Monday, 2 July 2007

Plus ca change …plus c’est la meme chose?

I’ve just finished reading “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman, recounting the early days of the First World War. It was written in 1962 (when I was born). I bought it after seeing the film “Thirteen Days” – about JFK and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. What’s the connection? Well, President Kennedy had read Tuchman’s book when it was published. (Leaders and learning – but I won’t go on about it today.) He drew parallels between the lessons from the book and the Cuban missile crisis. It was a new situation, with new technology, yet his advisers (especially the military) trotted out the same old advice. No learning there then!

Which got me wondering – when do we need to recognise that circumstances have changed so that the ‘same old’ solutions won’t work? Tuchman tells us that the French military staff refused to believe that the Germans would invade through Belgium because they “believed the arguments against such a maneuver more telling than the evidence for it”. Why let evidence get in the way of your prejudices?

Some of the problems faced by the French were attributed to the leaders: “general officers … performed the functions of corporals, not commanders.”

Finally, reflecting at the end of her book on the whole war she writes:

“Men could not sustain a war of such magnitude and pain without hope – the hope that its very enormity would ensure that it could never happen again … Nothing less could give dignity or sense to monstrous offensives in which thousands and hundreds of thousands were killed to gain ten yards and exchange one wet-bottomed trench for another.”

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

Iraq, anyone?

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