Understanding History


Those who are disposed to think that grand results should have equally grand causes are incensed by the idea that little random things can also have mighty effects. The name for this idea, as a concept in history, was given by Blaise Pascal (Pensées #162):

Le nez de Cléopatre: s'il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé
Cleopatra's nose: If it had been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have been changed

This is meant as a metaphor for her beauty, which tempted Marc Antony into inexpedient enterprises, and brought them both to ignominious ends, and, more importantly, affected the form in which Rome presently settled into its Imperial period. Whether it was Cleopatra's nose or another of her curves which ensnared Antony, the possibility that a minor blip may affect, or even produce, a major result cannot be ignored by the serious student of history.

Robert E Lee

Why did Lee lose the battle of Gettysburg? Was it getting trapped in foreign territory with an army too large to live off the land for any length of time, so that he had to fight, and could only fight by attacking up a strongly defended hill? Was it sending away his cavalry on a tactically useless raid, which deprived him of intelligence about Meade's movements, and so led to that impasse? Was it misjudging the feelings of the North in the first place, and imagining that the farmers of Pennsylvania would rally to his cause? Was it lack of supplies, including shoes, which increased the misery of his soldiers and reduced their effectiveness? Was it Longstreet's delay in attacking, and what in fact were the orders given to Longstreet? Was it the heroism of the 4th Vermont, who exacted a fearful toll of the advancing Confederates by standing to their post on the flank of the Confederate charge? Was it Meade's redisposition of his forces the evening before, which increased the chances of such a flank attack being successfully made?

Probably all of the above, and a lot more besides. The unriddling of such a causal nexus looks impossible. But balancing such causal riddles before they occur is the constant business of the general, and on the record, some generals are better at it than others. Not all factors are known, and not all known factors can be properly weighed, and yet decisions to fight or not fight, to invade or not invade, are not taken wholly at random. Grant, no mean judge of situations, put the role of small unanticipated causes this way:

Ulysses S Grant

Chance can affect the outcome of a battle or a campaign, but not of a whole career.

The unpredictable cannot be avoided, but over time, like other statistically random factors, it will tend to cancel out, in part because the opponent is equally vulnerable to it. Grant's subordinates ruined some of his plans on the Virginia campaign, and his own mistakes doomed others, but the outcome of that long series of thrusts and parries was the defeat of the Confederacy. Good judgement, or mostly good judgement, about the factors that are amenable to judgement, will tell in the long run. This is the best hope that can be offered to the participants in events. That much, and no more, is available to the chronicler of events. Not even hindsight removes some of the uncertainty, the indeterminacy, the looseness of articulation, the play in the joints, of the causal connection, at any level of complexity above that of the billiard ball.

Exactly what event, what shot fired by whom, triggered the French Revolution, is now indeterminable, and it may not be important to determine it. The French Revolution, as a broader analysis will show, was ready to happen one way or another. Voltaire noted, with Bloch's approval, that fortunately, the large factors and major trends in history are the least subject to interference by minor freaks of causation. This is another way of putting Grant's point.

There is a rational way to manage chance, to conduct yourself when embarking on an uncertain causal sequence, especially one where the preponderance of probability is against you. It comes to this: bet only once, so that you expose yourself minimally to the operations of adverse chance. The longer you stay in the game, the more likely it is that the odds will assert themselves.

Adolph Hitler

This insight was the whole logic of Hitler's hastened European war, undertaken against the advice of his generals who felt themselves unprepared. Hitler knew that luck was needed, and he thought himself lucky enough, and politically astute enough, to be successful against equally unprepared opponents. Events proved him right. He then needed to get out of the casino before his luck turned, or before he came up against situations that further lengthened the odds against him, He thought he had reached his exit point at Dunkirk. Britain's refusal to accept peace after Dunkirk enraged him. It refuted his strategy of conciliation, it impugned his political judgement. The story of WW2 in the rest of its European phase is the story of Hitler's not being able to get out of the casino.

Yamamoto Isoroku

The date of the first peace suggestions within the Japanese general staff show a similarly acute perception of how far a long-odds situation can reasonably be pushed, and when it is time to leave the table. Both Japan and Germany, or at least elements in the high command, showed a nice appreciation of the limits of temporary technological superiority. Both failed in practice to wind down the conflicts that they had opportunistically started. They lacked a plan for stopping the war, and they pursued the war in a way that eliminated all reasonable chance of stopping it. Yamamoto gave Japan eighteen months of naval superiority in the Pacific. This was very close to the correct figure. But he failed to plan the eighteen months so that at the end of them, some accommodation to the new status quo in the Pacific could thinkably be obtained from the other nations involved. They were not considering the other fella.

The moral for roulette players and for ambitious nations is this: Don't push the accelerator before you know where the brake is. In understanding and criticizing what people and states actually do in history, including what they mess up in history, here is one of the categories of understanding. It may be that the downfall of a state occurs, not by the withdrawal of Heaven's approval, but by inadequately adroit maneuvering in an only partly random universe.

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