Persistence in error

In a concluding note to a series of lectures on “The Uses and Abuses of History,” the historian Margaret MacMillan observes that while we ought to refrain from pat assertions about what history “teaches” us or “shows”, it is nevertheless useful “to be reminded, as a citizen, that those in positions of authority do not always know better.” She illustrates her point with the case of Vice-Admiral George Tryon.

Admiral Tryon was by all accounts a Dickensian figure, even to his contemporaries. An American journalist described him as “vast of physique and burly, with no poor landsman’s reservations about deportment and language, and with a profound and highly vocal contempt for everything not marked down on his own mental chart.” As a strategist, he was well-known for tactical improvisations that ranged beyond the traditional, conservative playbook of the Royal Navy. His reputation in late Victorian England verged on that of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s; he was a warrior who could, in the words of a twentieth-century historian, “be relied on to thrash the Frogs or deal summarily with the Russian Bear when the time came.”

In the summer of 1893, Tryon took personal command of the Royal Navy’s manoeuvres off the coast of Tripoli. In mid-afternoon he ordered parallel rows of battleships to carry out a 180-degree turn. His officers urged him not to do this, since, in Macmillan’s words, “the combined turning circles of the ships were greater than the distance between them.” But Tryon insisted and browbeat Rear-Admiral Albert Hastings Markham into transmitting the order. Naval officers who knew a collision was inevitable watched helplessly as HMS Victoria, Tryon’s flagship, was rammed by HMS Camperdown. Tryon then compounded his original mistake by downplaying the damage to his vessel. He prevented nearby ships from sending lifeboats. When the Victoria sank in 80 fathoms of water fifteen minutes later – “bottom uppermost” in the words of a Foreign Office cable – he and 357 sailors perished with it.

“Persistence in error is the problem,” writes the American historian Barbara Tuchman, who dedicated an entire book to examining similar acts of military and political hubris. In “The March of Folly” she points out that “Practitioners of government continue down the wrong road as if in thrall to some Merlin with magic power to direct their steps.” When mistakes are exposed, a common response is to double-down on the original error: “Rulers will justify a bad or wrong decision on the ground, as a historian and partisan wrote of John F. Kennedy, that “He had no choice.” This, Tuchman notes, is too easy and opportunistic, for “no matter how equal two alternatives may appear, there is always freedom of choice to change or desist from a counter-productive course if the policy-maker has the moral courage to exercise it.” Such courage, she notes, has declined in recent years. In our time “to recognize error, to cut losses, to alter course, is the most repugnant option in government.”

Three US aircraft carriers are currently massed in the western Pacific. USS Nimitz, USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Ronald Reagan await orders from a commander in chief who has none of Admiral Tryon’s considerable military knowledge but all of his bellicosity. The consequences of an impetuous decision there – despite experienced counsel – are terrifying. Equally disturbing is President Trump’s capacity, and apparent inclination, for brinksmanship with Iran. As with other examples of obtuse political behaviour that lie closer to home, the president’s unwillingness to entertain reasonable doubts, his conviction that all criticism is in bad faith, makes him sound more like an autocrat than a duly elected head of state.

E.J. Dionne traces the stridency of the Trump era and the decline of American conservatism to the campaign of Barry Goldwater. Goldwater’s hectoring tone and manner drove liberals and moderates out of the GOP and it “beat back alternative definitions of conservatism that were more temperate, more inclined to shape rather than resist cultural change, and more open to a significant role by government in solving problems.” Dionne concludes that the “moderation that characterized their approach [and the tone of the Eisenhower administration] is precisely the quality that American conservatism is now missing and badly needs”

Modern democracy, like history, offers no simple answers to political questions. At its best, however, it reminds us of the cultural restraint and moderation that are necessary if we wish to avoid repeating avoidable mistakes. “If the study of history does nothing more than teach us humility and scepticism,” says Margaret MacMillan,” then it has done something useful.” Sadly, we seem to grasp the true value of this restraint only after the ship of state has vanished, bottom uppermost, in eighty fathoms of water.

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