Blogs > Cliopatria > Pots Calling Kettles Apples and Oranges

May 12, 2004 10:48 pm

Pots Calling Kettles Apples and Oranges

I was reading some of the discussion of Günter Bischof's discussion of US treatment of POWs in the European Theater in WWII, and noticed an interesting epistemological disjunction (i.e. harsh criticism) between the article and the comments, which lead to my posting this response:

"There are a couple of ways to address the question of POW treatment, at least four of which come to mind at the moment.

"First is, as Bischof does, diachronically (across time): comparing US treatment of POWs in multiple theaters at different times in history. A survey of US history, very typical approach, though I consider it a bit narrow and often artificial.

"Second is, as Severance suggests, synchronically (time-slice): comparing US treatment of POWs with the treatment of POWs by others in the same conflicts. Another very common approach, though I find it lends credence to relativism and promotes a sort of competitive moral calculus that is more about blame than it is about historical knowledge.

"Third is presentism, the application of contemporary standards to historical circumstances. This is generally considered to be a dead-end, misplaced moralistic hindsight, but it's quite popular. Other variations include the application of civilian police norms to military situations, and the assumption that results were naturally foreseen by contemporary actors as clearly as they are seen by us today.

"Fourth is strict constructionism, the application of the letter of the law. This is sometimes coupled with a sort of bad moral equivalency argument, that any violation is equally bad, and a kind of"gotcha" history/journalism that rarely makes anyone happier. But it can lead to interesting questions and answers about the setting of standards, and the implementation of standards and the response to transgressions.

"OK, I've probably given away my biases, but I'll spell it out anyway: I'm in favor of asking questions that lead to interesting answers and which connect to larger questions. The diachronic approach is fine, if it connects to larger questions about US military culture, the military in US culture, or shifts in policy and law over time. The synchronic approach is mostly useful in cases where strong similarities make comparisons meaningful, such as comparing German, Soviet and Japanese POW treatments, or US treatment of German v. Japanese POWs. The presentist approach is rarely all that useful, as an historian, but can be useful as a rough gauge of social/moral/ethical/legal progress: yes, US racism is bad, but it's not blatant slavery, that sort of thing. The strict construction approach makes more sense to me, as a general approach, and as an historian the question of contemporary standards and context must be carefully addressed, so that it doesn't descend into presentism or synchronic relativism."

This is a rough sketch, because I'm still grading..... feel free to fill in gaps, obliterate fallacies or giggle at glaring contradictions. And, of course, you could do worse than to reread Tim Burke's Rules for Historical Analogies, and to read Arthur Silber's incisive attack on those who would hold us to lower standards.

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More Comments:

Anne Zook - 5/13/2004

Thank you.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/13/2004

Anne, An older book, but one which I think is quite good, is David Hackett Fischer, Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (1976 but still in print). When it first appeared, historians all over the country rushed to look at the index. If your name was there, it was considered a sign of having amounted to something in the profession, even if Fischer did hold your logic in some passage up to public scorn.

Anne Zook - 5/13/2004

This is a topic I find fascinating.

Can someone recommend a book (not too tome-like) that a layperson could read and use to help understand some of the debate around these methods? Or a website, beyond the two links provided?

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