Musings – Cognitive Consquences of Historical Metaphors

Author’s Note: A few days ago I finished reading Europe in Crisis, 1598-1648, by Geoffrey Parker. Parker is a renowned scholar of 17th century Europe, and for those unfamiliar with the period’s history I can think of no better introduction than this volume. This reading was the impetus for the following post.
You can summarize the history of the Second World War in two paragraphs. Squeezing the causes, campaigns, and countries of the war into these paragraphs would be a gross simplification, but it is possible. This does not hold true for the Thirty Years War. It is one conflict that simply cannot be related in a paragraph. The number of actors involved, the myriad of motivations and goals of each, and the shifting alliances and intrigues between them all are simply too complex to be stripped down to a single page.* Piecing together the events of the Thirty Years War inevitably takes up much more time and effort than single page summaries allow.
To look at this in a slightly different light: understanding the Thirty Years War is more psychologically demanding than understanding World War II. There is a fundamental mismatch in the cognitive capacity needed to engage in the serious study of each.
The implications of this are worth contemplation.
The great majority of policy makers are familiar with the Second World War. If asked to, I am sure that most folks in Washington concerned with foreign affairs and security policy could provide an accurate sketch of the countries and campaigns involved. Indeed, we conceptualize current challenges from the standpoint of World War II; allusions to it are the lifeblood of both popular and academic discourse on foreign affairs. Pearl Harbor, Munich, Stalingrad, Normandy, and Hiroshima are gifts that keep on giving – they serve as an able metaphorical foundation for any point a pundit or analyst wishes to make.
Most of these metaphors are misguided. Examine them closely and you will inevitably find the connections between the events in question to be rather specious in nature.  The appeal of such spurious metaphors is easy to understand. As I wrote a few months ago concerning another deeply flawed metaphor:
“T. Greer.” The Scholar’s Stage. 8 February 2010.

It is for such simplicity the modern analyst yearns. The world would be so much easier to handle if China were the new Red Evil. We have already built up the conceptual framework to take on any belligerent aspiring to the title of Superpower, it would simply be a matter of applying this framework to the local environment. We would do it in no time, I am sure. The minute China began to intimidate and anger her neighbors, America would be there, a great balancing alliance in toe. It would be just like old times.

It is through the lens of 20th century great power politicking that we view the world. The great power exchanges of the last seventy years form the basis of America’s modern historical experience; these experiences inform the narratives and theories we use to explain how the world works, influence the fundamental assumptions of the American approach to international affairs, and form the foundation of our world view. Both the conceptual and institutional framework of our strategy making apparatus is built on the expectation that the international scene will be dominated by firm and definite great power alliances.
This Weltanschauung served us well over the course of the last century. I am unsure it will be as valuable a servant in the next. We must be wary lest our selected historical metaphors become a conceptual restraint that dangerously limits our cognitive capacity in general, and our capability to develop successful strategies in particular.
Consider the war America wages at this very moment. For the past few weeks I have busied myself constructing a basic introduction to the goals, attitudes, and objectives of the actors involved in insurgency in Afghanistan. What a daunting task this has proved to be! That conflict is an incredible interconnected web of movements, men, and meddling great powers that defies simplification. Just the list of actors integral to the conflict betrays its dizzying complexity – somewhere between the Haqqani Network, Quetta Shura, Hezb-e-Islami, Karzai and the Afghani government, the United States, her two dozen allies in the ISAF, Pakistan (itself divided into the ISI and the civilian government), the Indians, the Iranians, the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Kyrgyz, the Russians, the Chinese, and several foreign NGOs and terrorist groups, comparisons to the Second World War start to lose their power.
Why do we think of our world as if it were another 1938? Given circumstances this hardly seems appropriate – the true metaphor for our time should not be 1938, but 1638.

Do not fear – what follows is not a tired comparison of Palatine and Kandahar. The material conditions of the conflicts that have raged in each are hardly comparable. The complexity of these conflicts, however, are. And in this lies the cause for worry. What has prepared  modern statesmen to face such convoluted affairs of state? We spent much in the search for the next Kennan and Marshall; how goes the search for the next Richelieu?
Every policy maker can give you a sketch of the Second World War. How many can even attempt to sketch out the Thirty Years War?

*To provide an example, this this bare bones accounts of the war is about five pages in length.

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From the disruptions in the Palatine came the new forms of the Anabaptists, the Amish, and the Mennonites.

Perhaps we should anticipate the spiritual changes engendered by the present mish-mosh of wars.