Why don't we learn from history?


B. H. Liddell Hart (1895-1970)

How strange appears today the state of optimism about human progress which prevailed in the last century. It reached its zenith when London's Great Exhibition of 1851 opened in the Crystal Palace and was hailed as the inauguration of a Golden Age—of ever-widening peaceful prosperity assured by scientific and technical progress. That dream has changed into a nightmare. Yet it was not without justification, since all the material conditions for its fulfillment have been developed to an extent surpassing expectation, although the new generations endowed with such potentialities have been led to divert them largely into channels of destruction. The causes and the consequences might both be summed up in the old saying “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”

Can people learn that lesson before their prospects of prosperity are splintered beyond repair in an orgy of mutual devastation? The best chance may lie in developing a deeper understanding of modern warfare on their part, together with a realization of their mutual responsibility for the way it has got out of control. The development of means has outstripped the growth of minds.

Science and technology have produced a greater transformation of the physical conditions and apparatus of life in the past hundred years than had taken place in the previous two thousand years. Yet when men turn these tremendous new powers to a war purpose, they employ them as recklessly as their ancestors employed the primitive means of the past, and they pursue the same traditional ends without regard to the difference of effect. Indeed, the Governments of modern nations at war have largely ceased to think of the postwar effects which earlier statesmen were wise enough to bear in mind—a consideration which led in the eighteenth century to a self-imposed limitation of methods. Modern nations have reverted to a more primitive extreme—akin to the practices of warfare between barbaric hordes that were armed with spear and sword—at the same time as they become possessed of science-given instruments for multiple destruction at long range.

The germs of war find a focus in the convenient belief that “the end justifies the means.” Each new generation repeats this argument—while succeeding generations have had reason to say that the end their predecessors thus pursued was never justified by the fulfillment conceived. If there is one lesson that should be clear from history it is that bad means deform the end, or deflect its course thither. I would suggest the corollary that, if we take care of the means, the end will take care of itself.

A fervent faith in one particular means may be justified by its actual value in relation to other means, yet err by obscuring the higher value of its disappearance as a contribution to the end. To give an example, those British soldiers who after World War I argued that the tank was the prime factor have been proved right by the experience of World War II—and especially those who visualized it as prime in a combination rather than as an absolute sovereign. At the same time they should also have been able to see that a peace-desiring country had more to gain on balance by a general abolition of tanks. For any frustration of offensive potentialities favors the defense, which in turn promotes the prospects of peace.

Truth is a spiral staircase. What looks true on one level may not be true on the next higher level. A complete vision must extend vertically as well as horizontally—not only seeing the parts in relation to one another but embracing the different planes.

Ascending the spiral, it can be seen that individual security increases with the growth of society, that local security increases when linked to a wider organization, that national security increases when nationalism decreases and would become much greater if each nation's claim to sovereignty were merged in a super-national body. Every step that science achieves in reducing space and time emphasizes the necessity of political integration and a common morality. The advent of the atomic era makes that development more vitally urgent. A movement of the spirit as well as of the mind is needed to attain it.

Only second to the futility of pursuing ends reckless of the means is that of attempting progress by compulsion. History shows how often it leads to reaction. It also shows that the surer way is to generate and diffuse the idea of progress—providing a light to guide men, not a whip to drive them. Influence on thought has been the most influential factor in history, though, being less obvious than the effects of action, it has received less attention—even from the writers of history. There is a general recognition that man's capacity for thought has been responsible for all human progress, but not yet an adequate appreciation of the historical effect of contributions to thought in comparison with that of spectacular action. Seen with a sense of proportion, the smallest permanent enlargement of men's thought is a greater achievement, and ambition, than the construction of something material that crumbles, the conquest of a kingdom that collapses, or the leadership of a movement that ends in a rebound.

In the conquest of mind-space it is the inches, consolidated, that count. Also for the spread and endurance of an idea the originator is dependent on the self-development of the receivers and transmitters—far more dependent than is the initiator of an action upon its executants. In the physical sphere subordination can serve as a substitute for cooperation and, although inferior, can go a long toward producing effective action. But the progress of ideas, if it is to be a true progress, depends on cooperation in a much higher degree and on a higher kind of cooperation.

In this sphere the leader may still be essential, but instead of fusing individuals into a mass through the suppression of their individuality and the contradiction of their thought, the lead that he gives only has effect, lighting effect, in proportion to the elevation of individuality and the expansion of thought. For collective action it suffices if the mass can be managed; collective growth is possibly only through the freedom and enlargement of individual minds. It is not the man, still less the mass, that counts, but the many.

Once the collective importance of each individual in helping or hindering progress is appreciated, the experience contained in history is seen to have a personal, not merely a political, significance. What can the individual learn from history—as a guide to living? Not what to do but what to strive for. And what to avoid in striving. The importance and intrinsic value of behaving decently. The importance of seeing clearly—not least of seeing himself clearly.

To face life with clear eyes—desirous to see the truth—and to come through it with clean hands, behaving with consideration for others, while achieving such conditions as enable a man to get the best out of life, is enough for ambition—and a high ambition. Only as a man progresses toward it does he realize what effort it entails and how large is the distance to go.

It is strange how people assume that no training is needed in the pursuit of truth. It is stranger still that this assumption is often manifest in the very man who talks of the difficulty of determining what is true. We should recognize that for this pursuit anyone requires at least as much care and training as a boxer for a fight or a runner for a marathon. He has to learn how to detach his thinking from every desire and interest, from every sympathy and antipathy—like ridding oneself of superfluous tissue, the “tissue” of untruth which all human beings tend to accumulate for their own comfort and protection. And he must keep fit, to become fitter. In other words, he must be true to the light he has seen.

He may realize that the world is a jungle. But if he has seen that it could be better for anyone if the simple principles of decency and kindliness were generally applied, then he must in honesty try to practice these consistently and to live, personally, as if they were general. In other words, he must follow the light he has seen.

Since he will be following it through a jungle, however, he should bear in mind the supremely practical guidance provided nearly two thousand years ago: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

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Copyright (c) 1971 by Lady Kathleen Sullivan Liddell Hart

URL: http://www.nmt.edu/~shipman/reading/liddell/c04.html