Contingency, Counterfactuals and the Study of History
It’s Pearl Harbor Day, which means it’s as good a time as ever to reflect on what happened that fateful morning 69 years ago…and what didn’t happen. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in the hopes of destroying the US Pacific Fleet, recently moved out there from San Diego. The Japanese wanted to buy time to secure the oil fields in Indonesia and they knew the US would never allow it to happen. Alas, they took the Great Risk and woke the Sleeping Giant. The rest is history.
Or is it?
One of the fun things about the study of history is the use of counterfactuals. That is, positing an alternative history and wondering how things would have ended up differently. What if the US Navy had never won at Midway? What if the Pacific Fleet really was destroyed at Pearl Harbor? Did FDR really know it was coming – and what would have happened if he had responded differently? And so on.
But counterfactuals are deceptively simple. History does not follow a linear path where one alteration could predictably recalibrate all subsequent events. It’s not like a great Excel financial model where by plugging in a different input you get a predictably different output.
To understand history you need to understand contingency too. Contingency refers to the nearly infinite set of events that converge at a particular place and time. It appears to us as randomness, even though it’s really just an incredibly complex and often unpredictable collection of forces that makes an outcome take the shape it does (and, subsequently, an interpretation that resonates over time). Santayana’s famous dictum regarding repeating history by failing to study it aside, policy makers are as likely to make mistakes by oversimplifying the “lessons of history” as they are by failing to heed it in the first place.
One reason this comes to mind for me lately is my planning for an upcoming January term Tennessee Civil War road trip. I take about 10-14 students at Maryville College (where I teach) on a trip across the great state of Tennessee where we visit sites of significance to the Civil War and, to a lesser extent, Reconstruction. It is primarily geared toward military history sites – Shiloh, Lookout Mountain/Chickamauga (GA technically), Stones River, Fort Donelson, etc. – but it also includes sites of serious social controversy: the Fort Pillow massacre, guerrilla nastiness, the 1866 Memphis race riot, the Lost Cause stained glass at Sewanee, etc. Still, what we often do when visiting these sites is wonder: what if Bragg had done something differently? Or Forrest? Or Buell or Burnside or Sherman? The temptation to use counterfactuals while studying a Civil War battlefield is overwhelming. And with the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War upon us, I suspect a LOT of Americans will be experiencing this in the coming years.
But counterfactuals without respect for contingency look more like Monday morning quarterbacking. Should Bragg, for example, have been able to rout Rosecrans’s forces once and for all at Chickamauga? Well, sure! But could he have really planned for the accidental gap to appear in Union lines that fateful day in the first place? And what of the serendipitous arrival of Longstreet’s forces – just in time to drive through the Union gap and force a near disastrous retreat back into Chattanooga? As with most cases, a closer examination reveals the futility of pushing this line of reasoning. There were just too many forces that converged at a particular time to make it all happen the way it did.
I often use 9/11 as an example of contingency when I introduce the concept to my students. I ask what the causes of 9/11 were and I get the predictable run of answers regarding intelligence, Islamic jihadism, US foreign policy and the like. But nobody mentions the beautiful weather that morning! What if it was raining that morning and the flights were delayed – or even canceled? It’s very possible that the whole plot would have unraveled, as many other terrorists plots have, and we would barely know of its existence. We call it luck – bad luck in that case – but by deeming it such we ignore how much the unpredictable and multiple convergence of events affects history.
In fact, we ignore contingency because it makes the study of history morally problematic. If the only lesson of history is the accidental coincidence of forces then what lesson do we have to draw from it? Does contingency do to the moral study of history what natural selection did 140 years ago to the seemingly moral organization of the natural world? Perhaps.
But instead of throwing up our hands and yielding to the mysterious hands of fate and randomness, we should spend more time marveling at the past for its own sake. That is, we should stop reading history backwards to see how things led inexorably to today and start looking at the uncertain world of past societies and explore how they made sense of it all. In that reading, the Civil War becomes so fascinating not because it was part of some grand narrative of national unification or the emancipation of slavery, for example, but because there was just so much in the balance on each day. Everybody sensed it. And nobody knew how it would end up.
It’s that raw anxiety that comes through in primary documents of the past. Whether it’s the morning Japan’s imperial forces bombed the US Pacific Fleet, or the moment the first runaway slaves arrived at Virginia’s Fortress Monroe in May 1861, demanding they be taken in by Union forces, and thus initiating the social revolution known as emancipation. It’s the uncertainty of the past that makes it so rich, not the Hegelian onward march toward some greater destiny.
We should consider that as we explore our own world too. Whether we are examining tax policy, the war against the Taliban, the fight against cancer, or the struggle to emerge from the Great Recession, we need to be humble enough to recognize that we can’t plan it all out and expect everything to follow a pre-ordained path. And instead of dreading that uncertainty we should celebrate it as a fundamental part of the human experience.
As I’ve said before, we always live in interesting times.