Axioms make Idioms of us All

I can’t think of two more misleading axioms to the common understanding of history than: the past is told by those who win and history repeats itself . Like all axioms/adages/proverbs (whatever you wish to call them) they’re rooted in reality, the problem is this reality is interpreted on a narrow, perhaps even archaic, view of history. The latter suggests a cyclicality which obscures the complex, unique circumstances in which major events occur. It seems self-evident to many that victory in Afghanistan is impossible. According to common wisdom whole empires have tried and failed to subdue the resilient misunderstood tribes, so much so that there seems to be implicit expectation of failure. Now this, isn’t a post about the prospects of success in Afghanistan – whatever that may constitute, but rather strike a warning chord about an overly simplistic, generalised view of history. Evidently historians value some narratives above others, but this isn’t confirmation that there’s wilful misrepresentation of events to serve the agenda of a conflict’s victor.

These axioms now carry so much implied meaning, collectively developed, recycled and repeated over the years that they’ve moved beyond their immediate, literal but glib meaning. Their implied cultural baggage has pushed them towards idiom rather than axiom. Now before the linguists start constructing effigies of me to burn, the literal composition of the terms precludes it from ever making the transition, but this doesn’t undermine the point that phrases like these act as rallying points for public conceptions. The obvious defence of the poor adages would be that they represent an existing dominant view, but is this really the case? Something short, sharp and snappy gets wider acceptance than ‘History is complex web of factors, narratives and contexts which are never quite the same at any one given time, making both the recollection and understanding difficult’. What may seem as self-evident and profound as ‘the past is told…‘ or ‘History repeats‘ is often undermined fatally when more than a cursory glance is paid to the subject.

Now this is a war blog and I’ve consciously been quite theoretical here, but to tie it in, these axioms seem to strike more resonantly when the military’s involved. You need look no further than Hitler’s ‘stab in the back’ myth, or the comparisons (enshrined by Hollywood) between Vietnam and Iraq as evidence for an axiomatic interpretation of history. But on both accounts these fall horribly short of adequately explaining the long durée causes and conduct. What of German militarism harking back to 18th Century Prussia? Or the vast contextual differences politically, culturally and militarily between the Cold War Vietnam and Iraq? Arguments can be made, and that’s what makes these conceptions so dangerous. They’re reductive and seductive. As military historians/armchair generals/interested laymen we must remember when relating history to current events that the past can be nothing more than an approximate guide.

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2 responses to “Axioms make Idioms of us All

  1. While I’m in complete agreement that the notion of ‘history repeating’ is foolish and misleading, I do think that tweaking the axiom could provide a better argument when defending the value of historical study, especially when looking at military history.

    Rather than saying ‘history repeats’ we should try and show how history informs and influences the present because it forms the basis for public perceptions, perceptions which have very tangible effects on how events in the here and now play out. The Iraq war is a perfect example of this, in 2003 public expectation, and indeed the publics perception of the war was informed by the 1991 Gulf War. As a result the public support in the initial post invasion weeks was strong, believing fully that American military strength would quickly quash Iraqi opposition then within a few weeks or maybe months the war would be over.

    When these expectations were not met and the war evolved from a battle between two recognized combatant forces and became a struggle between a uniformed combatant and the many insurgent groups that took root like weeds, the American, and indeed the worlds public perception re-calibrated its understanding of the struggle based on recent historical experience. For the majority of American’s the only comparable experience with which to inform the public perception was that of the Vietnam War. For better or worse the legacy of Vietnam influenced both political discourse and strategic discussion as the war ragged on.

    The irony being that the failed strategy first employed by coalition forces, chosen to mimic the course of the First Gulf War was in and of itself informed by the American historical experience in Vietnam and a desire not to let history repeat itself.

    In the end I think its important to understand that while perceptions may in many cases be academically insubstantial, they do have very real influence. I think as historians as much as it pains us that these notions exist we should look to understand the very real influence they have on shaping future events, by they right or wrong. Then perhaps we can better shape the perceptions that will inform future discourse and indeed events.

  2. On the contrary Nick I don’t think anyone in military history would argue that perceptions are insignificant! The historians’ job is forever shaped by perception, either reinforcing or challenging it. In many respects, as you point out, it’s central to the wider public’s understanding of a conflict and in some cases the military’s planning. Although in the case of Iraq I would be inclined to give the military much more slack than you do. Much of the oversight on post-war planning was not down to the coalition’s militaries thinking it would be the same, but rather political neglect of the aftermath.

    Essentially I think we’re arguing in favour of the same thing here. Precedence needs to be given more thought. I don’t see how axioms really aid this process, they encourage unquestioning acceptance of similarity. This essentially undermines the skills needed to reasonably reflect on events, both current and past. But public perception can certainly be shaped by these accepted trinkets and if we are to make the right decisions on military matters this needs to be realised and factored in.

    It will be interesting to see how the Twitter-Revolution changes the way we see conflict, security and society. I’m inclined to think we may be slightly overplaying the importance of technology but that’s the subject of another blog…

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