Tagged: history

Historians’ Fallacies

historians fallacies hackett fischer harper perennial 1970Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought by David Hackett Fischer, 5/5

Fallacies everywhere!  Browsing through eleven categories of faulty reasoning, all illustrated by examples from published works of historical scholarship, made me feel like a kid in a candy shop.  My initial reservation–that it isn’t very respectable to do nothing but pick apart the works of one’s colleagues–was satisfactorily addressed in Fischer’s deliciously cogent introduction to the book.  Here, the author acknowledges the dual impossibility and necessity of defining a logical approach to the study of history and justifies his negative method with the respectable goal “to extract from these mistakes [in other historians’ reasoning] a few rough rules of procedure” (xviii).

Though some may find his approach off-puttingly critical, the author is no intellectual slouch–many of the fallacies he addresses are so subtle that I am impressed he could identify them at all, much less find relevant examples in the wild.  Though the topic is very specific, the application is broad–historians aren’t the only ones who are susceptible to fallacies of question-framing, factual verification, factual significance, generalization, narration, causation, motivation, composition, analogy, semantical distortion and substantive distraction.

Why I read it: The title caught my eye as I was browsing through Easton’s Books.  The owner was so surprised that someone was actually interested in the book (he’d almost thrown it out, thinking no one would ever buy it) that he gave me a discount and said I’d made his day.

A picture quote I made:


The Constitution of the United States of America

constitution of the united states of america barnes and noble osterlundThe Constitution of the United States of America, 5/5

It is tax season, so perhaps I can be forgiven for expecting “the supreme law of the land” to be as ludicrously bloated and unreadable as the Internal Revenue Code.  Fortunately, it is not so–the fifty-five delegates to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention crafted a document of startling elegance, simplicity and practicality (probably marking the first and last time such adjectives could be used to describe a piece of legislation).

[Why I read it: I planned to send this copy to my brother after reading it myself, but it sat in the pile of books by my bed until it became assigned reading in my business law class.]

The First and the Last

first and last adolf gallandThe First and the Last: The Rise and Fall of the German Fighter Forces, 1938-1945 by Adolf Galland, translated by Mervyn Savill, 3/5

This memoir by Adolf Galland, a German fighter pilot and Luftwaffe General of Fighters during WWII, is undoubtedly an invaluable resource for the student of history, but I did not find it to be written in a particularly engaging manner.  The parts I found most interesting were those describing Galland’s personal encounters and conflicts with Hermann Göring and Hitler, with whom Galland had major disagreements over policies that focused on bombers to the detriment of the fighter wing, handicapped fighters by forcing them to operate defensively instead of offensively, and spread the air force’s assets too thinly.  Of course, Galland comes off rather well in the memoir, so it is difficult to tell what is accurate and what is embellished in retrospect (whether purposefully or not).

Like many others, I presume, my exposure to WWII was mostly of the sanitized, black and white version found in history textbooks.  It was thought-provoking to see the war from a different, more morally-ambiguous point of view.  Galland did not seem to experience any moral conflicts regarding Hitler’s actions; he may have doubted his führer’s method of conducting the war, but he didn’t raise any concerns about Hitler’s ideology.  Except in the case of his under-trained fighters being sent out on what amounted to suicide missions, his mindset was very much that of a faithful cog in the war machine, as was the case, I suspect, with the vast majority of people who fought and died for the Axis.

When I think of civilian casualties during WWII, the first thing that comes to mind is the London Blitz.  That chapter of England’s history is not unduly disturbing to me because 1) I [incorrectly] picture everyone hiding in bomb shelters while empty buildings take the brunt of the violence and 2) the Germans were the baddies and thus could be expected to target the civilian population.  This naive point of view was shattered when I read Galland’s account of the Allied bombing of German cities, in which hundreds of thousands of German civilians were killed (including thousands of children).  I always pictured collateral damage occurring only in the course of bombings of war factories and industries vital to sustaining the war effort.  I never pictured the “Good Guys” taking off to purposefully destroy cities and centers of culture, filled with normal people.  It’s always been my unthinking opinion that if a country is at war, it’s civilians are at war too, but this first-hand account was hard to stomach.

[Why I read it: my sister enjoyed it first.]

A History of Wales

A History of Wales john daviesA History of Wales by John Davies, 3/5

There is a good reason why this massive book of almost 700 pages is not a very enjoyable read–it was originally written in Welsh for Welsh people and this English translation is merely a concession to popular demand.  Davies is very thorough and efficient, providing one or two solid facts in every single sentence, but he doesn’t really make the topic interesting.  I felt completely lost just a few hundred years in and failed to get a good overall grasp of Wales’ basic history.  And, since I am not knowledgeable about Britain’s political parties, the last couple chapters were almost completely incomprehensible to me.  Overall, the book is impressive in scope and makes a good reference, but contains too many details to foster a basic understanding of the topic and does not make the history come alive.

Davies’ portrayal of Welsh history is rather grim–full of poverty, oppression, strikes, and unemployment.  While he is not critical of Socialism (which has historically been very popular in Wales), its application did not paint an appealing picture.  Perhaps it is just the American in me, but I think I would rather be oppressed by a wealthy coterie of selfish capitalists than earn a government-mandated wage, working in a government-run industry and living in government housing.

Near the end of the book, I became curious about the relative size of Wales, both in area and population.  I guessed it would have about as many people as California and cover as much land as Washington State.  Shockingly, it turns out that Wales is about 1/9 the size of Washington and has less than 1/12 the population of California (that’s less than half the population of Washington)!

[Why I read it: it was a birthday gift in anticipation of a trip to Wales.]

The Pacific

The Pacific by Hugh Ambrose, 1/5

Some stories demand to be told, while others merely tolerate the telling.  Unfortunately, most of this book seems to belong to the latter category.  Ambrose’s attempt to follow his historian father’s success (who was involved with Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan, among other projects) comes off as extremely dry, forced and disjointed.  Instead of weaving together the individual stories of WWII marines in a meaningful way, he jumps jarringly from one short scene to another, preventing the reader from developing any cohesive overall impressions.  One small, but exceedingly annoying, example of Ambrose’s unpolished writing style is his inordinate fondness of the phrase “dribs and drabs,” which appears distractingly several times throughout the book.  He is also exceptionally bad at incorporating quotes into his writing, an unfortunate failing for a research writer to have.  The most interesting content, regarding Medal of Honor recipient “Manilla” John Basilone, is hardly original, as this celebrated soldier was already famous and his exploits well-documented.  Combine all this with descriptions of military tactics that read like cooking instructions to the world’s most boring recipe and you have proof that historical and writing skills are not hereditary.

A People’s History of the United States

A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present by Howard Zinn, 3/5

A People’s History looks at the U.S.A.’s track record of human rights and the less-than-admirable motivations behind many important government and corporate policies.  This is the most admittedly biased and aggressively depressing book I have ever enjoyed.  While I would prefer to read a logical, unbiased, rigourously truthful history book, I suspect that no such thing exists, in which case, I appreciate Zinn’s efforts to provide a counterweight to the highly sanitized, equally biased, and deceptively simplistic versions of history that are so prevalent.

I appreciated Zinn’s copious primary source quotations, however, the general lack of citation left me feeling unsettled, helpless and manipulated.  In my opinion, the scholarly quality of the book dropped off noticeably in the last quarter of the book (starting at the 19th chapter), where the author started to make laughably illogical and inconsistent statements of political bias, taking a tone that is not apparent earlier in the book and creates a particularly depressing air.  For example, he first calls traditional family structure “that most subtle and complex of prisons” (514), but later decries “family disarray” (563).  While outspokenly anti-Capitalist, he fails to point out a single country that does socialism right, by his standards.  Similarly, he is anti-Republican, but disapproves of all the major Democratic politicians he mentions (explaining their failures in a rather weasley way – by blaming their actions on them trying to please the Republicans).  Despite these annoyances, I found much to agree with in the book and hopefully was able to use it to gain a more realistic and unbiased view of our history.