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.