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The Verdict of Battle and the “Right Side” of History

James Whitman says something in The Verdict of Battle [1] that is related to the Sacramone post [2] on the “right side of history” that Rod discusses [3]. Whitman writes:

Nevertheless, the idea that wars are fought over world-historical stakes has by no means died. We remain prey to the belief that victory proves something about the course of history. World War II in particular seemed, to some of the victorious Allies, to prove that Western liberalism was destined to triumph, while to others it seemed just as clearly to prove the same thing about communism….Of course, any such belief is nonsense….Yet the horror and violence of war overwhelm our modern senses so much that we continue to look for great ultimate millennial meaning in the fact of victory or defeat.

The inevitable consequence is that we find it difficult to bring our wars to any genuinely accepted conclusion. If the world-historical meaning of Allied victory in World War I or World War II is that history intends Western democracy to triumph everywhere, then of course the wars cannot end until Western democracy triumphs everywhere….There is no law of victory to specify any lesser prize. There is no room to negotiate an end to the war because the expectations of the victor have become too absolute to permit a compromise.

Modern victors believe they are riding the wave of history, and it follows that they claim limitless rights. (p.259)

As I mentioned last week [4], one of Whitman’s arguments in the book is that the understanding of war changed from thinking of its outcome in terms of chance and Fortune to thinking of it in terms of Destiny. As a result, the outcome of a war is invested with much greater significance as the “verdict of history.” When winning a conflict implies that some sort of final judgment has been rendered by History on the beliefs and values of both belligerents, that tends to make people on both sides of the conflict treat atrocious behavior as legitimate because it is deemed necessary for victory. It encourages governments to start and continue wars that are rooted in intangible, ideological goals that require the destruction and replacement of entire regimes.

The danger of using rhetoric about “right” and “wrong” sides of history isn’t just that it’s self-justifying nonsense, but that it is used to authorize unjust behavior against others and it makes it more difficult to resolve and avoid conflicts. If you believe that yours is the side favored by History, you have fewer incentives to compromise and reach negotiated solutions with your rivals and adversaries, and if both sides believe that their ideology or cause is destined to prevail it becomes extremely difficult to avoid war and equally difficult to limit it when it happens. Needless to say, it would be very unusual to believe that there is a “right side” of History if one’s country and/or political values weren’t currently dominant or in the ascendant.

Camus said [5] that “the future authorizes every kind of humbug.” So does “History,” which is why there will always be those wanting to identify their cause with the “right side” of it.

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12 Comments To "The Verdict of Battle and the “Right Side” of History"

#1 Comment By Mightypeon On March 11, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

The only certain thing about the future is that our behaviour now ensures ample amounts of eye rolling later.

#2 Comment By Frank OConnor On March 11, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

FDR’s insistence on unconditional surrender just proves the point. In August 1945 Japan had neither to be nuclear bombed nor invaded. It was effectively spent and under siege. But of course to neutralize the enemy wasn’t enough, they had to be crushed. Total war required total victory.

#3 Comment By Franklin Evans On March 11, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

Robert A. Heinlein had an interesting perspective on this, which I paraphrase from memory: Nations always go to war for practical reasons. High ideals are required by individuals to be motivated to put their lives on the line.

For me, the context here also includes an addendum to that from a cliche: History is always written by the victors.

The “thrust” of history, whether viewed in 20-20 hindsight or via speculation by contemporaries, seems to overlook the practicality of war. It is certainly arguable, but whether self-defense or survival, or imperial expansion, the motivations start with practical concerns. Any “right side of history” claim or argument can logically be placed in the “high ideals” category, and thus should remain suspect if only because political motivations are too often liberally mixed with egos (be it nationalism or leadership ambitions). I tend to view Machiavelli’s writings in that light.

#4 Comment By William Burns On March 11, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

One of the two foundational works of Western historiography, The Peloponnesian Wars, was not only written by a general on the losing side, but an unsuccessful general on the losing side. Can we knock it off with this “history is always written by the victors” nonsense?

#5 Comment By Franklin Evans On March 11, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

Sorry, William, but the utility of a cliche is that it can claim immunity from argument. 😀

Certainly, any blanket statement is going to have exceptions, significant ones in many cases. My take on this is that losers rarely get a voice in the aftermath of their defeat, and indeed our civilization has shown a marked tendency to ignore them regardless of the factual or philosophical validity of their arguments. I respectfully suggest that the cliche’s value is in the practical consequences. For forums like this one, so long as we all have a way to agree on the caveats, this particular cliche helps keep a thread from getting too long.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 11, 2013 @ 6:34 pm

Franklin Evans,

I would appreciate what story that is from of Heinlein’s. I like it. Having gnawed on Stranger in a Strange Land before my time, I am curious.

#7 Comment By David J. White On March 11, 2013 @ 8:11 pm

the understanding of war changed from thinking of its outcome in terms of chance and Fortune to thinking of it in terms of Destiny. As a result, the outcome of a war is invested with much greater significance as the “verdict of history.”

This attitude is sometimes applied retrospectively. I have read discussions of the Punic Wars which suggest that Rome’s victory over Carthage was destined by Rome’s cultural and political superiority (from the modern historian’s point of view), and that this led inexorably to the subsequent development of Western Civilization (also destined).

Can we knock it off with this “history is always written by the victors” nonsense?

One doesn’t need to look nearly as far back as Thucydides for this. Or, for that matter, Josephus. The standard view of the American Civil War that prevailed for at least a century after the war was, to a great extent, the Southern view: yes, of course, slavery was wrong; but the North and South met as combatants on equal terms, the Southern generals were gallant and dashing, the South fought bravely in defense of a noble cause (except for the slavery part), and the victory of the North was due solely to attrition and the barbarity adopted by uncouth Northern generals such as Grant and Sherman.

I would appreciate what story that is from of Heinlein’s.

I don’t have the book in front of me, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Franklin (hi, Franklin) is referring to Starship Troopers. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Rico is a student in the history class taught by the veteran. A student piously asserts that “violence never changes anything,” to which the teacher replies, “Tell that to the city fathers of Carthage.”* Starship Troopers is a wonderful meditation on the responsibilities of citizenship.

(*In the movie this was changed to “Tell that to the city fathers of Hiroshima,” which misses the point: the city fathers of Carthage made the decision to go to war against Rome, and bore the ultimate consequences for that decision; the city fathers of Hiroshima presumably didn’t decide, on their own, to bomb Pearl Harbor.)

#8 Comment By Franklin Evans On March 11, 2013 @ 11:14 pm

EliteCommInc: I am chagrined to report that while my memory of it being from Heinlein is solid, I have not been able to re-find it. The possible and likely locations are: The Past Through Tomorrow, the collection referred to as his “Future History”; Time Enough for Love — Lazarus Long’s story, which I’ve been through somewhat without finding it because it sounds exactly like something Lazarus would have “said”; and Expanded Universe, in which you will find many of his essays (it’s next on my list to look).

All three are worthy reads. If you are so inclined to wash the taste of the movie out of your thoughts, do read his short novel Starship Troopers, and if you’ve not seen the movie all the more reason to read it. 😀

#9 Comment By Sean Scallon On March 12, 2013 @ 12:01 am

Well, one can say about for War for Jenkins’s Ear is that nobody thought themselves fighting for destiny’s sake.

#10 Comment By William Dalton On March 12, 2013 @ 12:30 am

“We remain prey to the belief that victory proves something about the course of history. World War II in particular seemed, to some of the victorious Allies, to prove that Western liberalism was destined to triumph, while to others it seemed just as clearly to prove the same thing about communism”.

Observing the state of the world after the passage of over 65 years, one might make the argument that the ultimate victor of the Second World War was fascism – Republican states which exert tight control over their people, merge the interests of capital and government to their mutual profit, inflame popular opinion to jingoistic declarations of allegiance and blind hatred of the enemy in times of war, and now, engineering an increasingly rapid cycle of wars and definition of new enemies to fight and hate, necessary to keep the engines of commerce running and the system from falling apart. This was long the post-war mindset that prevailed in the “communist East”, and now it has emerged triumphant in the “democratic West”. The names of Hitler and Tojo may still be bywords in our culture, but we have certainly become their children in temperament and the hubris of believing we “are on the right side of history.”

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 12, 2013 @ 11:36 am

Franklin Evans,

I have a few science fiction texts around, but I have long left the readings. My beloved father liberal father — my complete opposite in almost every way, forced upon me the likes of nonfiction — a thoroughly depressing venture. But I have not moved far from it. But those science fiction writers were a god send. Here’s a story for you, Deadlier Than The Male, James Gunn, I think. And do know, I think and so many others here are conservatives at the core, but having been dunked in smarmy seas of liberalism, it is hard to find one’s way back . . . — just smile.

I have seen the movie, oddly enough I must confess some sympathy for the bugs.

William Dalton,

Victories do determine the course of history. Particularly at the moment of history. That does mean that history will not experience a re-engagement of the issue in another physical battle or in some other fashion.

And I appreciate the Poem, Dulce Est De’Corum Est Pro Patria Mori, as well as the next man. But all nations get those about to engage in life and death struggles in which blood of their fellow man is splattered across their faces, jived up to do the task at hand. I am not sure one could engage in the nasty business of warfare without jingoisms. But none of that is relegated to Republican states. Tis the state of man. (Knowing full well, that one of the writers from American Scholar will seek mt castigation for using the term ’tis.)

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 12, 2013 @ 11:37 am

Wetsren societies were the children of hubris long before Tojo or Hitler appeared on the scene.