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A Look Back at Hindsight

As an amateur historian, it has always amazed me how often other historians, let alone non-historians, engage in hindsight when assessing past actions and events.  This is so pervasive that I have decided that the various forms of this need to be categorized and named.  I have modestly christened this the Graham Hindsight Scale, which currently runs from 1 to 4, tho I reserve the right to modify or expand it as I discover examples of other types of hindsight.  So here goes:

Hindsight 1.0: In the classic sense, it’s painfully easy to judge historical events in light of later ones. The

Xerxes as his loss at Battle of Salamis hit him

criticism of the Iraq war via the fact that WMD was not found in Iraq, even though everyone in a position to know believed they were there beforehand, is a classic example of this kind cheap hindsight.  Yes, the “inspectors” didn’t find WMD, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there, especially in view of Hussein’s obfuscation ante.  Military intelligence is inexact and frequently contains conflicting information.  Ask the Marines at Tarawa, the Persians at Salamis, the Romans in the Teutoburg Forest, Nagumo at Midway, Custer at the Little Bighorn, or any opponent of the Germans over the years in the Ardennes — there is truly an endless list of examples where intelligence turned out to be wrong, but everyone bought into it beforehand.   Today, Roman Consul Varus is universally condemned for having been ambushed in the Teutoburg Forest by Germanic Chieftain Arminius, partially because historians look at that event in isolation.   Who knows how many times Roman Legions had marched thru an area such as that and gotten thru just fine?

As Hugh Trevor-Roper observed, “history is not the study of what happened.  It is the study of what happened in the context of what might have happened”.  The intelligence officer has the very difficult job of sifting thru unlimited bits of information trying to figure out which is valid and fits a pattern prior to the event 

Joseph Rochefort before the War

occuring.  I do not think the average person appreciates the enormity of this task.  The focus tends to be on the times when they “got it wrong”.  All of this makes the accomplishment of little known LCDR Joseph Rochefort in predicting Japanese strategy at Midway June 1942 all the more remarkable.  Without his amazing insight and dedication, sifting through endless Japanese coded messages, some designed to lead codebreakers astray, it is very unlikely the hard-pressed US Navy would have been in a position to win that pivotal battle.  I would challenge any of these Monday morning quarterbacks to stand in the intelligence officer’s shoes and “get it right”.

Hindsight 2.0:   Knowing what course was tried and didn’t work out, and condemning those on the spot for not making a different choice.  This confers the huge advantage on the critic of having to pick only from other seemingly logical choices, while eliminating the one chosen, even tho that may have been the most logical course at the time.   Historians do this all the time, whether they realize it or not. The myriad critics of the Japanese at the Battle of Midway fault Yamamoto for not having the Main Body nearer where the main battle occurred, not waiting until either Shokaku or Zuikaku could be re-fit and included, sending Hosogaya off to the Aleutians, and on and on.  Such criticism demands a level of prescience on the part of Yamamoto and Nagumo that is simply super-human. I won’t get into it here, but there were very good reasons for the choices Yamamoto made, based upon Imperial Navy’s battle history during the previous 45 years, and the hard realities confronting him in June of 1942. Yamamoto didn’t have the advantage of later critics employing Hindsight 1.0: knowing what a major role air power would play in future warfare and what an unpredictably minor role Mahanian big-gun tactics, the then-recently adopted Bible of naval warfare, would be relegated to.  There were also, by the way, very good choices for the detention camps for Japanese-Americans set up by the US in early 1942, tho it is popular among those without all the facts to condemn them out-of-hand, so click on the link for my (somewhat inside) take on it.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder made the observation clear to any student of military history:  no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. The Japanese were certainly an extreme example of this (see my paper “The Other Reasons Japan Lost the War“), but any armed conflict provides illustrations, including the War in Iraq.  It is simply impossible to foresee everything that’s going to happen, how the enemy will react, and every piece of equipment that will be needed, let alone get it produced and in the field.  The critics of everything from the post-war unrest to the lack of “up-armored Humvees” clearly had no understanding of this, but focused on such shortcomings to the exclusion of all that went as planned.  They (probably unwittingly) had the advantage of Hindsight 2.0: knowing what course was tried and didn’t work out, at least as smoothly as those “experts” sitting at their computer keyboards thought they should have.  

 

Hindsight 2.1:   The “What-If”.   I don’t mind these exercises when they are undertaken for intellectual stimulation

Confederate General George Pickett

and fun (if the South had won the Civil War, the Japanese Midway, etc). However, the idea that the historian can predict with any accuracy what would have happened had a now-more-attractive choice been made (the one actually made having been eliminated via Hindsight 2.0) is highly problematic.   I am not a lot of things, and a mathematician is among them, but there must be some law that says that the predictability of events decreases exponentially with each step away from the last known event. What if General Pickett hadn’t been ordered to have his division charge across the field?   All we really know, probably, is that he still would have had his division, Armistead and Garnett by the next day.   The idea that Lee would have won the battle is a huge leap based upon a series of assumptions which rapidly become less and less valid, based as they are upon previous dubious assumptions. 

 

 

Hindsight 3.0Knowing the result and being able to pick out later what led to it, along with Hindsight 3.1: Not understanding how those on the spot could have been so blind to that evidence, Hindsight 3.2: parading forth as a genius anyone who appears to have predicted it, notwithstanding that it may have been the only time he was right.   This is my favorite because it is so common and those engaging in it seem not to realize it.   The investigations into the Pearl Harbor attack are historically the most glaring

USS Pennsylvania sits in drydock behind wrecked destroyers Cassin and Downes

examples of this.   I’m sorry, but NO ONE outside Japan thought the Japanese had the ability to attack Pearl Harbor in December, 1941.   There are countless histories of the attack condemning Kimmel, Short, and others for not, in light of information they had or should have had, knowing when and where the attack was coming.   And Billy Mitchell and Ellis Zacharias are inevitably dredged up as having predicted it, yadda, yadda.   Well, ya know what?   A lot of stuff was predicted that didn’t come true, which we now pay no attention to because it didn’t.  A Japanese invasion of Oahu was pretty much a given, with invasion of the West Coast of the US deemed pretty likely, in addition to an attack on the Panama Canal.  Heck, if the Japanese could pull off an attack on Pearl Harbor, who’s to say they couldn’t do the rest of them?  Those having to call the shots at the time had to sift thru all those bits of intelligence without knowing which would be relevant and without knowing the future.  It is

extremely easy for any reasonably focused historian to cherry-pick bits of evidence that, taken to together and to the exclusion of all conflicting and now clearly irrelevant contemporary information, appear to form an unmistakable pattern leading to the known event.  The contemporary decision maker doesn’t have that advantage.  There is a delightfully obsequious parody of this in Act II Scene 7 of The Mikado involving Pooh Bah, Koko, and Pitti Sing.  I was Pooh Bah.

 
The criticism of the failure to find WMD’s in Iraq is the most recent example of Hindsight 3.0,1,and 2. Prior to the invasion, Saddam was acting to any rational, observant person like someone with something to hide, dancing the inspectors all over the desert,flouting 17 or so UN Resolutions, etc, etc. Under Clinton, it was beginning to look like a replay of Hitler vs the League of Nations. To Bush’s everlasting credit, clearly the right thing was done at the time in invading. Later criticism that everything didn’t go exactly as planned is just real cheap.  We have another good current example, seeing what the Obama Adminstration chooses to do about the threat of Iran having nuclear weapons.  I’m guessing, in his most private moments, Obama has more sympathy for the difficulty of Bush II’s decision.  To me, he appears frozen into inaction for fear of making a mistake.
 
I see examples of Hindsight 3.1 constantly in my reading of history books.  It is most commonly manifested by the author’s questioning why the subject (be it a person or nation) behaved a certain way when the inevitability of outcome was so evident.  Here again, those on the spot only had the ability to know what had already happened, and not what was about to.  Ignoring honor, “face” and all that, why did Germany and Japan continue to fight after, say, late 1944, when

The British surrender at Yorktown

their eventual defeat was “obvious”?  Well, one might ask why the American Colonies continued to resist, given the nearly constant string of defeats they suffered, not to mention privations enduring by army and civilians, and it was “obvious” that they couldn’t prevail against the then-most powerful nation on earth?  Germany and Japan did not have the benefit of knowing what the Allies had up their sleeves, or that they were not so tired of the war that they would settle for some negotiated treaty.  Might be that just one significant victory (The Bulge for Germany, Okinawa/Kamikazes for Japan) would be the breaking point for their enemies. 

Yet historians are regularly incredulous at Germany and Japan’s continued resistance.  In my opinion, this reaction is influenced by the underlying fact of their impending defeat, which was not as clear to them at the time.  Conversely, the decision to use the atomic bombs on Japan is often condemned on the grounds that “Japan was already defeated”.  Maybe so in hindsight, but this was not clear to those on the spot.  We now know that the population was starving, war production had basically stopped due to the Americans having cut off imports, etc, but we didn’t exactly have “boots on the ground” in Japan to tell us that.  Besides (and this point doesn’t originate with me), had Truman had “the bomb” but refused to use in on any of the grounds later cited by Monday Morning Quarterbacks, and who knows how many US soldiers, airmen, and Marines had continued to die trying to stamp out every last vestige of Japanese resistance, he would rightly have been condemned (perhaps impeached?) for that.
 
As to Germany, the Russians really did the heavy lifting in the defeat of Germany.  Now, one can say that they deserved that job, having stabbed Britain in the back with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty of 1939, then stood by and watched France overrun and Britain blitzed while conspiring with Hitler to carve up Poland, then turning around and begging for Allied support when Germany invaded in June, 1941, but the fact remains that the Russian Army was the atom bomb that ground Germany into submission.     

Hindsight 3.3:  Assessing events/capabilities in light of later ones.  An example of what I mean here is the Spanish/American War.  While the notion that the US should easily have won that War is now a given, that was certainly not the case in 1898.  In fact, when [then Commodore] Dewey put into Hong Kong for pre-battle re-supply, his officers dined with those of the British Hong Kong squadron the night before departure, one of whom famously said “Nice chaps.  Too bad we shall never see them again”, the idea being that Dewey’s squadron had no chance against the Spanish at Manila Bay.  In the event, of course, the Spanish squadron was destroyed with virtually no damage to the American one.  We may look back on that with the idea that the US was a major naval power and it should have been a walk-over, but that was definitely not the impression in 1898 when the US was still ramping up from the post-Civil War demobilization and the following century was still in the future.

One could also make this case about World War II, where we now see the Allied victory as inevitable.  In the first half of 1942, you’d have had trouble finding too many people with that view.  Same thing with the American Civil War when Lincoln was tearing his hair out over constant Confederate victories until late 1862.

Hindsight 4.0: Examining only those things that did not work out and condemning those who had to make the decisions that led to them, while other things that potentially had similiar problems, but happened to work out, are not examined.   It just seems logical to me that, to be valid, criticism of errors (clear in hindsight) that led to an unfavorable outcome ought to be offset by credit for those that developed favorably.  Problem is that the stuff that worked out despite the same sorts of errors having been made is harder to spot later and doesn’t

Confederate Gen’l Armistead lost his life in Pickett’s Charge

get the critic the (cheap) ink because it all worked out.  It’s like the shot from 10 feet beyond the 3-point line that happened to go in; the shooter is a hero, whereas if he had missed, announcer says “I didn’t like that shot selection — he shoulda passed to so-and-so who was open on the baseline”.  If Pickett’s division had carried the Union line at the Bloody Angle of Gettysburg, all involved would be considered heroes today; conversely, had Henry V been defeated at Agincourt, which by all rights he should have been, Shakespeare would have had one less subject for a play.

Henry V defeats Louis IX at Agincourt

There are plenty of examples of equally unlikely outcomes which, since they worked, are viewed completely differently now.  I mean seriously Miltiades, do you really think your 90 ships can defeat the 600 of Xerxes?  And Henry your Majesty, what did you mean fighting 20,000 crack French troops of Louis IX at Agincourt with your rag-tag bunch of 5000 English peasants?  Are you nuts?  Of course, we now know that those risky moves were successful.

 
One of the truer observations about military history is that armies are always prepared to fight the last war.  The above are some of the reasons:  armies beat themselves up over what went wrong in the previous war and take steps to remedy it.  The difficulty of predicting what will be important in the next war is borne out by the inevitable unpreparedness of armies to fight it.

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