Modern/Historical Analogs as Aids to Understanding

Gene’s comment in the Face of Battle post prompted me to promote this topic to its own post. He raises the issue of how to determine whether understanding a modern phenomenon helps us understand the past better – whether it helps us fill in the blanks of history. Using modern examples is particularly problematic for academic historians, since we tend to ‘Otherize’ the past, i.e. highlight the differences between then and now. How do we decide which modern examples apply and which don’t?

Clausewitz discusses the other side of the coin  – relying on historical examples to support a general claim. I’m not a big fan of citing Clausewitz, but the methodologist in me has always been intrigued by this section from Book 2 Chapter 6 ‘On Historical Examples’ (p172ff in the Paret edition):
“Instead of presenting a fully detailed case, critics are content merely to touch on three or four, which given the semblance of strong proof. But there are occasions where nothing will be proved by a dozen examples – if, for instance, they frequently recur and one could just as easily cite a dozen cases that had opposite results. If anyone lists a dozen defeats in which the losing side attacked with divided columns, I can list a dozen victories in which that very tactic was employed. Obviously this is no way to reach a conclusion. …. An event that is lightly touched upon, instead of being carefully detailed, is like an object seen at a great distance: it is impossible to distinguish any detail, and it looks the same from every angle. …. Another disadvantage of merely touching on historical events lies in the fact that some readers do not know enough about them, or do not remember them well enough to grasp what the author has in mind. …. [W]here a new or debatable point of view is concerned, a single thoroughly detailed event is more instructive than ten that are only touched on.”

On the one hand what he’s saying is quite sensible. But on the other hand, this chapter has its problems.
It could be read as an appeal to replace broader comparative study with the study of particular cases. Obviously a happy medium is required, and there’s as much danger in getting stuck in the weeds as flying above at 10,000 feet. Historians, for example, have been too ready to overgeneralize from their particular focus – looking at the actual year range (and geographical focus) of books that have “Early Modern Europe” in their title would illustrate this.
His successive claim that since history is difficult to recover, “examples should be drawn from modern military history, insofar as it is properly known and evaluated;” he identifies the Austrian Succession as about as far back as one can go and still have good info. This argument is most problematic from an early modern perspective, as it could be read as encouraging modern military historians to ignore anything that happened before Napoleon (or Frederick II), losing any broader sense of the alternatives to modern warfare provided by pre-modern military history. Clausewitz acknowledged that this method only applies to “matters that depend on a precise knowledge of the actual circumstances, or on details in which warfare has changed.” If one limits this qualification to operational and tactical history, maybe. But is Clausewitz saying that you can only go back to the Austrian Succession regardless of when you are living, or rather that you can only go back 70 years or so from your present, or maybe he was only talking about his experience with the German/Prussian historical record? It certainly makes more sense for Clausewitz to argue this than for us to do so today: warfare in 1815 was a lot more similar to the warfare waged in 1615 or 1740 than the warfare of 2000 is to the warfare of 1615 or 1740. I tend to interpret this section as Clausewitz establishing criteria for the military practitioner/theorist focused on the (i.e. his) present, rather than Clausewitz discussing methodology for the military historian. Though he did write military history, he didn’t (from what I know) visit foreign archives, so he presumably had no idea what information is in there, and there’s a lot more than what was available to him from published 18C sources. His historical reflections on the War of the Spanish Succession were based on the published correspondence of Madame de Maintenon after all.
Finally, he indirectly provides contradictory evidence against his point (or at least violates his own strictures), an error which not only highlights the cumulative nature of historical knowledge, but also reminds us of the more systematic nature of modern academic historical research. His “general glance at the age of the Condottieri” (p174) is enough to convince him that the condottieri were divorced from their [Italian] political and civil context – how much detailed case study is this “general glance” based on? More recent historians of Italy, studying the question in far greater depth, have had little problem explaining how the condottieri were a perfectly understandable response to an isolated environment consisting of small, competitive mercantile city-states.



2 responses to “Modern/Historical Analogs as Aids to Understanding”

  1. Gene Hughson says :

    The style and methods of Clausewitz and his contemporary Jomini are certainly vastly different than what one would expect from modern academic work. I’m currently reading Jomini’s “Art of War” and find myself smiling at the obvious biases, his own and those of his patrons, that made it into the book.

    I find both authors to be fascinating windows into the thinking of their time. There are certainly nuggets of theoretical gold to be sifted from each. Their methodology, however, is far from solid. Jomini, of course, was no academic. Clausewitz, with his lifelong association with the Kriegsakademie, was closer to being one, but as you noted, still falls short in terms of practice. Both would appear to approach their subject like a battle, marshalling those facts which support their position and leaving in reserve those less likely to carry the day.

    Modern analogs should be chosen carefully. As I’d noted in the comment referred to, mounted crowd control tactics would seem to provide a better example (greater similarity in breeding and training of the mounts used) than thoroughbred racing. An analog with superficial similarity could lead to erroneous conclusions. Similarly, historical works are potentially vital sources of information, so long as the limitations and biases of their authors can be evaluated.

  2. Ralph Hitchens says :

    I think Clausewitz was right about the need to either make a detailed study of an event before using it as a valid historical example. Take a modern axiom like “don’t throw good money after bad,” which in a military context would mean reinforce success but not failure. Had the Germans in 1941 followed this rule in Crete, they would have denied themselves a great victory.

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