History Has No Lessons for You: A Warning for Policymakers

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As a historian working in professional military education, I find myself in the awkward position of warning strategists and students alike against drawing too many lessons from history. As quick keyword searches of major foreign policy publications show, the quest for historical lessons appeals to both policymakers seeking guidance and academics seeking to make their work relevant.

But while a sophisticated grasp of the past has tremendous value for anyone in government, reducing it to a search for lessons detracts from sound historical understanding and misleads today’s strategic thinkers. And while I am as guilty as other historians of pitching my work in terms of readily applicable lessons, I fear this reduces our discipline to simplistic aphorisms.

 

 

Instead, history education is relevant to national security practitioners because it fosters a better understanding of how the current world came to be, why other societies think differently from the United States, the dangers of analogical reasoning, and the difficulties of real-time decision-making. Equally importantly, it cultivates an ability to think outside of the parameters of the present. This contributes to a more critical comprehension of oneself and one’s nation and a stronger ability to unpack assumptions and avoid errors.

The Problems with “Lessons”

Sara Maza defines historical lessons as “neatly packaged axioms applicable to present and future circumstances.” In strategy, this would mean a principle or course of action derived from historical cases that should guide contemporary decision-making. Lesson-learning involves reasoning by analogy: present situation X is like past situation Y, so we should pursue one course or another based on that lesson.

But isn’t lesson-learning just an attempt to learn from the past to avoid similar mistakes in the future? What is so wrong about applying historical lessons to today’s challenges?

To understand the pitfalls of lesson-learning, consider the concepts of context and contingency. Context refers to the complex swirl of social, political, economic, intellectual, environmental, and other factors that shape the environment in which people live and act at any given time. All historical contexts are different; the world in 2050 will not be like today’s world, which is unlike the world of 1989, much less that of 1648, and so on. These differences make generalizing across contexts innately difficult. Nevertheless, understanding any decision or policy requires looking at context. To explain the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, one must understand the post–Cold War international system, ideas about U.S. power at the time, and the recent trauma of Sept. 11.

In John Lewis Gaddis’ definition, contingencies are “phenomena that do not form patterns.” They are the branching points of history at which things could have easily been different because of unpredictable, unusual, and often small occurrences whose importance is sometimes clear only in hindsight. Contingency accounts for the importance of human agency and the fact that people may react differently to similar circumstances. Through this concept, historians challenge the idea that any given event was inevitably determined by large structural forces.

To return to the Iraq War example: The war was contingent on the shock of Sept. 11, which depended on the success of 19 hijackers executing their operation, which hinged on U.S. intelligence shortcomings and significant luck by the terrorists themselves. Al Qaeda’s rise was contingent on schisms within the international jihadist movement, the crushing of jihadist groups in Egypt and Algeria in the 1990s, the personal development of its leaders, and the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. So while the Iraq War had many grand contextual causes like unipolarity, it also had more specific and contingent roots in factors determined by chance and human agency.

Context and contingency pose a number of problems for lesson-learning. First, the failure to pay attention to these forces often leads to a misapplication of history to present scenarios. After the 2007 Iraq troop surge, for example, counter-insurgency advocates such as David Petraeus used the momentum of the surge’s partial successes to advocate for counter-insurgency in Afghanistan.

The contexts of these two countries, however, differed dramatically. Iraq faced an urban insurgency in a modernized society. Afghanistan featured a dispersed rural insurgency, a poorly governed border that offered safe haven for the Taliban, and an even weaker central government and sense of national identity. By overlooking the different contexts of these societies, many strategists constructed the questionable “lesson” that Iraq demonstrated counter-insurgency’s applicability to other cases. Moreover, the surge’s advances were contingent on a number of factors that were hard to replicate across cases. Without the simultaneous “Sunni awakening” against al-Qaeda in Iraq, U.S. troops may have achieved limited security gains but would have failed to consolidate those gains or root al-Qaeda in Iraq out of Sunni communities.

The case of counter-insurgency speaks to another limitation of lesson-learning: policy-makers and analysts often read history selectively to get the lessons they want. Counter-insurgency advocates like John Nagl highlighted early Cold War cases like Malaya or the Philippines to promulgate this strategy for the war on terror. But not only did these arguments downplay counter-insurgency’s imperial connections, they also overlooked contextual differences that made it hard to apply “lessons” from these cases to the present. For example, the British during the Malayan Emergency succeeded in part because most of the insurgents came from the minority Chinese population, which could be easily isolated from the Malay majority.

Anti–counter-insurgency theorists committed similar distortions in their quest to purge it from U.S. doctrine. Some reduced the surge’s gains to paying off insurgents, oversimplifying the actual history. Historian Douglas Porch argues that counter-insurgency theorists ignored the political nature of insurgency and that the surge failed to create space for political compromise in Iraq. In contrast, counter-insurgency advocates talk endlessly of the political nature of insurgency, and the surge did contribute to a major decline in violence that created opportunities for Iraqi reconciliation. A focus on lessons too often turns history into “an enormous grab bag” for policy analysts to use to support preexisting conclusions.

In addition, lesson-learning faces a major paradox. Highly specific lessons provide little value for applying to new cases. Nevertheless, general lessons that might be applicable across cases are usually so banal that they offer no insight.

For example, are the lessons of the Iraq War to avoid invading countries that never attacked the United States, failing to plan for those conflicts, and then attempting long-term nation-building? If so, one needs little history to reach these conclusions. History is hardly necessary to reach President Barack Obama’s dictum: “Don’t do stupid shit.” In fact, focusing on such trite lessons might mislead students into thinking that historical actors were simply stupid and that they would never make such blunders.

Additionally, history often offers contradictory lessons, each with some semblance of truth. The bromide that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” is misleading. History is more like meterless free verse poetry, nonlinear and paradoxical.

Consider the contradictory lessons of World War II and Vietnam. The lesson that U.S. leaders took from World War II was that dictators always exploit weakness and that striking them early was better than appeasement, as the British and French did to Adolf Hitler at the 1938 Munich Conference. This “no more Munichs” mentality informed U.S. decisions to intervene in Korea and Vietnam. As U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge argued to President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, “I feel there is a greater threat to start World War III if we don’t go in. Can’t we see the similarity to our own indolence at Munich?” The Vietnam disaster, however, engendered competing lessons: Don’t send half a million troops to a peripheral theater to prop up a sclerotic dictatorship on the faulty logic of the domino theory.

So, when Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which lesson should have informed policy? Always nip aggressors in the bud, or be wary of creating unnecessary wars by striking in haste? Both lessons had some credence, which made them mostly useless. As Hal Brands argues, these contradictory lessons distorted strategic thought in this crisis. The war’s skeptics could see only a new Vietnam in the desert, despite massive contextual differences. In contrast, the war’s boosters, including the George H.W. Bush administration, believed Saddam was a new Hitler. Bushqueried in January 1991: “My mind goes back to history: How many lives might have been saved if appeasement had given way to force earlier?”

Bush’s war to reverse Iraqi aggression was justifiable without this shaky analogy. However, this “lesson” prompted him to inflate the threat and use overheated rhetoric that raised Americans’ expectations about what Bush envisioned as a limited war. This fed a sense of disappointment at Saddam’s survival that cast a pall over U.S. policy toward Iraq for the next decade.

Finally, lesson-learning makes policy-makers more vulnerable to cognitive biases. In the recency bias, people draw on examples that are freshest in their memory or experience to reason through a current problem. In the availability heuristic, people draw on more vivid and salient instances for the same purposes.

Searching for lessons encourages decision-makers to overrate the importance of recent and dramatic events and ignore other evidence that might challenge their views. For example, the George W. Bush administration, like most Americans, overestimated the likelihood of catastrophic weapons of mass destruction terrorism because of the shadow of Sept. 11, which itself depended on numerous contingencies. This contributed to the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

Lesson-learning combined with these biases also creates risks of overlearning from recent events. Restraint advocates may be right that the war on terror’s failures should prompt a humbler grand strategy. But they also frequently misrepresent the complex history of the war on terror, downplaying positives such as the lack of major attacks on the U.S. homeland and the defeat of core al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. By explaining U.S. mistakes like Iraq simply as a product of the pursuit of hegemony, they overlook the many contingencies that made the war possible, including Sept. 11 and the mutual misperceptions of U.S. and Iraqi leaders.

Moreover, restrainers’ recommendations for a significant reduction of U.S. power and presence in the world risk overcorrection. Would weapons of mass destruction proliferation, geopolitical competition, and revanchist nationalism surge if the United States withdrew from Europe or northeast Asia? Would global commerce endure without the U.S. Navy? What would happen to nations like Ukraine and Taiwan? That the war on terror was largely an overreaction does not offer clear lessons for dealing with these challenges. Recent history should inform but not dominate our thinking about them.

Why Even Study History?

At this point, my employer may be wondering why they hired me at all. If lesson-learning is not the reason to study history, then why should a strategist with limited time study history at all?

One major benefit for a strategist is to understand how the present came to be. History shows how we got to the present day in any domain: society, economics, politics, military affairs, ideas, and so on. It gives the strategic thinker a stronger sense of the landscape in which he or she will operate and a better understanding of the people, institutions, and nations that surround them. How did we arrive at the point where the United States became the fulcrum of the liberal international order? How did our political system become so polarized? How did the United States arrive at such a tense relationship with the United Nations, a body it was largely responsible for creating? Great historical works on these kinds of questions show students that current realities have not always been so and that they formed out of a mix of contextual and contingent factors that are unlikely to occur again.

Furthermore, these questions are all open to multiple interpretations, and they all resist simple lesson-learning. Indeed, a focus on lessons skips the vital task of interpreting history, as any lesson must build on arguments about what happened, how, and why. My students are often surprised that history is an interpretive process with no final answers. But realizing this helps them consider that what they may have learned about the past from various sources may be dubious, which cultivates greater curiosity and humility.

Furthermore, global history helps national security practitioners understand how other societies see things and why they often diverge from U.S. perceptions. Understanding Russia or China’s history, and the way modern Russians and Chinese interpret it, is essential for understanding their strategies, identities, and politics. Grasping China’s narrative of a “century of humiliation” or Russia’s crises since the Soviet Union’s collapse is crucial for understanding how they approach global politics. A stronger sense of Arab resentment of Western power, including colonialism, support for Israel, and crippling sanctions, may have induced more caution prior to the Iraq War.

The best moments at my job at the Naval War College come when one of our international students interrupts to say “No, that’s not how we see things.” When teachers can connect those moments to history, U.S. students get outside of their biases and assumptions and comprehend the world in a more critical way.

History also gives students an empathetic ability to see events from the past forward rather than in hindsight, which historian Gordon Wood calls a “historical sense.” Rather than condescending to the past, future national security professionals should be asking why mostly reasonable and intelligent people made such mistakes and why errors persist over time.

A historical sense also strengthens students’ ability to consider each situation in its own terms rather than picking the analogies that bolster our assumptions or goals. James Fallows, for instance, recalls seeing U.S. officials reading books about the U.S. reconstruction of Germany and Japan on a plane to Iraq in 2003. These cases of success offered the flattering “lesson” that the United States could turn former foes into democratic allies. But there were vast differences between these contexts as well as many counter-examples of the United States failing to transform foreign societies. U.S. officials should have engaged more systematically with Iraq’s particular historical development before plunging in.

History, which Gaddis calls a “vicarious enlargement of experience,” can immerse students in the emotions and ideas that shaded past decisions, helping them appreciate the pressures and confusion of the moment. It may seem obvious now that the United States should not have fought the Vietnam War. But it is less clear what President Johnson should have done with a deteriorating situation in Vietnam that he inherited from his predecessors, a bipartisan consensus on stopping communist advances, and the fear that “losing Vietnam” would jeopardize his crucial domestic reforms. Students can thereby better understand the imperfect information, political factors, organizational constraints, emotional strains, and lack of good options that will affect them when they must make decisions.

Finally, historical education fosters humility and self-understanding for budding strategists. The further we move away from a given event, the easier it is to identify and critique the assumptions that policy-makers held at the time. Looking back on the 1990s, it is easy to criticize U.S. leaders’ assumptions that liberal democracy was sweeping the world and that neoliberalism offered the best courses of economic development. But applying this type of scrutiny to one’s own time is intensely difficult. History does not provide answers to contemporary strategic questions, but it nurtures the ability to think outside of the parameters of the present while challenging assumptions.

If there are any lessons from history, they are largely cautionary ones about irony, tragedy, and the limits of human reason. Wood put this well: “History does not teach lots of little lessons. Insofar as it teaches any lessons, it teaches only one big one: that nothing ever works out quite the way its managers intended or expected.”

Conclusion

To be fair, policy-makers do not have the luxury of chewing on historical complexities. They have to make decisions within numerous constraints, and history provides a body of knowledge that they should draw on to inform those decisions.

Historians should pitch their relevance in the terms described above rather than in terms of lessons. But if policy-makers insist on some form of lessons, historians should respond in two ways. First, they should encourage policy-makers to view lessons in cautious, probabilistic terms that always account for contextual differences. As Senator J. William Fulbright said in 1966, “The value of history is not what it seems to prohibit or prescribe, but its general indications as to the kinds of policies that are likely to succeed and the kinds that are likely to fail.” Second, historians should pick away at models, theories, and lessons and stress how context and contingency make generalization so difficult.

Lesson-learning is a shortcut for critical thinking. It appeals to positive impulses, but it loses value once you sink into specific historical contexts and appreciate their contingencies. It also poses its own risks: misapplication, distortion, selectivity, reinforcing biases, and so on. History should remain central to the education of national security professionals not for lesson-learning but for enriching their understanding of the world and themselves while cultivating the wisdom to inform sound decisions.

 

Joseph Stieb is an assistant professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of The Regime Change Consensus: Iraq in American Politics, 1990–2003. He has published articles in the Texas National Security Review, Diplomatic History, Modern American History, Journal of Strategic Studies, International History Review, War on the Rocks, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.

The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views, policies, or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense or its components, to include the Department of the Navy or the U.S. Naval War College.

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