For those unaware, it was a thing back in the 90s among conservative Christian circles to sport a fashionable WWJD? bracelet, which served as a reminder to always ask one’s self the timeless question: “What would Jesus do?” The past few days have prompted me to ask an even more important question: “What would Vauban do?” What would he do indeed, what wouldn’t he do, and why would he do or not do? That is the question. [No: the question is not “What would Voldemort do?” Nor is it “What would Voltron do?” Not even what Vader would do.]
I’ve been asking myself that question more than usual over the past few days. Doing so has forced me to come to terms with questions that have dogged me throughout my career. And these questions should dog every historian. Let me explain.
My first sense of unease developed from a comment Erik made on a previous post, daring to impugn the reputation of one Monsieur Vauban. I took umbrage, as any one should when le Grand Vauban‘s reputation is at stake. He speculated that Vauban might have had ulterior motives when describing high engineering casualty figures. I was therefore forced to respond, objecting that of course he wouldn’t lie, he was a good guy, or something to that effect. But I did feel on solid ground, logically if not empirically. I hadn’t the evidence to show that Vauban’s engineering casualty figures were accurate, or that these casualties were suffered by full-time members of the military engineering corps. But I knew that other contemporaries, including some otherwise disrespectful of the engineers, agreed with Vauban’s claim. That’s the end of that, I thought. Vauban wouldn’t lie. He was truly one of the good guys of Louis XIV’s reign. I not only knew what Vauban would do, but I also knew what he wouldn’t. And he won’t do that, to quote Meatloaf.
This incident, so innocent on its own, was quickly followed by a second, the combination of which turned me defensively pensive. Just a day later a colleague emailed me a straightforward question: ‘Some of Vauban’s contemporaries claimed that he made sieges more difficult than they should have, “so as to present his designs in a favourable light.” Would Vauban do this?’ A fair question, but now I was invested and surrounded on all sides – my boundaries of Vauban-knowledge clearly being tested, prodded for weaknesses. Now I was not only being asked to explain why Vauban did something, but whether he would have done something. Things were getting a bit hypothetical – the fog of war obscured my vision. It didn’t help that this friend was unsatisfied with my first, heavily-qualified answer that sought to provide a context for why such contemporary criticisms were made. Replying quickly to my refusal to submit to his terms, he cut to the chase: “As an expert, do you think Vauban would do that or not?” My WWVD? bracelet was mute, and even worse, the enemy had loosed the “e” word from his arsenal, automatically releasing the fear of being found out as a fraud, exposed as having only empty uniforms guarding the walls. Like a slave reminding the triumphant Roman general that “All glory is fleeting,” doubt mocked me: “Shouldn’t you know more about Vauban, Mr. Fancy-Pants Expert?” Errrr, well, it depends…. Then another, much older, fifth column, the ghost of uncomfortable-questions-past, chimed in: “Yeah. And how can you, someone in the 21st century, know anything about how someone would have acted 300 years ago, much less why they would have acted that way?” How indeed, I fretted. Sensing my wavering, doubt committed its reserves. A flood of memories stormed the walls: the numerous occasions from the past when I had heard people make bold statements about so-and-so being a great general, while in my mind, even if I knew the general and his oeuvre, I realized I had far less conviction that I knew the answer. And even less conviction that I could say why.
And then, suddenly, the siege was lifted, or at least its ultimate outcome no longer in doubt. I realized that with both questions I was in fact trying to answer WWVD? by coming up with a plausible explanation for why he might do such a thing as lie about casualties or make a siege harder than it should have been. I could imagine many implausible reasons: that Vauban lied about it for personal gain; that he drew out the length of a siege for personal aggrandizement; and so on. More plausible, however, were more laudable motives that I associate with Vauban: he might have done it to make a point about the need for better pay and training of his beloved engineer corps; or maybe he did it to illustrate the need to follow his rules closely. Those motives I could at least understand, because they fit my image of who Vauban was. Just as quickly, however, I realized that I had just fallen into one of the oldest traps the human mind has invented, confusing a plausible explanation for actual evidence. The two questions are distinct despite being constantly confused with each other: “How do we know that X is true?” (the claim and reasons together forming an argument), and “Why is X true?” (the answer being an explanation). As logicians and philosophers phrase it, an explanation is not a reason to believe a claim – I can give you multiple reasons why my 3rd grade teacher was an alien, but no matter how many explanations I give, none of them are evidence that she actually was. Yet, despite my repeated lecturing to students about this distinction, I had fallen back onto it – I had in fact been captured not by formal siege, but instead by a ruse. I didn’t know, empirically, if Vauban had ever intentionally attacked a fortress at its strongest point to make some larger point. Nor did I know whether he had lied about engineering casualty figures. But then, maybe if I could come up with reasons why he might do such a thing, I could decide whether or not those sounded like the Vauban I know. And only in doing that could I come to a satisfying answer: “I doubt Vauban would do that, but if he did, he would have only done it for some laudable purpose. And he certainly wouldn’t do it if it hurt other people.” And I was satisfied (as was my interlocutor) – not because I had found the answer, but because I had squared a seemingly-bad (hypothetical) act by Vauban with a (hypothetical) motive that was good.
My point? More like questions. What makes us think we can “understand” why someone did something, or, more to the point, whether someone might do something or not? Are people, are historical actors, that transparent? Are they that consistent in their behavior – and how much of their behavior do we really know on which to base our model of their behavior? Will men on the battlefield (or in the trenches) act consistent with their personality? And if we don’t have evidence, “proof”, that somebody did not do something, what basis do we have to say “I know him so well that I know he wouldn’t do that”? And let’s not even start thinking about how we come up with counterfactual evidence for why so-and-so wouldn’t do such-and-such because we just know he’s not that kind of guy. For someone who tends to think of human motivations in terms of situational ethics, I’m a little uncomfortable here.
Somebody talk me down.