Of which the essence thereafter remains unexamined

I’ve been digging into the use of Pearl Harbor analogies in America’s response to the 9-11 attacks – and, because of a curious twist in the political landscape in 2001, I’ve been looking a little more closely at a well known study of the Pearl Harbor attack, Roberta Wohlstetter’s Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (Stanford University Press, 1962). Wohlstetter’s book is a classic examination of military intelligence (and its failures). It  also enjoyed a parallel life as a physical prop in certain defense circles, where invoking the lessons of this particular past – military preparedness and managing strategic surprise – was part of a ploy to justify budget increases. Among the reviews of Wohlstetter’s book that appeared after its release, one by Sir Michael Howard, published in 1963, caught my attention. Howard appreciated Wohlstetter’s attention to the historical minutiae of intelligence work, and her use of such detail to attempt an explanation of the American failure to anticipate Pearl Harbor. But he was also cynical about her use of historical method in the service of something other than a Rankean telling-it-like-it-really-was account of past events. It’s a sensitivity of long standing among historians, and goes to the heart of the discipline as a professional practice animated by principles of forensic inquiry. Howard’s opening paragraph gets right to it:

Few professional historians stray into the field of strategic studies, and those who do are not likely to find it congenial. They will be surrounded by men of great ability and quicksilver minds who link events into patterns, reduce the chaos of experience to predictable order, deduce principles, extrapolate trends, and in general toss around the stuff of history with an insouciance which the historian, knowing from his own laborious researches how delicate, complex, and intangible is every one of the historical “events” so cheerfully used as the basis for these theories and predictions, finds it hard to regard as academically reputable or even logically sound. Like the lawyer or the philosopher, he winces at the labels casually slapped onto historical phenomena or human behavior of which the essence thereafter remains unexamined. Faced by terribles simplificateurs whose confident analyses and predictions may easily become the bases for national attitudes and policies, he can only continue, quietly and insistently, to repeat his creed. Every event is for the historian unique, unforeseeable, and indescribable in its full complexity. In some respects it will resemble other events, and out of these resemblances useful patterns may be deduced as intellectual tools. But all these patterns are subjective and hypothetical. Like the psychiatrists’ ink-blobs, they teach us more about our own minds than they do about the ingredients which compose them. To suspend judgment, to refuse to make patterns at all, is not only sterile but destructive of all historical writing. But any patterns made or deductions drawn from events before the record is established as completely as human effort can do it will be worthless as foundations for any form of political, economic, or strategic thought.

Reference: Michael Howard, “Military Intelligence and Surprise Attack: The ‘Lessons’ of Pearl Harbor,” World Politics 15:4 (1963): 701-711.

[Ed.: “ploy” isn’t quite the right word for it – it was no more conspiratorial than any other political agenda.]