The Instrumentalisation of History

by DR HUW J DAVIES

History is a dangerous thing. Parallels between contemporary events and history are all too easy to arrive at. In unskilled hands, historical events can be manhandled to seemingly deliver lessons and solutions to apparently intractable contemporary problems. This is ‘instrumentalising’ history. In reality, history can be misleading, its so-called ‘lessons’ proving counter-productive if their context is not properly understood.

In the last decade, numerous such ‘lessons’ have been bandied around as a means of resolving some of the more stubborn issues facing the West. Historians, armchair strategists and soldiers alike have looked to Britain’s long and turbulent history in Afghanistan as a means of suggesting solutions to the ongoing Taliban insurgency.

Similarly, Lawrence of Arabia has been held up as a panacea of how to resolve the newly emerged threat from Islamic State. Imperfect parallels have been drawn between the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic era and the rise of IS. Hawkish politicians cannot help but draw ill-fitting analogies between the actions of Hitler toward Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1930s, and Vladimir Putin and Russia’s recent entanglements in Georgia and Ukraine.

In part, this is a media-generated hyperbole, as seemingly easy parallels lend themselves to sensational stories. But used as a means of detecting a way forward, as an influence on policy-making, history incorrectly understood is very dangerous.

The first casualty of instrumentalising history is almost invariably the context in which that history occurred.

Comparison of Revolutionary France with the rise of the Islamic State is an interesting proposition. Sure, it is fascinating to note the rise of a revolutionary organisation bent on the transformation and subjugation not just of one country but an entire continent, and which uses gruesome public beheadings as a means of creating terror and provoking war.

But the extended argument is basically a call to arms, in favour of the use of Western ground forces in the developing campaign against IS militants. I find this a difficult thesis to agree with, and one that reflects the instrumentalisation of history for subjective ends.

Britain’s strategy in the war against Revolutionary France and then Napoleon, so the argument goes, saw the British initially try to defeat France by means of seapower alone. But although British command of the sea was virtually unassailable after 1805, Britain was eventually forced to deploy ground troops in a war in the Iberian Peninsula. Britain also assembled no fewer than seven coalitions of the Great Powers of Europe in order to defeat Napoleon.

The parallel invoked here is that the United States is the only power capable of, or willing to, assemble an international coalition to defeat IS. That coalition would lack moral backbone if the US, and by extension her western allies, did not deploy ground forces to Iraq and Syria.

The only way to defeat a land-power, whether Napoleonic France or the Islamic State, is on land. The truth of this assertion is unchallengeable, but the context in which these decisions were taken is.

But the parallel, and therefore the lesson, falls apart when the context in which Britain fought the Napoleonic War is understood. Until 1807, Britain hoped to contain Napoleonic France – hence the use of maritime power to isolate France economically.

But in 1807, it became apparent to the British government that Napoleonic France represented an existential threat to the British monarchy. The serious deployment of troops to the continent was not really an effort to defeat Napoleon directly – the British Army was no where near big enough or capable enough to do that. Rather, the use of ground troops was a political tool to enable to construction of an international coalition, and to give Britain sufficient diplomatic weight for forthcoming peace negotiations.

More generally, however, this was a European war, that required a European solution. The eventually peace negotiations – the famous Congress of Vienna – was not imposed by outside powers, but the coming together of the Great Powers of Europe in a settlement that would also see the creation of the Concert of Europe – the first attempt at international governance, and one that would essentially keep global peace for a century.

So, when compared with the situation in Iraq and Syria, the parallels now seem threadbare. First, the Islamic State do not represent an existential threat to either the United States or her Western allies. Secondly, by leading an intervention in Iraq and Syria, the United States is not mirroring the British role of building an international coalition in the war against France, which was, in essence, a Western solution to a Western problem. Instead, the US is intervening in a socio-political conflict with a strong religious dimension – a Western attempted solution to a Middle Eastern/Islamic problem. A better (although still imperfect) historical parallel is the Peace of Westphalia, which saw the war-torn countries of Europe agreeing the principles of the nation-state that still persist to this day.

Similarly, the actions of Lawrence of Arabia are usually spoken of with little regard for the context in which they occur. Lawrence was able to raise an Arab rebellion against the Ottoman Empire because of widespread discontent with Ottoman rule, set within the wider context of the global schism that was the Great War.

Moreover, by focussing on Lawrence alone – and his famous Pillars of Wisdom – the contribution of other, less media savvy – and Hollywood friendly – characters are overlooked. Indeed, Lawrence was not being particularly original. Similar pithy expressions have been uttered down the ages, from Sun Tzu to Maurice de Saxe, both of whom faced irregular threats during extensive military careers, and thought long and hard about how to capture their ideas for posterity.

This issue speaks to a second problem with the instrumentalisation of history: namely the role and value of the great men of history. The two examples discussed here focus on the fame or infamy of two great historical figures: Napoleon Bonaparte and T. E. Lawrence.

Yet the notion that individuals wield sufficient power to alter the course of history has been widely discredited. Rather their actions have greater impact because of the historical accident of living in interesting times. Napoleon took advantage of enormous socio-political currents that were transforming society and politics, as well as warfare, across Europe. The impact he had was certainly not all his own making, whilst many of the adaptations and innovations in warfare that Napoleon allegedly introduced were in fact devised by others, such as Lazare Carnot and Jacques Antoine Hippolyte, Comte de Guibert.

Having illustrated the problems with instrumentalising history, how can history be of use in understanding contemporary events?

The first victim of the instrumentalisation of history is also its first lesson. Historical study can provide valuable context.

One does not really understand the strong-arm tactics of Vladimir Putin and his desire for a secure and strong buffer between Russia and the West without understanding Russia’s long and turbulent history.

The societal and religious divisions that are coming to the fore now in Iraq and Syria are themselves products of a bygone colonial era.

The nature of the international system, and the history of the norms and behaviours between Western states and the international community is the product of the West’s own turbulent history: from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to the Concert of Europe in 1814.

Contextualising events helps to unpack their causes and potential consequences. History provides the tools to understand properly contemporary events. Deploying poorly understood historical parallels in order to justify or argue for a certain course of action only degrades the value of history.

8 comments

  1. Huw,

    The point on context is vital and is something I always try to stress it if I am doing media related work. This is OK if I just doing a piece to camera and you can adjust and re-answer anything you are unhappy with. The real challenge comes with live work when journalists always want to ask the comparative question and it becomes difficult to avoid them. I was asked by one journalist to compare what was happened in 1914 to what is happening today (Where to start with that problem). The journalist, once off air, then apologised and said that it is the sort of thing they just have to ask the ‘expert’. I just took it on board, though it did make me feel awkward, but it is very frustrating as people attempt to (mis)use the past and ignore context. So i think we should take your line ‘history incorrectly understood is very dangerous’ and make it our motto/rally cry!

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Ross. I was once asked on a popular morning radio show if I thought studying Britain’s history in Afghanistan would be helpful in understanding the current predicament (it was in 2009). I was surprised by the obviousness of the question, but it pointed to a real desire for an ‘easy’ answer, and if studying history cannot provide the easy answer, what is the point of studying it at all? The reality is that historical study cannot and will not provide answers in and of itself. But it can certainly provide the means to finding a solution.

      That said, the instrumentalisation of history has been a long bugbear of mine, and a few public comments in recent weeks, plus having access to a blog, finally pushed me over the edge and into public protestation! I used to advocate for the instrumentalisation of history. As an academic in a military institution, it was the natural thing to do for a while, but all I witnessed with the degradation of the subject. We must understand the past for its own sake, not in order to provide answers to contemporary ‘wicked’ problems. But I also have no doubt that the better informed policy-makers and decision-takers are about the history behind a particular issue – whether it be Islamic State or Russia and Ukraine – the better the eventual policy or decision will be.

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  2. Public procrastination is no bad thing! It is fine line to march. As a public historian in a museum my contact with media has become more frequent and their desire for the easy answer astounds me. When I start to say ‘it isn’t that simple’ they reply by saying ‘make it so’. My desire to dumb things down can only go so far.

    The other side to this, and one I am sure you have come across with your work on Wellington, is the role the historical actors play in shaping all of this. My own research on Dieppe really brought this home with reference to Mountbatten. Nevertheless, the misuse of history by notable names goes own and doesn’t help us try and find an answer. I think people outside of the profession need to embrace history for all of its complexity. They should realise that there are no easy answers and that ‘we’ might not provide them with what they want.

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  3. This is why I have such issues with the “lessons learned” and “case-study” approach of US professional military education (PME). At the end of the day, it leads to reports and .pptx that are an inch deep and a mile wide. Very little thought goes into the question, but lots of effort centers on collecting (not synthesizing, analayzing, or arguing about) data (not even information). The exercise normally becomes reductionist. E.g.: TE Lawrence, “a white guy with gusto” was in the desert and dealt with Arabs (in WWII, right?), so there has to be a lesson for us in dealing with those Iranians, who are also Arabs (right?). No effort to see if the question even matters. Assuming it does, and if the students, authors, etc. are able to produce a case study with analytical rigor, a case study still only shows one specific point in time and space. If I remember correctly my middle school math, it takes at least three data points to illuminate a trend. It’s all about context and nuance, really.

    One of the worst examples of this I saw in the early 2000s was a case study that putatively led to a lesson to be learned from the SAS experience in the Malaysian Emergency. The author wanted all of us to know, as he discovered, that airpower and SAS “hunter-killer teams” had defeated the communist insurgents in the Emergency. “We” could use the same methods in Iraq: air power and small special operations teams were the answer, to what question I was never able to discern. Of course, he didn’t bother to look to see if the social, cultural, economic, political, or even military situations between the Communist Insurgency and the “Iraqi (no mention of a Sunni-Shia divide) Insurgency” were analogous. Time, money, and lives probably were better spent focusing on the current situation…trying to understand the nuances and complexities of a secularly, etnnically, and politicall divided people…than worrying about how airmen in Malaysia “won” the insurgency du jour. Ironically, Malyasian society was divided along ethnic and political and even secular lines, which gave the British a major “in” with the “locals” to help defeat the “external” aggressors. A completely different question than “how did airpower and the SAS win the Malaysian Emergency” was asking to be asked. Ignorance of the context and nuance (those pesky little bu@@ers) led to a case study and a lesson that sadly a fair number of folks in the US special operations community bought into, at least until a newer, fresher case study with a lesson showed up. I wonder: is “history too important to be left to the generals?” Now that I’ve tossed the grenade in the conference room and closed the door behind me, I’m out. Thanks for reading.

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