself is one):

" The Trouble with History" by Antulio J. Echevarria II

"The fundamental problem for historians is that, aside from being able to refer to such demonstrable facts as do exist, they have no objective references for determining (beyond a reasonable doubt) to what extent the histories they write either capture or deviate from the past. Put differently, they have nothing resembling the scientific method to aid them in determining whether what they have written is somewhat right, mostly right, or altogether wrong about the past. Quantitative history, intellectual history, “history from below,” and oral history, for example, each employ different methods. Yet none of those procedures can lay claim to the reliability of the scientific method—that is, developing a question or a hypothesis, conducting experiments to test it, revising the original hypothesis, then conducting further experiments to confirm the revised hypothesis, and finally reaching a conclusion.

Although historians may begin their research with a question or hypothesis, they cannot conduct the various experiments necessary to determine whether the main conclusions they have drawn about what happened are in fact valid.9 They cannot duplicate Pickett’s charge at the battle of Gettysburg with all the variables exactly as they were, for instance, and then change a few of them to determine whether the Confederate assault might have succeeded under different circumstances: earlier or later in the day, perhaps, or further to the left, or more to the right.10 Nor can they isolate the variables in a past event for closer study in the same way scientists—chemists, for example—can separate the key elements in a compound. Removing all the elements surrounding Pickett’s charge does not make the charge any easier to understand. In fact, without the historical context, the past is likely to remain essentially mute, unable to tell us much about itself. We might not be able to recognize Pickett’s charge itself as a charge.

To be sure, historians do have recourse to certain subjective measures—such as their abundant reviews of each other’s books and access to the advice of other, perhaps more accomplished, historians—to aid them in capturing the past. However, subjective measures tend merely to reinforce a veritable Cartesian circle of interpretation: historians write what they do based in part on the fragments of the past, but how they see those fragments is largely influenced by knowledge they have gained in the present, including the works of other historians who may indeed only be offering their best guesses as to what those fragments mean. This proved to be the case with historical interpretations of military thinking before the First World War; historians tended to view that era’s military theory and doctrine through a “lens colored red by the seemingly prolonged and futile slaughter of 1914-18,” and thus reinforced one another in a series of misunderstandings.

In addition, the impact of recent events or experiences sometimes causes historians to focus on factors and values that are quite different from what the historical actors had in mind—perhaps giving those factors and values an artificial existence. Hence, the present, as historian Christopher Bassford once noted, serves as “prologue” to the past. As Carl Becker explained, “Left to themselves, the facts do not speak. . . . [F]or all practical purposes there is no fact until someone affirms it.” And affirming a fact, of course, shapes how it is understood. Thus, historians tend to see in the past what they have been trained to see, or—for those inclined to buck convention (which requires a certain training of its own)—what they want to see. Neither tendency is necessarily wrong. Yet neither is necessarily right, either."

A smart man. Historians do suffer from physics envy, perhaps not to the degree of some of the other social science disciplines but it exists because writing good history is fundamentally a craft. Less abstract than philosophy but also less factually concrete than geology, even the best researched historical narrative is going to have gaps and interpretation, putting oneself in the other's shoes during the moment of causation or consequence, will always remain an educated guess.

The second problem highlighted by Echevarria can be addressed to a degree by deliberate introspection by the historian as to their epistemological perspective and forcing themselves to systematically look at the same data-set with different interpretive eyes. Hard to do but a worthwhile exercise in critical assessment. Echevarria himself gets very close to this suggestion when he refers to an old Education theory standby, Bloom's Taxonomy:

" For their part, historians are after what Jack Hexter, one of the more famous and controversial of historians, once called that “elusive entity—the Truth.”They want to understand what really happened, whether or not it is actually possible to do so, and then to explain why it happened. Institutions of higher learning need professionals possessed of just such a “determination to find things out,” whether they succeed or not. Thus, the most valuable contribution that history and historians can make—and why they should remain integral to higher education—is that they attempt to understand things that lie outside the realm of certainty. Their answers may be flawed, but it would be unsatisfactory for the human species to limit itself to knowing only those things that can be verified by the scientific method.

Similarly, professional military education must equip students to understand the difference between historical reality (which, like the reality of the present, we may never fully know) and attempts to describe it. It must refrain from reinforcing the tendency among military students to regard history as, in Liddell Hart’s term, a “sentimental treasure.”42 Military professionals are better served by learning to be critical of the history that historians write, by building a habit of rigorously scrutinizing facts and sources, and of detecting biases and specious arguments, and by developing an eye for penetrating the myths that surround the past. They should regard the history they read, as Gaddis advises, as something between art and science. They must learn that a prerequisite to building a strong argument is the ability to recognize a weak one."

If you blog on foreign or military affairs, Parameters is an indispensible read.
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