UG10: The Lessons of History

“History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided.” Konrad Adenauer


History is a huge testing ground on which all the various types of human behavior and action have played out and we can see the resulting outcomes. Human nature is the same today as it was thousands of years ago and the way people behaved in the recorded past is the same as they are likely to behave in the present, given similar circumstances and a failure to have learnt the lessons of history.

Whilst history does not give us a simple rule book or certainties, such as ‘if we do this’ then ‘that will happen’, it does tell us what might happen, and sometimes what is likely to happen if we take certain actions, or if we stand back and allow situations to continue to unfold as they are. We can make use of the lessons learnt from history to recognize the dangers inherent in current circumstances and to seek to improve the likelihood of achieving the outcomes we desire.”

See also “A Brief World History and What It Teaches Us” by David G Croucher available through Amazon.
'There are no superior races or peoples'
In the past, different races and civilizations have been ‘top dog’, and when they were they invariably put their success down to some ‘natural’ superiority. And then later some other race or civilization supplanted them. Just as those who believe themselves to be ‘naturally’ superior today will either find themselves supplanted, or, if they truly learn the lessons from history, find themselves part of some more equitable effective world wide civilization. Those too arrogant to realize this will eventually be in for a fall, just as they have been in the past.
'History offers no support for any concept of absolute morality'
There are those who argue that some given morality is ‘natural’, as though there were some objective measure that supported it, and that therefore certain practices should be considered ‘unnatural’. However a wide range of moralities have existed through history and many of them have from time to time prospered. Those with strong views of what is natural or unnatural are reflecting some particular, usually religious, viewpoint rather than expressing anything like an absolute truth.
‘Power can and often does corrupt’
We need to be very wary of who we give power to or allow to take power. And we need to ensure, in so far as we are able, that those in power do not dismantle the means by which their long term power is constrained. So often populist leaders will argue for ever greater power to be concentrated in their hands ‘in the interest of the people’, and unfortunately it is not uncommon for ‘the people’ to democratically give them a mandate to reduce the democracy that enabled them to gain power, the very democracy that could remove them from power. Whilst there are examples of individuals not being corrupted by power, this is relatively rare, and occurs only with exceptional individuals; individuals whose sense of fairness and justice is able to counteract the temptations of unlimited wealth and deference; individuals who have strong humanitarian principles and an inner strength which seeks to bring people together rather than set them against each other.

In a manner of speaking it is not so much that power corrupts, but rather that power reveals, in that being given power allows people to do things which are already in their nature but which in the absence of constraints they hold back on. There are usually plenty of signs that reveal how a person might respond when given power, such as how they react when they feel under pressure or when things are not going their way. Is someone likely to be openly honest when some past mistake or shortcoming is pointed out, or are they likely to try to hide or twist the truth?
‘Individuals can make a difference, for good or bad’
There are undoubtedly trends and influences that mean at certain times certain ideas are going to emerge, and it is largely a matter of chance as to which individuals become strongly associated with a given idea. However there are also times when it was not inevitable that certain ideas would have emerged, and it is particular individuals that have made all the difference. As we have already observed, history cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted with certainty because it is chaotic. So many forces are at work and their interactions are so complex that extremely small variations in the strength of the forces and the way they interact can under certain circumstances produce huge differences in outcome. Not that everything is possible. Geographical, biological and economic forces create constraints. However these constraints leave ample room for individuals to be the difference between one direction of historical development and another. Developments such as Christianity becoming the Roman state religion, the triumph of a band of desert-dwelling Arabs who conquered an immense empire from nowhere, or the success of the Bolsheviks in 1917, were far from being fated events, irrespective of what some may nowadays believe. And there were individuals without whom these developments would not have happened.

Empires have generally prospered under competent rulers and declined under incompetent or mediocre rulers. Of course the competence of individuals on their own is not the only factor in the rise and fall of peoples and empires. Empires have declined despite competence and have prospered despite incompetence, but frequently it is the competence or the incompetence of the leader that has been the key defining feature in the rise, continuance, or decline of an empire.

You can make a difference in life. If you believe in something you should work towards it. Even if we don’t believe you are having any impact it may be that the impact is occurring in subtle ways or it is just taking longer than you would have liked.
‘People are not born good or bad’
People are shaped or misshaped by their experiences and past influences and act based upon their current circumstances. If we look at the younger lives of even those most widely vilified as being inherently evil, it is clear they were not always so. However, generally, as they got older, particular events or circumstances in their lives led to their developing a particular attitude of mind, one that allowed them to excuse in their own minds the excesses they then caused or allowed to happen.

We should accept the reality of the fact that there are those who will look to take advantage should circumstances allow. Like it or not there are people who, if they are allowed to do so, will behave in ways that are advantageous to themselves irrespective of the harm they might do to others, and moreover justify it to themselves in ways that enable them to still see themselves as the good guy or at least as no different to the way they believe everyone else to be. Thus the need for laws and police and also for our own personal vigilance.
‘Aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, will encourage those who get away with it’
Trying to appease those who engage in aggressive conduct will only lead to them seeing weakness to be further exploited. We can and should seek to avoid getting involved in an ever worsening cycle of recrimination and violence, and sometimes we need to be the first to be willing to seek to break the cycle. However we need to be wary of letting this be seen as weakness. We should be clear we expect reciprocal action, and be willing to stand tough should we not get it.
‘People can be conditioned to do the most horrible things’
This is not just a recognition of the fact that there are some people who are able to do horrible things, but the fact that the majority of us are capable of doing so if we are slowly conditioned to do so, particularly in times of difficulty or times of perceived threat.
‘Arrogance prohibits progress and eventually leads to decline or catastrophe'
Arrogance occurs when individuals, groups of individuals, or large groups of people such as whole nations, believe they are implicitly better or implicitly know better than others. In a modern world where change is a constant reality, a refusal to change for reasons of arrogance will severely limit us. Individuals who acknowledge their own ignorance are able to learn and develop in a way that those who don’t don’t. And nations that recognize the need to keep developing and accepting new ideas, often through a liberal approach to immigration, will, over the longer term, develop far more effectively than those that don’t; than those that attempt to hold on to the past.
'Even when things are dire, we can make them much worse'
It is not uncommon for an attitude of ‘anything is better than this’ to result in decisions which have subsequently made things much worse. No matter how bad things may be, we need to rationally think through the alternatives and satisfy ourselves that any given course of action is genuinely the best to be had in terms of long-term interests and needs. Bad decisions are not equally bad any more than are good decisions. So be wary of any argument which asks ‘what have you got to lose?’ as a way of distracting from a rational weighing up of the pros and cons.

Just as we are capable of making things much worse, so are we capable of making things much better. By seeking out win-win scenarios with others, by appreciating that others have the same rights as we do, we can work together to find ways of improving things.
'Small actions and decisions can have very large consequences'
There are many major world events which can be traced back to some relatively minor event, which had it not occurred, the particular major event would not have occurred. We have already observed that individuals can make a difference. There will frequently have been incidents in the lives of individuals which were key points which, had they gone differently, and they might readily have done so, would have led them down a different and ultimately more obscure path. And there are many examples of major battles and conflicts where the outcome from relatively evenly matched opponents was dependent upon some particular seemingly minor event or on chance circumstances such as the weather.

The consequences of some particular event can often ripple out far from its point of origin. Many peoples have attempted to ignore momentous events occurring far from their homeland only to eventually find themselves completely swept along as a result.
'Beware of arrogance and overconfidence'
Leaders can suffer from arrogance and overconfidence, underestimating the opposing forces for example, or may fail to adapt to emerging circumstances. Slavishly sticking to a plan that is not working can be disastrous, as can not knowing when to cut ones losses when things have turned bad, though of course judging when it is appropriate to change direction and when it is appropriate to persist is sometimes only obvious in hindsight. Leaders should also be aware of their own limitations, and compensate for them with a willingness to listen to others.
‘Be aware of possible poor communication’
A military operation can fail as a result from of poor communication, such as use of ambiguous messages or messages not getting through. Ambiguous messages can usually be avoided through giving thought to potential ambiguities and looking to see the message from the viewpoint of those due to receive it. The potential for messages not getting through, or possibly distorted or intercepted, must simply be considered and the risks taken into account as necessary or possible.
‘Lessons embodied in military planning’
The lessons from the past are readily available to those responsible for military planning. The US embody much of it in their training and manuals. For example a US military operations manual identifies the following as guidance:

• Direct every military operation towards a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective;
• Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative;
• Concentrate combat power at the decisive place and time;
• Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts;
• For every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander;
• Prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding.
‘Applying military lessons to our daily lives’
A number of lessons arising from historical military conflicts can also be usefully applied to our daily lives. For example:

• Be clear about your goals, and ensure they are the ones you really want.
• Have a plan for how to achieve your goals but adapt it as you go along to take account of emerging circumstances or better information.
• Avoid arrogance and overconfidence and never ignore inconvenient facts.
• Be aware of your own limitations and compensate for them in some way.
• Pay attention to effective communication. Don’t assume others know what you are thinking or even that they necessarily understand what you are trying to say.
• Put your time into activities which give the greatest return.
• Don’t assume the future will be just the same as the past. Sometimes things don’t change very much, but sometimes they do.
‘Politics is ok’
Whilst ‘politics’ is often given a bad name, it is worth reflecting on what politics is. Politics is the process of making group decisions, in an environment where individuals want different things. Given that we are one of many, and others think differently and want different things to us, then politics will exist whether we like it or not. Indeed the rejection of politics is itself a political act, one that is sometimes naïve and leaves those who do so exposed to the vagaries and whims of others, and sometimes which is deliberately exploited, often by populists, who use ‘rejection of politics’ as one of their political rallying calls, which is as ridiculous as it sounds, though many don’t seem to see the irony.
'Simple solutions to complex problems invariably give rise to unintended consequences’
History should remind us that human affairs are complicated, and that seeming simple solutions to complex issues will almost certainly give rise to unintended and often damaging consequences. When times are hard there will be populists and extremists offering simple solutions to what are undoubtedly multifaceted problems. And many of those who are being hard put upon will adopt a wishful thinking attitude and support them. The primary objective of those who achieve power on the back of such promises will not be solving the problems but on consolidating their power such that when they fail to solve the problems for the many they are not at risk of being forced back out of power.
'Appreciate what you have’
Be grateful for living in the age you do. For most of history life has been much harder, more brutish, and far shorter for the vast majority of people. For most of us in the western world and for many in other regions, life is far far better today than it has been for the vast majority in the past. Thus appreciate and make the most of what you have rather than continually bemoaning what you don’t, or continually comparing yourself with others better off than you.
'Morality is about the type of world we want to live in, not a search for ‘truth’'
History does not support any argument that proves one moral system or religion is more ‘true’ than any other. More powerful people have at times succeeded in imposing their view of what is right and wrong on others, but only through the application of force, not through any demonstration of truth.
'Actions have consequences’
We as individuals influence the world that is immediately around us, and in some cases the small ripples we create have knock on consequences far beyond what we may have intended or will even be aware of. Be conscious of potential consequences of your actions and at least try to think them through as best you can. You won’t always be able to see all the consequences of the actions you are considering but you should at least try. And in particular you need to be very conscious of the fact that other people are not passive actors and they will react to whatever actions you take. Thus if you behave in a selfish manner which gives rise to some short-term gain you need to recognize that others may well do so in response, or that others may than see you as a less desirable partner in their endeavors and seek to avoid working with you or even seek to actively work against you. People appreciate strength, but strength deployed in a way that has respect for others is not the same as strength deployed purely to selfish ends.

We cannot always predict the outcome of intent. But we should always act with good intent and support those we believe have good intent. By good intent we mean going beyond our own selfish interests and to accept that there is a wider community we should be supportive of. This wider community also needs to extend beyond some selfish grouping and to reach out to humanity as a whole. Support for our nation or our religion should not be our unquestioning morality. Very bad things have been, and are still being, done in the name of nation states or religion. Good intent should reach out to humanity as a whole. In so doing we do not need to reject our nation or religion but we need to acknowledge that our common interest lies in working with others from across the human race.
'Authoritarian Leaders’
Authoritarian leaders see the ends as justifying the means and are quite happy to mislead and lie, create imagined enemies and threats, stir up prejudices and racist feelings, misinterpret history, make unrealistic promises, and accuse anyone not willing to buy in to their personal agendas of being unpatriotic. This has been the case throughout history and it remains just as true today.
'Humanity above all’
Whilst humanity is intellectually capable of solving most difficulties, the limiting factor is our willingness to work together to do so. Human ingenuity, as so often in the past, may discover new solutions to our current difficulties, though we need to watch out for unintended consequences. On the other hand human intolerance and ill-will may precipitate new crises. Technological progress has been astounding. We are easily capable, from a technological viewpoint, of feeding the world. Yet billions are still living at or below poverty levels. We are capable of making a great future for humankind, but only if we are willing to put our being a part of the human race before our being a part of a religious, or national, or political grouping.