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Is there such a thing as “historical skepticism”?

I’m not sure if this post isn’t just a political rant thinly veiled behind something I’ve chosen to call “historical skepticism” but here goes.

I am one of the, unfortunately, handful of Hoosiers who have been adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq since day one. I’m not back peddling (cough, Evan Bayh and just about every Democratic senator and a handful Republicans) after the fact. I was never convinced that Saddam posed an “imminent threat” to the United States.  I didn’t believe Saddam had WMD (because the UN couldn’t find any, remember Hans Blix?). Yes, Saddam was a bad guy but we didn’t go in there because he was bad guy we went in because of WMD and the near apocalypse. If we went in because he was a bad guy then why haven’t we dealt with Cuba, Libya, North Korea and on and on. *breathe*

Having said all that, I don’t think we can set a date and pull out just because it’s a bad situation and a lot of troops are dying. We now have an obligation, I call it Bush’s obligation, and I’ve blogged on this on my personal blog (definitely a political rant). The gist of the post is this:

Anyway after all this I was thinking everyone’s strategy is to get out. So we leave the Iraqis holding the bag. We all take off, Bush may or may not save face, and all of the families and citizens of Iraq are screwed. …We are now committed to seeing this whole thing through. There are families that need us now more than ever.

I fully expect the Dems to want to keep trying to pull out but now the morally-upright-go-it-alone Republicans are trying to get out now because its politically expedient but unfortunately not the right thing to do.

As sick as it makes me feel we have an obligation to these people. We have Bush’s obligation.

So where am I going with this, I was reading this Salon article, Bush’s favority historian, about Sir Alistair Horne and his book “A Savage War of Peace” and how this is a George W. Bush “must read”. The book is about the 1954-1962 Algerian War in which the French were the colonial power dealing with a rather persistent insurgency.  You can draw a surprising number of parallels between the book’s account of the Algerian War and the war in Iraq and here’s where I am going with this.

Is there such a thing as “historical skepticism”? Can someone evaluate a possible future strategy/policy (such as invading Iraq) and then evaluate similar, well-documented examples in history to draw some inferences as to the possible outcomes? What kind of strategies/protocols could be developed that would allow us to evaluate historical “precedent” if you will and the use that as a predictor of certain course of action? In fact, I was reading the latest eSkeptic (from skeptic.com, you must subscribe) and Robert Ehrlich has an essay, Science will never explain everything: that is why it is so useful!, and this little quotemine from the essay got me thinking actually about doing this post to begin with. The study of history can explain things after the fact but “historical skepticism” could be used to help us predict possible outcomes the possible outcomes of our actions:

Imagine a system of belief that could explain everything. Much like the present practice of analysts able to trace every movement of the stock market to specific worldly events, the explanations can only be provided after the occurrence not before. They therefore have little value to anyone wishing to anticipate the outcome and effects of actions we may take. Science is powerful because it often provides explanations before observations are made.

I understand that any study of history and it’s application to current events will be sufficiently fuzzy (anthropology and social sciences in general are fuzzy compared to say mathematical sciences or astronomy which can be very concrete in their determinations)  since the way in which you characterize or interpret the causes of various historical events will necessarily change the way in which you evaluate the relevance of any historical event to current events. I’m thinking Engels & Marx and their decidedly unique perspective on history and how it guided them to particular world view is a good case in point. 

I’m sure there is a whole branch of historical study devoted to this, in fact, writing this reminded me of Michael Shermer’s book Science Friction (really a series of essays) in which a third of the book was dedicated to historical sciences.  I think Shermer’s book dealt more with revisionist history but there was one essay called “Exorcising Laplace’s Demon” that used chaos theory to show how hard it can be to figure out the causes of any particular event.

To conclude this post, while I don’t think this concept of “historical skepticism” was used in the runup to the war in Iraq it may have value now as way of understanding what our future couse of actions should be. If you read Sir Alistair Horne’s book, A Savage War of Peace, his account of the withdrawal of the French and the resulting bloodbath of the “Harkis” (those who were loyal/helped the French) by the Algerian insurgents could be a possible outcome of our withdrawal on an arbitrary date that would likely result in a massive sectarian bloodbath and I’m not really prepared to leave the Iraqi people to that fate.

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