14 June 2006

Two announcements, and a philosophy of history

Two announcements:

1) Lime-flavored Tic-Tacs are revolting. Really revolting. Lime-flavored mints of any kind is a bad idea.

2) My brother is a mad genius who thinks entirely too much about dragons.

Today we rolled out the gate on a two million dollar wild goose chase, but it had to be done. You don’t let two million dollars just float away without at least trying. I’m highly amused by the entire little saga, but not sure how much I can write about. After all, the 15-6 has begun.

Since then, discovered the Radio Tango is still ongoing, but none of the attention is directed my way. Radios are NOT arms room property and so I am not accountable for a single one. And had to hang up on Jen because the mortar alarm sounded, but they can’t even hit the camp most days and this was no exception.

Finally finished The Varieties of History, which is a collection of essays written by historians about history. I disagree with most of them. Part of my disagreement lies in the fact that I am no historian, but an enthusiastic amateur.

First, History in and of itself is basically intellectual masturbation. I mean, really, what practical good does it to know the nuances of Spanish currency of the 17th century? None what so ever. Unlike the physical sciences it does no practical good for a collection of eggheads to circulated learned monographs amongst each other. In the physical sciences these learned monographs add to the understanding of the universe and get applied by some practical engineer, and become a device which betters my life whether I understand it or not. I need not be an electrical engineer nor botanist to operate my coffee machine and enjoy the result. But to get value out of history I have to know it myself.

History, if it is to be said to have any ‘value’, is primarily valuable as education. Understanding the origins of modern society makes one better able to understand the nuances. How can one understand the modern gun control issue without understanding the historical place of firearms in American culture and the history of our frontier? And how can one understand that without understanding the roots of that place in the English common law relating to self defense and the obligation of free men to defend their communities? And that goes back to primitive Saxon tribesmen and their understanding of free men as those who bear arms. And so on and so forth. That’s a rough example.

However, this use of history is rightly viewed with skepticism because it is difficult to draw any correct conclusions without a large quantity of accurate information. And direct historical analogy is nearly always highly suspect. For instance, the constant refrain comparing the USA to the Roman Empire, with the implication that a “fall” is imminent is an example that grates on me every time I hear it. The vast majority of people who make that analogy know nothing more of the Roman Empire other than that it existed and that at some point it “fell.” The reasons for this are more complex than can be taught in grade school, so mythology is taught in grade school.

History is also entertainment. And the better the history, the more it entertains. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have read Treadgold without having first read Norwich. And before Norwich came Harry Turtledove’s fiction. Without a fascination for the Roman Empire born of Norwich’s ‘bad’ sensationalistic history, the more intellectual and learned and objective history of Treadgold would have been too boring to finish.

If history neither entertains nor educates, than it is nothing more than the pleasant pastime of someone learned in archaic languages for his own self-gratification.

Having said that, I think there are a couple fallacies in some of these essays which should be addressed.

History isn’t a science. Science requires the scientific method which requires experimentation. You can’t experiment with history. You can have what might be called a scientific mindset, where evidence is examined with skepticism and compared against other evidence and whatnot, but you can’t have an experiment. No experiment, no science.

Splitting history up into fields of political, social, economic, blahblahblah is stupid. These are methods, means, not ends in and of themselves. Approaches would be another word. But you can take practically any set of facts and draw conclusions from them that apply to each field. Land ownership is the basis of political power, the basis of economic production, and the determining factor of social status simultaneously for much of human history. How can you study one aspect without others? You can do a particular study on the economic aspects of what ever you like, but drawing conclusions without considering all aspects of the question leads to skewed crap like Marxists produce.

Further, I'm going to beat a drum that is my own pet peeve. Most folks can't write military history. The vast majority of people who have no military experience at all really don't understand enough of the psychology of soldiers to write good military history. There are some exceptions, but I cannot count the number of things I've read that contained fallacies that anyone who had completed basic training could have identified. Not technical details per se, simply the nature of the beast. Keegan is like that. Just MHO.


Blogger tychecat said...

While I was never a "professional Historian" I taught history for over thirty years, was a member of all the requisit honorary and professional societies, etc; until I got tired of reading all the backbiting and mutual masterbation of the professional journals and dropped them.
Your comments are well taken. History really comes in two flavors -1. Original documents and accounts, and
2. Analysis of these sources.
Most historians seem to spend most of their time on 2, interpreting and explaining the sources, and since these intreprtetations are always colored by the historian's history; a true understanding of what really happened and why is hard to come by
To make matters worse, the source materials are either overwhelming in their abundance or almost non-existant. I once had to scan all the existing ORIGINAL Roman documents. A daunting task? Not really, they all fit in one rather modest bookcase. If I'd had to scan all that had been written about them, I'd still be reading with the end not in sight.
On the other hand, the study of military history can be overwhelming for another reason; It's among the dryest, dullest collection of original documents ever filed. I was lucky, I had a really good expert on American military history (John K. Mahan) as a prof. His comments were fascinating, the reading was not. In this particular field (which I gather is a fascination of yours) focus on the big picture almost always leads to incorrect conclusions. Unless you mine all the paper minutia which an army generates,you'll never know. To be really accurate you can't even depend on summary reports - Generals have a tendency to exagg....slan....lie in their reports and memoirs.
If you really want a wild military history ride, I recommend you take a look at the Phillipine War (1898 to about 1904). that one's small enough to get a handle on and though not our finest hour, full of fascinating characters.

10:06 PM  
Anonymous Noah D said...

Norwich is bad?

7:22 AM  
Anonymous nerdasaaurus said...

I mean, really, what practical good does it to know the nuances of Spanish currency of the 17th century?

Actually, this can have a LOT of practical application to todays politics and the social issues of our day. One of the big items in todays' headlines is that of illegal immigration across our southern border. The reason for this is that America is and remains an economic powerhouse that attracts the poor from all around the world. However, we are geographically attached to a series of third-world sh*th*les where there is no work, no jobs and where economic hardships mean life-and-death issues. An understanding of 17th century currency issues can lead to additional understanding of why those third-world sh*th*les ARE third-world sh*th*les. The purpose of a historian is to understand the past so as to put today in context. Because the decisions made today will be analyzed by the historians of tommorrow.

Every person throughout history is a prisoner of their own time. We all have the same limitations of knowledge and scope, regardless of where we are, who we are, and WHEN we are. We always make the decisions which affect the future based on whatever knowledge we have about the present. The job of the historian is to expand the viewpoint of the decison-makers so that it is possible to NOT repeat the mistakes of the past.

I concur with Tychecat that there isn't enough observation of the original documentation, and too much of that which has already been published. That being said, most of us are amateurs and have little access to original documents.

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Don Cox said...

Interesting post. I have to disagree with you on one point: "Science requires the scientific method which requires experimentation."_____This is not true of biology, which is largely observation and analysis. For example, comparative anatomy depends on dissection and examination of fossils. There are no experiments you can do on anatomy. What history should have in common with science is integrity - a historian should be looking for hard evidence and be prepared to change his ideas accordingly. _____I like your point about military history, but many military historians have been retired soldiers, and in the 20C most European men had fought in either WWI or WWII._____For instance, I have a good book on "The Roman war Machine" by John Peddie, OBE, MC, who is a retired regular infantry soldier. (MC = Military Cross).

6:02 PM  
Blogger Just A Decurion said...

I have the same book (RWM), and like it. It makes sense.

Noah: He's awful, supposedly. Nothing like objective, he's a cheerleader for the Roman Empire and proud of it. "Serious" historians are supposed to be objective, see. Except when the topic is either white people picking on non-white people, or the history of Christianity. In those cases it's OK to bash white people and Christians.

Tyche: I'm on a cycle with my reading, fluff and serious stuff. I'm on fluff right now. My next "serious" book is going to be Schoolbooks and Krags.

8:23 PM  
Anonymous J_O_A said...

15-6 on who?

9:43 PM  
Blogger A Soldier's Girl said...


I think he's talking about a 15-6 on the what caused the two-million dollar wild goose chase. Finding out who let the goose out.

11:28 PM  
Anonymous auxdarastrix said...

No, actually "serious" historians that focus on bashing white people don't call themselves objective, they call themselves post-modern. Big difference.

"Objectivity" went out in the 1920's.

8:12 AM  
Anonymous Noah D said...

*headscratch* Huh - then again, I never read anything about Norwich, just his (single volume abridged) History of Byzantium, and History of Venice. I thoroughly enjoyed both of them.

Then again, I think cheerleading for the Roman Empire is a feature, not a bug...

BTW - thanks again for your SG2 contributions from some years ago; I'm using them yet again.

8:04 AM  
Blogger A Soldier's Girl said...

Jason, have you been listening to me complain about my Texas history teacher or something?


6:01 PM  

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