Why don't we learn from history?

Part I: History and Truth

B. H. Liddell Hart (1895-1970)

The value of history

What is the object of history? I would answer, quite simply—“truth.” It is a word and an idea that has gone out of fashion. But the results of discounting the possibility of reaching the truth are worse than those of cherishing it.

The object might be more cautiously expressed thus: to find out what happened while trying to find out why it happened. In other words, to seek the causal relations between events.

History has limitations as guiding signpost, however, for although it can show us the right direction, it does not give detailed information about the road conditions.

But its negative value as a warning sign is more definite. History can show us what to avoid, even if it does not teach us what to do—by showing the most common mistakes that mankind is apt to make and to repeat.

A second object lies in the practical value of history. “Fools,” said Bismarck, “say they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by other people's experience.” The study of history offers that opportunity in the widest possible measure. It is universal experience—infinitely longer, wider, and more varied than any individual's experience.

How often do people claim superior wisdom on the score of their age and experience. The Chinese especially regard age with veneration, and hold that a man of eighty years or more must be wiser than others. But eighty is nothing for a student of history. There is no excuse for anyone who is not illiterate if he is less than three thousand years old in mind.

The point was well expressed by Polybius. “There are two roads to the reformation for mankind—one through misfortunes of their own, the other through the misfortunes of others; the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful…the knowledge gained from the study of true history is the best of all educations for practical life.”

The practical value of his advice has been impressed on me in my own particular sphere of study. The main developments that took the General Staffs by surprise in World War I could have been deduced from a study of the successive preceding wars in the previous half century. Why were they not deduced? Partly because the General Staffs' study was too narrow, partly because they were blinded by their own professional interests and sentiments. But the “surprising” developments were correctly deduced from those earlier wars by certain non-official students of war who were able to think with detachment—such as M. Bloch, the Polish banker, and Captain Mayer, the French military writer.

So in studying military problems in the decades after that war I always tried to take a projection from the past through the present into the future. In predicting the decisive developments of World War II I know that I owed more to this practical application of the historical method than to any brain wave of my own.

History is the record of man's steps and slips. It shows us that the steps have been slow and slight; the slips, quick and abounding. It provides us with the opportunity to profit by the stumbles and tumbles of our forerunners. Awareness of our limitations should make us chary of condemning those who made mistakes, but we condemn ourselves if we fail to recognize mistakes.

There is a too common tendency to regard history as a specialist subject—that is the primary mistake. For, on the contrary, history is the essential corrective to all specialization. Viewed aright, it is the broadest of studies, embracing every aspect of life. It lays the foundation of education by showing how mankind repeats its errors and what those errors are.

The significance of military history

Eighty years ago John Richard Green, in his History of the English People, that historical best-seller, delivered the statement “War plays a small part in the real story of European nations, and in that of England its part is smaller than in any.” It was an astoundingly unhistorical statement. In the light of today it has a devastating irony.

That view may account for some of our subsequent troubles. For in recent generations, despite the immense growth of research in all other branches of knowledge, the scientific study of war has received too little attention in the universities and too little aid either from them or from government quarters.

The universities' neglect of it had a close connection with the vogue for evolutionary history and economic determinism. Its tendency has been to suggest that movements are independent of individuals and of accident; that “the captains and the kings” count for little; and that the tide of history has flowed on unperturbed by their broils.

Its absurdities are palpable. Can anyone believe that the history of the world would have been the same if the Persians had conquered Greece; if Hannibal had captured Rome; if Caesar had hesitated to cross the Rubicon; if Napoleon had been killed at Toulon? Can anyone believe that England's history would have been unaffected if William of Normandy had been repulsed at Hastings? Or—to come down to recent times—if Hitler had reached Dover instead of stopping at Dunkirk?

The catalogue of cataclysmic happenings, of history-changing “accidents,” is endless. But among all the factors which produce sudden changes in the course of history, the issues of war have been the least accidental.

In reality, reason has had a greater influence than fortune on the issue of wars that have most influenced history. Creative thought has often counted for more than courage; for more, even, than gifted leadership. It is a romantic habit to ascribe to a flash of inspiration in battle what more truly has been due to seeds long sown—to the previous development of some new military practice by the victors, or to avoidable decay in the military practice of the losers.

Unlike those who follow other professions, the “regular” soldier cannot regularly practice his profession. Indeed, it might even be argued that in a literal sense the profession of arms is not a profession at all, but merely “casual employment”—and, paradoxically, that it ceased to be a profession when mercenary troops who were employed and paid for the purpose of a war were replaced by standing armies which continued to be paid when there was no war.

If the argument—that strictly there is no “profession of arms”—will not hold good in most armies today on the score of work, it is inevitably strengthened on the score of practice because major wars have become fewer, though bigger, compared with earlier times. For even the best of peacetime training is more “theoretical” than “practical” experience.

But Bismarck's often quoted aphorism throws a different and more encouraging light on the problem. It helps us to realize that there are two forms of practical experience—direct and indirect—and that, of the two, indirect practical experience may be the more valuable because infinitely wider. Even in the most active career, especially a soldier's career, the scope and possibilities of direct experience are extremely limited. In contrast to the military, the medical profession has incessant practice. Yet the great advances in medicine and surgery have been due more to the scientific thinker and research worker than to the practitioner.

Direct experience is inherently too limited to form an adequate foundation either for theory or for application. At the best it produces an atmosphere that is of value in drying and hardening the structure of thought. The greater value of indirect experience lies in its greater variety and extent. “History is universal experience”—the experience not of another but of many others under manifold conditions.

Here is the rational justification for military history as the basis of military education—its preponderant practical value in the training and mental development of a soldier. But the benefit depends, as with all experience, on its breadth, on how closely it approaches the definition quoted above, and on the method of studying it.

Soldiers universally concede the general truth of Napoleon's much quoted dictum that in war “the moral is to the physical as three to one.” The actual arithmetical proportion may be worthless, for morale is apt to decline if weapons are inadequate, and the strongest will is of little use if it is inside a dead body. But although the moral and physical factors are inseparable and indivisible, the saying gains its enduring value because it expresses the idea of the predominance of moral factors in all military decisions.

On them constantly turns the issue of war and battle. In the history of war they form the more constant factors, changing only in degree, whereas the physical factors are different in almost every war and every military situation.

The exploration of history

The benefit of history depends, however, on a broad view. And that depends on a wide study of it. To dig deep into one patch is a valuable and necessary training. It is the only way to learn the method of historical research. But when digging deep, it is equally important to get one's bearings by a wide survey. That is essential to appreciate the significance of what one finds, otherwise one is likely “to miss the wood for the trees.”

The increasing specialization of history has tended to decrease the intelligibility of history and thus forfeit the benefit to the community—even the small community of professional historians.

For any historian it is a valuable experience to have lived in the world of affairs and seen bits of history in the making. Not the least part of its value comes through seeing the importance of accidental factors—a touch of liver, a thick head, a sudden tiff, a domestic trouble, or the intervention of the lunch hour.

The understanding of past events is helped by some current experience of how events are determined. It has been my good fortune to see some bits of history in the making, at close quarters, and yet in the position of detachment enjoyed by the onlooker—who, according to the proverb, sees most of the game. This experience has taught me that it is often a game of chance—if the fateful effect of a personal dislike, a domestic row, or a bad liver may be counted as accidents. Perhaps the most powerful of such accidental influences on history is the lunch hour.

Observing the working of committees of many kinds, I have long come to realize the crucial importance of lunchtime. Two hours or more may have been spent in deliberate discussion and careful weighing of a problem, but the last quarter of an hour often counts for more than all the rest. At 12:45pm there may be no prospect of an agreed solution, yet around about 1pm important decisions may be reached with little argument—because the attention of the members has turned to watching the hands of their watches. Those moving hands can have a remarkable effect in accelerating the movements of minds—to the point of a snap decision. The more influential members of any committee are the most likely to have important lunch engagements, and the more important the committee the more likely is this contingency.

A shrewd committeeman often develops a technique based on this time calculation. He will defer his own intervention in the discussion until lunchtime is near, when the majority of the others are more inclined to accept any proposal that sounds good enough to enable them to keep their lunch engagement. Sometimes he will wait long enough to ensure that formidable opponents have to trickle away before a vote is taken. It was Napoleon who said that an army marches on its stomach. From my observation, I should be inclined to coin a supplementary proverb—that “history marches on the stomachs of statesmen.”

That observation applies in more than the time sense. The Japanese locate the seat of courage in the stomach; and such a view is supported by ample evidence from military history of the way that the fighting spirit of troops depends on, and varies with, the state of their stomachs. The source of the passions has also been located in that quarter. All that expresses the extent to which mind and morale depend on the physical, in the normal run of men. And from all that the historian is led to realize how greatly the causation of events on which the fate of nations depends is ruled not by balanced judgement but by momentary currents of feeling, as well as by personal considerations of a low kind.

Another danger, among “hermit” historians, is that they often attach too much value to documents. Men in high office are apt to have a keen sense of their own reputation in history. Many documents are written to deceive or conceal. Moreover, the struggles that go on behind the scenes, and largely determine the issue, are rarely recorded in documents.

Experience has also given me some light into the processes of manufacturing history, artificial history. The product is less transparent than a silk stocking. Nothing can deceive like a document. Here lies the value of the war of 1914–1918 as a training ground for historians. Governments opened their archives, statesmen and generals their mouths, in time to check their records by personal examination of other witnesses. After twenty years' experience of such work, pure documentary history seems to me akin to mythology.

To those academic historians who still repose faith on it, I have often told a short story with a moral. When the British front was broken in March 1918 and French reinforcements came to help in filling the gap, an eminent French general arrived at a certain army corps headquarters and there majestically dictated orders giving the line on which the troops would stand that night and start their counterattack in the morning. After reading it, with some perplexity, the corps commander exclaimed, “But that line is behind the German front. You lost it yesterday.” The great commander, with a knowing smile, thereupon remarked, “C'est pour l'histoire.” It may be added that for a great part of the war he had held a high staff position where the archives on which such official history would later depend had been under his control.

Many are the gaps to be found in official archives, token of documents destroyed later to conceal what might impair a commander's reputation. More difficult to detect are the forgeries with which some of them have been replaced. On the whole British commanders do not seem to have been capable of more ingenuity than mere destruction or antedating of orders. The French were often more subtle; a general could safeguard the lives of his men as well as his own reputation by writing orders, based on a situation that did not exist, for an attack that nobody carried out—while everybody shared in the credit, since the record went on file.

I have sometimes wondered how the war could be carried on at all when I have found how much of their time some commanders spent in preparing the ground for its historians. If the great men of the past, where the evidence is more difficult to check, were as historically conscious as those of recent generations, it may well be asked what value can be credited to anything more ancient than contemporary history.

The exploration of history is a sobering experience. It reduced the famous American historian, Henry Adams, to the state of cynicism shown in his reply to a questioning letter: “I have written too much history to believe in it. So if anyone wants to differ from me, I am prepared to agree with him.” The study of war history is especially apt to dispel any illusions—about the reliability of men's testimony and their accuracy in general, even apart from the shaping of facts to suit the purposes of propaganda.

Yet if the historian comes to find how hard it is to discover the truth, he may become with practice skilled in detecting untruth—a task which is, by comparison, easier. A sound rule of historical evidence is that while assertions should be treated with critical doubt, admissions are likely to be reliable. If there is one saying that embodies a general truth it is “No man is condemned save out of his own mouth.” By applying this test we can go a long way toward a clear verdict on history and on history in the making.

Lloyd George frequently emphasized to me in conversation that one feature that distinguished a first-rate political leader from a second-rate politician is that the former was always careful to avoid making any definite statement that could be subsequently refuted, as he was likely to be caught out in the long run. I gathered from Lloyd George that he learned this lesson in parliamentary experience before 1914.

The treatment of history

An increasing number of modern historians, such as Veronica Wedgwood, have shown that good history and good reading can be blended—and thus, by displacing the mythologists, they are bringing history back to the service of humanity. Even so the academic suspicion of literary style still lingers. Such pedants may well be reminded of the proverb “Hard writing makes easy reading.” Such hard writing makes for hard thinking.

Far more effort is required to epitomize facts with clarity than to express them cloudily. Misstatements can be more easily spotted in sentences that are crystal clear than those that are cloudy. The writer has to be more careful if he is not to be caught out. Thus care in writing makes for care in treating the material of history—to evaluate it correctly.

The effort toward deeper psychological analysis is good—so long as perspective is kept. It is equally good that the varnish should be scraped off—so long as the true grain of the character is revealed. It is not so good, except for selling success, when Victorian varnish is replaced by cheap staining, colored to suit the taste for scandal.

Moreover, the study of personality is apt to be pressed so far that it throws the performance into the background. This certainly simplifies the task of the biographer, who can dispense with the need for a knowledge of the field in which his subject found his life's work. Can we imagine a great statesmen without statecraft, a great general without war, a great scientist without science, a great writer without literature—they would look strangely nude. And often commonplace.

A question often debated is whether history is a science or an art. The true answer would seem to be that history is a science and an art.

The subject must be approached in a scientific spirit of inquiry. Facts must be treated with scientific care for accuracy. But they cannot be interpreted without the aid of imagination and intuition. The sheer quantity of evidence is so overwhelming that selection is inevitable. Where there is selection there is art.

Exploration should be objective, but selection is subjective. Its subjectiveness can, and should be, controlled by scientific method and objectiveness. Too many people go to history merely in search of texts for their sermons instead of facts for analysis. But after analysis comes art, to bring out the meaning—and to ensure it becomes known.

It was the school of German historians, headed by Ranke, who in the last century started the fashion of trying to be purely scientific. That fashion spread to our own schools of history. Any conclusions or generalizations were shunned, and any well-written books became suspect. What was the result? History became too dull to read and devoid of meaning. It became merely a subject for study by specialists.

So the void was filled by new myths—of exciting power but appalling consequences. The world has suffered, and Germany worst of all, for the sterilization of history that started in Germany.

The scientific approach

Adaptation to changing conditions is the condition of survival. This depends on the simple yet fundamental question of attitude. To cope with the problems of the modern world we need, above all, to see them clearly and analyze them scientifically. This requires freedom from prejudice combined with the power of discernment and with a sense of proportion. Only through the capacity to see all relevant factors, to weigh them fairly, and to place them in relation to each other, can we hope to reach an accurately balanced judgement.

Discernment may be primarily a gift—and a sense of proportion, too. But their development can be assisted by freedom from prejudice, which largely rests with the individual to achieve—and within his power to achieve it. Or at least to approach it. The way of approach is simple, if not easy—requiring, above all, constant self-criticism and care for precise statement.

It is easier, however, to find an index of progress and consequently of fitness to bear the responsibility of exercising judgment. If a man reads or hears a criticsm of anything in which he has an interest, watch whether his first question is as to its fairness and truth. If he reacts to any such criticism with strong emotion; if he bases his complaint on the ground that is not “in good taste” or that it will have a bad effect—in short, if he shows concern with any question except “Is it true?” he thereby reveals that his own attitude is unscientific.

Likewise if in his turn he judges an idea not on its merits but with reference to the author of it; if he criticizes it as “heresy”; if he argues that authority must be right because it is authority; if he takes a particular criticism as a general depreciation; if he confuses opinion with facts; if he claims that any expression of opinion is “unquestionable”; if he declares that something will “never” come about or is “certain” that any view is right. The path of truth is paved with critical doubt and lighted by the spirit of objective inquiry. To view any question subjectively is self-blinding.

If the study of war in the past has so often proved fallible as a guide to the course and conduct of the next war, it implies not that war is unsuited to scientific study but that the study has not been scientific enough in spirit and method.

It seems hardly possible that the authoritative schools of military thought could have misunderstood as completely as they did the evolution that was so consistently revealed throughout the wars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A review of the record of error suggests that the only possible explanation is that their study of war was subjective, not objective.

But even if we can reduce the errors of the past in the writing and teaching of military history by soldiers, the fundamental difficulty remains. Faith matters so much to a soldier, in the stress of war, that military training inculcates a habit of unquestioning acceptance of the prevailing doctrine. While fighting is a most practical test of theory, it is a small part of soldiering; and there is far more in soldiering that tends to make men the slaves of a theory.

Moreover, the soldier must have faith in his power to defeat the enemy; hence to question, even on material grounds, the possibility of successful attack is a risk to faith. Doubt is unnerving save to philosophic minds, and armies are not composed of philosophers, either at the top or at the bottom. In no activity is optimism so necessary to success, for it deals so largely with the unknown—even unto death. The margin that separates optimism from blind folly is narrow. Thus there is no cause for surprise that soldiers have so often overnstepped it and become the victims of their faith.

The soldier could hardly face the test defined in the motto of the famous Lung Ming Academy, a motto that headed each page of the books used there: “The student must first learn to approach the subject in a spirit of doubt.” The point had been still more clearly expressed in the eleventh-century teaching of Chang-Tsai: “If you can doubt at points where other people feel no impulse to doubt, then you are making progress.”

The fear of truth

We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.

I can conceive of no finer ideal of a man's life than to face life with clear eyes instead of stumbling through it like a blind man, an imbecile, or a drunkard—which, in a thinking sense, is the common preference. How rarely does one meet anyone whose first reaction to anything is to ask “Is it true?” Yet unless that is a man's natural reaction it shows that truth is not uppermost in his mind, and, unless it is, true progress is unlikely.

The most dangerous of all delusions are those that arise from the adulteration of history in the imagined interests of national and military morale. Although this lesson of experience has been the hardest earned, it remains the hardest to learn. Those who have suffered most show their eagerness to suffer more.

In 1935 a distinguished German general contributed to the leading military organ of his country an article entitled “Why Can't We Camouflage?” It was not, as might be supposed, an appeal to revive and develop the art of deceiving the eye with the object of concealing troop movements and positions. The camouflage which the author wished to see adopted in the German Army was the concealment of the less pleasing facts of history. He deplored the way that, after World War I, the diplomatic documents of the Wilhelmstrasse were published in full, even to the Kaiser's marginal comments. The general concluded his appeal for the use of camouflage in the sphere of history by recalling “the magnificent English dictum ‘Wahr ist was wirkt.’ ” (Anything that works is true.)

The student of military history may be surprised not at the plea but that the general should appear to regard it as novel. History that bears the qualification “official” carries with it a natural reservation; and the additional prefix “military” is apt to imply a double reservation. The history of history yields ample evidence that the art of camouflage was developed in that field long before it was applied to the battlefield.

This camouflaged history not only conceals faults and deficiencies that could otherwise be remedied, but engenders false confidence—and false confidence underlies most of the failures that military history records. It is the dry rot of armies. But its effects go wider and are felt earlier. For the false confidence of military leaders has been a spur to war.

The evasion of truth

We learn from history that men have constantly echoed the remark ascribed to Pontius Pilate—“What is truth?” And often in circumstances that make us wonder why. It is repeatedly used as a smoke screen to mask a maneuver, personal or political, and to cover an evasion of the issue. It may be a justifiable question in the deepest sense. Yet the longer I watch current events, the more I have come to see how many of our troubles arise from the habit, on all sides, of suppressing or distorting what we know quite well is the truth, out of devotion to a cause, an ambition, or an institution—at bottom, this devotion being inspired by our own interest.

The history of 1914–1918 is full of examples. Passchendäle perhaps provides the most striking. It is clear from what Haig said beforehand that his motive was a desire to, and belief that he could, win the war single-handed in 1917 by a British offensive in Flanders before the Americans arrived. By the time he was ready to launch it all the conditions had changed, and the chief French commanders expressed grave doubts. Yet in his eagerness to persuade a reluctant British Cabinet to allow him to fulfill his dream, he disclosed none of the unfavorable facts which were known to him and exaggerated those that seemed favorable. When his offensive was launched on the last day of July, it failed completely on the part that was most vital. Yet he reported to London that the results were “most satisfactory.” The weather broke that very day and the offensive became bogged.

When the Prime Minister, becoming anxious at the mounting toll of casualties, went over to Flanders, Haig argued that the poor physique of the prisoners then being taken was proof that his offensive was reducing the German Army to exhaustion. When the Prime Minister asked to see one of the prisoners' cages, one of Haig's staff telephoned in advance to give instructions that “all able-bodied prisoners were to be removed from the corps cages” before his arrival. The chain of deception continued, and the offensive went on until 400,000 men had been sacrificed.

In later years Haig was wont to argue in excuse that his offensive had been undertaken at the behest of the French and that “the possibility of the French Army breaking up compelled me to go on attacking.” But in his letters at the time, since revealed, he declared that its morale was “excellent.” And the following spring he blamed the Government when his own army, thus brought to the verge of physical and moral exhaustion, failed to withstand the German offensive.

Haig was an honorable man according to his lights—but his lights were dim. The consequences which have made “Passchendäle” a name of ill-omen may be traced to the combined effect of his tendency to deceive himself; his tendency, therefore, to encourage his subordinates to deceive him; and their “loyal” tendency to tell a superior what was likely to coincide with his desires. Passchendäle is an object lesson in this kind of well-meaning, if not disinterested, untruthfulness.

As a young officer I had cherished a deep respect for the Higher Command, but I was sadly disillusioned about many of them when I came to see them more closely from the angle of a military correspondent. It was saddening to discover how many apparently honorable men would stoop to almost to anything to help their own advancement.

One of the commanders who cultivated my acquaintance assiduously, [Field Marshal Sir Archibald] Montgomery-Massingberd, asked me to collaborate with him in writing a book on the lessons of the war, and when we went out to study the battlefields together, I found that he evaded every awkward point and soon I came to realize that his underlying purpose in proposing such a book was to show how brilliant and unblemished had been the operation of the Fourth Army, of which he had been Chief of Staff. So I excused myself from assisting in that piece of advertisement. He also, I found, had a habit of dropping in my ear detrimental insinuations about other generals who happened to be competitors with him in climbing the military ladder.

He eventually reached the top of it, though not with my assistance, and his tenure of the post was marked by the worst period of stagnation in the Army's progress between the wars. That was all the more unfortunate because he came into office as Chief of the Imperial General Staff just as Hitler was taking over power in Germany. When Ironside became CIGS on the outbreak of war in 1939 and contemplated the list of the deficiencies in the Army's equipment, he was so appalled that he pointed to the portraits of Montgomery-Massingberd and his processor, Milne, in his office and vehemently exclaimed, “Those are the two men mainly responsible—they ought to be taken out and shot.” (That verdict was too hard on Milne.)

A different habit, with worse effect, was the way that ambitious officers when they came in sight of promotion to the generals' list, would decide that they would bottle up their thoughts and ideas, as a safety precaution, until they reached the top and could put these ideas into practice. Unfortunately the usual result, after years of such self-repression for the sake of their ambition, was that when the bottle was eventually uncorked the contents had evaporated.

I found that moral courage was quite as rare in the top levels of the services as among politicians. It was also a surprise to me to find that those who had shown the highest degree of physical courage tended to be those who were most lacking in moral courage, and the clue to this seemed to be largely in the growing obsession with personal career ambition—particularly in the cases where an unhappy home life resulted in an inordinate concern with career prospects. The other main cause in diminishing moral courage, however, was a lack of private means that led commanding officers to wilt before their superiors because of concern with the problem of providing for their children's education. That factor was very marked in the German generals' submissiveness to Hitler, and this became the more understandable to me because I had seen it operate in Britain in much less difficult circumstances.

I have been fortunate, as I remarked in the preface of my Memoirs, in being a “free lance”—often officially consulted but never officially employed or subsidized, and thus having no “interest to pursue” or “ax to grind” in seeking the truth and expressing my views objectively. In my experience the troubles of the world largely come from excessive regard to other interests.

Blinding loyalties

We learn from history that those who are disloyal to their own superiors are most prone to preach loyalty to their subordinates. Not many years ago there was a man who preached it so continually when in high position as to make it a catchword; that same man had been privately characterized by his chief, his colleague, and his assistant in earlier years as one who would swallow anything in order to get on.

Loyalty is a noble quality, so long as it is not blind and does not exclude the higher loyalty to truth and decency. But the word is much abused. For “loyalty,” analyzed, is too often a polite word for what would be more accurately described as “a conspiracy for mutual inefficiency.” In this sense it is essentially selfish—like a servile loyalty, demeaning both to master and servant. They are in a false relation to each other, and the loyalty which is then so much prized can be traced, if we probe deeply enough, to an ultimate selfishness on either side. “Loyalty” is not a quality we can isolate; so far as it is real, and of intrinsic value, it is implicit in the possession of other virtues.

These minor loyalties also invade the field of history and damage its fruits. The search for truth for truth's sake is the mark of the historian. To that occupation many are called but few are worthy, not necessarily for want of gifts but for lack of the urge or the resolution to follow the gleam wherever it may lead. Too many have sentimental encumbrances, even if they are not primarily moved, as so often happens in the field of historical biography, by the sentiment of kinship, or of friendship, or of discipleship. On a lower plane come those who suit their conclusions to the taste of an audience or a patron.

Deep is the gulf between works of history as written and the truth of history, and perhaps never more so than in books dealing with military history. If one reason is that these are usually written by soldiers untrained as historians and another that there is frequently some personal link, whether of acquaintance or tradition, between author and subject, a deeper reason lies in a habit of mind. For the soldier, “My country—right or wrong” must be the watchword. And this essential loyalty, whether it be to a country, to a regiment, or to comrades, is so ingrained in him that when he passes from action to reflection it is difficult for him to acquire instead the historian's single-minded loyalty to the truth.

Not that the most impartial historian is ever likely to attain truth in its entirety; but he is likely to approach it more closely if he has this single-mindedness. For the historian loyal to his calling it would be impossible to put forward the suggestion, such as one heard from distinguished participants in the war, that certain episodes might “best be glossed over” in war histories. Yet these officers were men of indisputable honor and quite unconscious that they were sinning not only against the interests of their country's future but against truth, the essential foundation for honor.

The effect was all too strikingly illustrated in the case of the man who was in charge of the British official military histories of World War I—General Edmonds. In the detective side of historianship, as well as in background knowledge, he was outstandingly well qualified for the task. In the early years of the task he often said that he could not state the damaging truth in an official history because of loyalty to the service and to his old comrades among the generals, yet wanted to make it known privately to other historians—which he did. But as time passed and he grew older, he gradually hypnotized himself into the belief that the gloss he felt bound to put over the facts was the truth—the core of the matter and not merely the protective covering.

That practice became a fatal hindrance to the chance of getting the lessons of World War I clear in time for the next generation to profit by them in World War II. Historical writers who are free from official attachments and institutional obligations should count themselves fortunate in being unfettered—rather than priding themselves on an innate personal superiority of honesty.

Truth may not be absolute, but it is certain that we are likely to come nearest to it if we search for it in a purely scientific spirit and analyze the facts with a complete detachment from all loyalties save that to truth itself.

It implies that one must be ready to discard one's own pet ideas and theories as the search progresses.

In no field has the pursuit of truth been more difficult than that of military history. Apart from the way that the facts were hidden, the need for technical knowledge tended to limit the undertaking to trained soldiers, and these were not trained in historical methods.

Moreover, the military hierarchy showed a natural anxiety lest a knowledge of the fallibility of the generals of yesterday should disturb the young soldier's trust in his generals of today and tomorrow. A realization of the cycle of familiar errors, endlessly recurring, which largely makes up the course of military history may lead one to think that the only hope of escape lies in a more candid scrutiny of past experience and a new honesty in facing the facts.

But one should still be able to appreciate the point of view of those who fear the consequences. Faith matters so much in times of crisis. One must have gone deep into history before reaching the conviction that truth matters more.

Next: Part II: Government and freedom
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Copyright (c) 1971 by Lady Kathleen Sullivan Liddell Hart

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