The limitations of history

History, like any other human endeavor, is subject to human error and the human tendency to change the story to suit one’s interests. The following are a number of quotes taken from the section The Exploration of History. 

Nothing can deceive like a document.

After twenty years’ experience of such work, pure documentary history seems to me akin to mythology.

Many are the gaps to be found in official archives, token of documents destroyed later to conceal what might impair a commander’s reputation.

The study of war history is especially apt to dispel any illusions—about the reliability of men’s testimony and their accuracy in general, even apart from the shaping of facts to suit the purposes of propaganda.

A sound rule of historical evidence is that while assertions should be treated with critical doubt, admissions are likely to be reliable.

Why Don’t We Learn From History, Basil H. Liddell Hart, p27-29

This seems disheartening if you’re trying to reconstruct actual events from historical documents. How is one to tell which account is the truthful one – and how to reconcile conflicting and both seemingly plausible explanations?

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The Value of History

I think someone else has said something similar (that I’ve recently read – it might have been James Mattis) but it’s true that the study of history allows the reader to become wiser far beyond their years.

There is no excuse for anyone who is not illiterate if he is less than three thousand years old in mind.

And to get all meta on you, this understanding about history’s value goes back at least two centuries before Christ:

The point was well expressed by Polybius. “There are two roads to the reformation for mankind, one through misfortunes of their own, the other through the misfortunes of others; the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful… we should always look out for the latter, for thereby we can, without hurt to ourselves, gain a clearer view of the best course to pursue… the knowledge gained from the study of true history is the best of all educations for practical life.”

Why Don’t We Learn From History, Basil H. Liddell Hart, p20

Creativity in Combat comes from “Seeds Long Sown”

Liddell Hart, known for his war journalism, works on military strategy and predictions about war, wrote this book about the uses and usefulness of history. He also covers a lot of ground in other areas.

Creative thought has often counted for more than courage; for more, even, than gifted leadership. It is a romantic habit to ascribe to a flash of inspiration in battle what more truly has been due to seeds long sown, to the previous development of some new military practice by the victors, or to avoidable decay in the military practice of the losers.

Why Don’t We Learn From History, Basil H. Liddell Hart, p22

The Nature of Genius

Capt. Little here lays out how previous study and practical experience is the key to genius – at least in a military context here.

Marshal Soult said, however, that “that which is called an inspiration is simply a calculation rapidly made and another great authority has said that “inspiration was frequently but a timely recollection,” which is but a paraphrase of the saying that the “soul of wit is apt quotation.”
Napoleon has himself revealed to us what is to be thought of his innate genius, when, in a conversation with Senator Roederer, the 6th of March; he said:

As for myself, I am always at work, I meditate a great deal. If I seem always prepared to reply to all, to meet all, it is that before undertaking anything, I have meditated’ a long time, I have foreseen what might occur. It is not a genius which reveals to me Suddenly, in secret, what I am to say or do in an emergency by the rest of people unexpected–it is my reflection, it is my meditation. I am constantly at work, at meals, at the theater; at night I get up to work.

The distinguished French military writer, from whom the above is quoted, ” General Pierron, in an attempt to ferret out the secret of Napoleon’s wonderful military capacity, has discovered that the main points of his most brilliant campaign, the campaign in Italy of 796, were taken from the Memoires of the Marshal de Maillebois, who had commanded in that theater fifty years before (1746), ,and from a paper of General de Bourcet, in which there is a review of operations in Italy in 1733.

It is not generally known that before assuming command of the Army of Italy, Napoleon had previously served in the same army its chief of artillery, and from there was transferred to the general staff in Paris, where he prepared a plan of campaign for that army, at which time he saw the books referred to. In a conversation on this subject the late Major Churchill of the army related the two following stories in illustration:

An officer who had served on the staff of General Sherman in the March to the Sea, was telling Major Churchill of the General’s wonderful, intuitive grasp of terrain, and gave as an example how one day the General was laying out the order of march, and said such a column will ford the Chattahoochee at such a point.”-“General, there isn’t any ford shown on the map; hadn’t we better send a reconnoitering party to find out?”-” Oh, no; I’m sure they will be able to find a ford there somewhere,” and sure enough they did!
Then the Major laughed; for he remembered that when he was a boy accompanying his father, Colonel Churchill, who was conducting the survey of that section, Lieutenant Wm. Tecumseh Sherman, of the third artillery, reported for duty, and that Lieutenant Sherman and he had crossed that ford together many a time!

The other story was that a man was insisting on the intuitive, inborn instinct of sign reading possessed by the Indians. “Oh, said his companion, “the white man could do the same under proper training.”-“Never, never in the world!”
Just then the rattle was heard of an ice cart passing in the street. “What’s that? -That’s an ice cart.”-“How did you know that? An Indian would have thought that wonderful.”

The Strategic Naval War Game or Chart Maneuver by Capt W. McCarty Little, USN, p1215

This seems connected to Liddell Hart’s observations that military genius isn’t necessarily a mysterious inborn trait, but the result of practical experience and previous study.