Rants & Raves

(Don Chance)

Let History (and Historians) be the Judge:  Not!

    Oftentimes we analyze historical events and comment on whether an action taken in a crucial moment by a powerful decision-maker was right or wrong.  Nothing I say in this document will stop that from happening, nor should it.  We love to do our ex post decision analysis, our after-the-fact second guessing, and in sports, our Monday morning quarterbacking.  “He shoulda done this” And “She shoulda done that” are probably two of our favorite expressions.  But a little bit of logical thinking will show that this type of second-guessing of critical historical decisions is fatally flawed and should not be taken seriously.  The pathetic truth is that many ostensibly smart people are really too stupid or politically motivated to realize how mistaken they are when they make these criticisms.

     First of all, let us take note that analysis of historical decisions benefits from hindsight.  When one says that George Washington should not have done this, or Harry Truman should have done that, the person providing the opinion benefits from knowledge of the course of events that follows the decision.  Typically, such opinion-givers try to position themselves in the same situation as the decision –maker and act as if given the same set of information, the opinion-giver would have made the alternative decision, which as history purportedly shows, would have led to a better outcome.

     For example, a general who divides his somewhat powerful and cohesive army into two individually weaker units and gets one or both units obliterated will be criticized.  Such was the case with Colonel George Armstrong Custer, who lost his unit and his life, albeit the other unit survived.  General George Meade was criticized for not pursuing Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, following Meade’s decisive victory at Gettysburg.  Many historians claim that Meade could have potentially ended the war by destroying Lee’s weakened army as it hobbled its way back over the Mason-Dixon line.  President George Bush was, of course, highly criticized for starting a war with Iraq, based on the premise that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which was ultimately found not to be true.

     But a little logic shows that these criticisms are based on naivety, if not pathetic political motivations, the latter to weaken a leader or candidate.  In order to understand why this is true, we have to recognize that all decisions can be classified into two categories.  One is called influential and the other, atomistic.  Influential decisions are those in which the decision that is made alters the course of history.  Atomistic decisions are those in which whatever decision is made does not alter the course of history.  Let us look at the latter first.

     With an atomistic decision, the decision make does not have sufficient power to influence the course of events that follows the decision.  For example, suppose an investor who owns a stock decides to sell it.  Unless that investor is Warren Buffett or some other very large investor, the sale of the stock does not affect the future price.  If the investor sells the stock and it goes up, one can say that it would have gone up had he held on to it.  There is no question that the whatever decision was made, the future course of events was not altered by that decision.

     Now let us consider the influential decision.  This is one where the future course of event is affected by the decision that is made.  For example, when General Meade let the Confederate Army retreat back to Virginia, that decision determined the course of events.  The war went on almost two more years, and Meade took some of the blame for that.  Suppose Meade had purposed Lee’s Army, which was severely shattered but hardly dead.  One might even argue that the Southern army was a wounded animal.  It is not inconceivable that on better terrain, perhaps on its own soil that lay just a few miles south, Lee’s army would have annihilated Meade’s army and prolonged the war even more.  Lee was arguably a far more brilliant officer than Meade.  He had won numerous battles before and some after Gettysburg.  Brash historians say “no way that would have happened,” but what do they know?  Meade obviously had reasons for not pursuing Lee.  His own army had sustained a casualty rate of almost 25%, which in many battles means losing.  So, how do we know that his pursuit of Lee would have meant a Union victory and the end of the Confederate Army forever.  We do not.

     George Bush took enormous criticism for going after Iraq over its purported weapons of mass destruction.  Of course, we know that U. S troops went into Iraq, conquered Saddam Hussein’s army, and found no WMD.  From that point forward, Bush, Powell, Rice, and all Republicans were viewed as having no credibility.  To this day, people talk about the wasted war in Iraq.  Talk is cheap, very cheap.  And the people who do this talk are either incredibly stupid or they are really smart but let their political motivations overcome their capacity for thinking logically. 

     These critics say that we went into Iraq under false pretenses.  But they fail to realize that this decision was an influential one.  It determined the future course of events.  Saddam Hussein’s brutalizing regime does not exist today, but critics argue that out of those ashes came ISIS.  But to criticize the war in Iraq is to argue that had the war not occurred, the situation in Iraq would have been better today or at least no worse with absolute certainty.  That is a groundless conclusion.  The hypothetical consequences of the U. S. not going into Iraq might have been better, but there is plenty of reason to believe they might have been worse.  Much worse.  I am not saying they would have for certain.  I am not making that kind of mistake for certain.

     It is impossible to say that had the war in Iraq not occurred, the situation would be more peaceful or tolerably stable than it is today.  There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of scenarios that could have played out had the war in Iraq not occurred.  To presume knowledge of the future course of events by a hypothetical altering of a decision is either the height of idiocy or the depths of pathetic and shameless political maneuvering. 

     Some wars have been said to be good wars.  Perhaps the good wars include the American Revolution and World War II.  Let us take the American Revolution.  Most Americans agree that this war was a just war.  These British subjects won their freedom and established the United States of America.  But how do we know that the United States of America might not have been founded perhaps a few years if not decades letter through negotiation and not bloodshed?  After all, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and New Zealand and a number of other British colonies earned their freedom from the King without fighting a major war.  Americans fought a war in which about 10,000 of them died.  About 30 years later, they fought yet another war against the same enemy in which almost 7,000 Americans died.  No one seems to question whether perhaps a few more years of taxation without representation might have saved some lives and still led to freedom as it did for virtually every single colony of the British Commonwealth.  It was a just war, historians and ordinary people say.

     What about World War II?  Surely it was justified to defeat the Axis powers.  But how do we know that these regimes might not have crumbled internally.  We know in particular that there were internal efforts to assassinate Hitler.  Had the U. S. not joined the war, German military leaders might have been able to focus their attention on eliminating Hitler.  They might have succeeded early on.  And six million Jews might not have been exterminated, not to mention millions of military and civilian deaths avoided.  Japan and Germany did declare war on the United States, but a declaration of war does not mean that a country must be anything more than defensive.

     In short, there is no way to say that World War II was a good war.  We cannot be sure what would have happened had the U. S. not fought it.  And anyone that tells you they know what the course of events would be if the U. S. had not fought the war is either stupid, lying, or politically motivated.

     So, the next time you hear a historian, politician, journalist or critic make such statements, ask yourself whether the decision was an influential or atomistic one.  If it is the former, dismiss the criticism completely.  No one can describe the course of future events had an influential decision been made the other way.  If the decision is atomistic, you might be able to say that the alternative would have led to a better outcome, but there is no guarantee that without the benefit of hindsight, the critic would have made the alternative decision.  Again, the critic is probably lying or politically motivated.

       The title of this rant refers to the expression, “let history be the judge.”  This phrase tends to mean that over time historians and the public will decide whether a decision was the right one.  I believe my arguments should be convincing.  If the decision is of the influential type, no one can say what the course of events would have been had the alternative decision been made.  If the decision is atomistic, one can indeed say that the alternative decision might have led to a more favorable outcome, though that means no more than the critic has benefitted from the hindsight of observing the course of future events and either lying about whether he would have made the alternative decision or pathetically worse, saying what he says for political purposes.  Or maybe the critic is just plain stupid.     



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Last updated: January 17, 2017