101 Stumbles in the March of History

This 2016 book, by Bill Fawcett, is a compendium of historical might-have-beens. Decisions and choices the author deems mistakes, along with speculation about how differently subsequent history might have unfolded. He’s fond of saying, “It would have been a hundred times better if . . . .”

One could read this and conclude that people — even great personages — are screw-ups. But two things must be kept in mind. First, history encompasses zillions of decisions and choices people made. Finding among them 101 mistakes is all too easy. Especially if (second point) you use 20-20 hindsight. I recall how Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, loved applying the word “rash” to actions that turned out badly. Fawcett, in contrast, especially in military situations, often castigates undue timidity. Dumb rashness versus admirable boldness may be discernible after the fact, when we know how things turned out. It may not have been so clear at the time when the decision had to be made, often on the fly, without a crystal ball. And all too often the outcome hinged not so much on how smart the decider was, how rash or prudent, but how lucky.

For each “mistake,” Fawcett spins a counter-factual history, typically seeing a modern world surprisingly different, and usually better. These stories I found pretty laughable in their details; too facile and pat. History is messy. If one thing comes through from this book, it’s how contingent history is. Change any detail about the past, even a small one (“for want of a horseshoe nail . . .”), and the difference may well cascade through time, an historical “butterfly effect.” (The idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in, say, Brazil, can cause a storm in Canada.) And the law of unintended consequences is powerful. The results from changing something about the past might have confounded our expectations, good or bad, however logical those expectations might seem.

So one can never know what the final outcome of any action will be. Supposedly, Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En-lai, when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, replied “Too soon to tell.”

I’ve always been highly cognizant of contingency in life. I’ve written about this — how different, for example, my own subsequent life would have been, if I hadn’t happened to walk on a particular street at a particular minute on April 1, 1975. Several other people’s lives would be dramatically different too! (I can think of at least five offhand, two of whom wouldn’t even exist.) And that walk was only one link in a complex chain of consequential contingencies.

It’s customary in book reviews to cite at least one fact (usually minor) the author flubbed, to show off the reviewer’s erudition. This book is actually shot through with sloppy mistakes, often dates. Andrew Johnson was sworn in as vice president in 1865, of course, not 1864. Et cetera.

But here is one fascinating historical might-have-been, in the book. Why didn’t the Confederacy make military use of slaves? They had millions! In fact, it was proposed to offer freedom for serving in the army. It could have doubled Southern forces. And it was done, but only at war’s end, too little and too late. The fact was that the rebs were just too racist and contemptuous of blacks to stomach the idea of fighting alongside them. Even if it might have won the war. (Probably not; but you never know, history is messy.)

The last item in the book is something I myself, at the time, did see as a stupendous blunder: disbanding Iraq’s army in 2003. But at least two other recent biggies are inexplicably omitted (mistakes by Fawcett himself):

For 2000, he gives us Blockbuster’s refusal to partner with Netflix. Yet a vastly more consequential error that year was Yasser Arafat’s rejection of a very generous peace deal. It was all too foreseeable that immense evil would flow from this.

In a similar category was Obama’s 2013 decision to punt to Congress on punishing Syria for crossing his chemical weapons red line. Hearing his announcement, I could scarcely believe its stupidity.

Perhaps coming too late for inclusion were two epochal 2016 blunders. One was Britain’s Brexit vote. The resulting mess seems to grow daily. So deeply has Britain’s politics been poisoned that The Economist now sees the unthinkable as almost inevitable: Red Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister. Goodbye, mother country.

The other of course was our own 2016 vote — which America’s future Gibbon will surely label “rash.”

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