A Student of History

March 23, 2007

Eliot A. Cohen & the Uses of History

Filed under: The Academy,The past that is still with us — John Maass @ 9:18 am

In the latest issue on line of American Heritage, there is an interview with Eliot A. Cohen, who is now the new counsel to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (herself an historian.)  His main topic is “the uses of history, in Iraq and everywhere else wars are fought.”

Here is an extract:

There are a number of connections between history and policy, and not all of them are encouraging. There are cheap or superficial lessons of history. Going into Afghanistan, you had all these people saying, “Well, the British were never able to succeed, and the Russians failed, and so you won’t succeed either.” And sometimes this lesson was drawn to mean more than that we’d fail, but rather that we’d have a debacle. This lesson seems at best premature.

This tendency struck me most forcefully during the Bosnian and Kosovo crises of the mid-1990s, when you had a lot of people in the government, particularly in the military, warning against fighting the Serbs and saying, well, in World War II these folks pinned down more German divisions than the Allies did in Italy. They were falling back on a very stylized and actually incorrect version of history.

I had an excellent army officer who’s a paratrooper, fluent in German, a very, very bright fellow. He decided to do a research paper on what, exactly, the Germans had faced in Yugoslavia. He showed that most of those German divisions were about one-third strength, and most if them were not first-rate divisions or even second- or third-rate divisions. A lot of them weren’t even German divisions. And what were the German objectives? They were they trying to hold onto some critical facilities, particularly mines. Did the partisans ever prevent them from doing what they wanted to do? Never in any large way, until the bitter end. It was one of those moments that really struck me. A supposed lesson of history turns out to be no lesson of any kind, because the received version of the history is simply wrong.

And this, with my underlining of an important statement he makes:

The challenge is finding ways of making history talk to policy, but we also have to have historians who can comprehend the worldview of policymakers. Historians are appalled by policymakers either being completely ignorant of history or making gross misuse of it, usually through oversimplifications, which they indeed do all the time. But historians tend to be so detached from the world of policymaking that they make misjudgments about history. These days the only practical activity most historians have known has been grading papers, and they tend to apply that standard to their judgments about politicians. They find it quite difficult to have real empathy with what a statesman is up against, what kinds of decisions people make, what kinds of information they have, what kinds of pressures they’re under. Part of the biggest problem is that Churchill was probably right, one has to nail one’s life to a cross, either in thought or in action, and the kinds of people who do one aren’t likely to do the other. And yet it seems to me very important that the two types engage in a conversation, and that’s my project in this place.

What an interesting assessment of historians-impractical and detatched.  Could it be true?

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