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The Discordant Image: Metaphors, Mentality, and the Diagnosis of Human Failure February 11, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research.
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Earlier this year, Alex Wellerstein posted at his terrific new blog, Restricted Data, about the use of liquid metaphors to describe how information spreads (it “flows”, “leaks”, etc.), and historians’ analysis of metaphors in general.  It got me thinking again about an image I’ve run across in my archival research that has long fascinated me, but that probably won’t make it into anything I publish:

My fascination with the image arises from the nature of the document in which I found it: “Analysis of Incendiary Phase of Operations, 9-19 March 1945,” a summary report prepared by Maj.-Gen. Curtis LeMay’s staff in the XXI Bomber Command (from Folder 3, Box 37, Papers of Curtis E. LeMay, Library of Congress, Washington, DC).

I know virtually nothing about this image: who created it, or what the motivation was for including it in an Air Forces report.  (Does anyone know if the Japanese on the banners translates into anything?)  I can testify that it is highly unusual to find artistic depictions of the ground-level effects of bombing, complete with terrified humans, in Air Forces reports.

What made it stand out for me was an abiding, historiographically derived sense that it simply shouldn’t have been there, because it defies what are supposed to have been the operative metaphors informing the planning and conduct of strategic bombing.  I don’t think its presence proves any particular point about what ideas did inform strategic bombing.  But I think its existence does speak against the very common historiographical strategy of analyzing evils, such as strategic bombing, as being the product of an unusual metaphor-driven mentality that permits a deviation from humane norms.

Racism is, of course, such a deviant mentality, which has been responsible for an extraordinary degree of focused cruelty in our history.  And, as John Dower chronicled in his well-known book, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986), the Pacific War was replete with racist language and imagery on both sides.  He also went further than that to suppose that this racist mentality had a distinctly psychological effect on those who planned and fought the war, enabling a particular cruelty in tactics, strategy, and politics, including strategic bombing (11):

The dehumanization of the Other contributed immeasurably to the psychological distancing that facilitates killing, not only on the battlefield but also in the plans adopted by strategists far removed from the actual scene of combat.  Such dehumanization, for example, surely facilitated the decision to make civilian populations the targets of concentrated attack, whether by conventional or nuclear weapons.  In countless ways, war words and race words came together in a manner which did not just reflect the savagery of the war, but contributed to it by reinforcing the impression of a truly Manichaean struggle between completely incompatible antagonists.  The natural response to such a vision was an obsession* with an extermination on both sides — a war without mercy.

Personally, I don’t think a racist would produce the image at the beginning of this post.  In pointing this out, I do not suppose that Dower thinks that all people involved in bombing were racists, nor do I mean to imply that the Pacific War did not have racist overtones after all, or even that they have been overstated.  The racism of the Pacific War is well documented.  What I do think is that we should take the image as an opportunity to consider that, while racism can certainly inflect apparently unrelated evils like bombing, it may be prudent to avoid hastily diagnosing such evils as the product of obviously deviant mentalities, like racism.

Or technocracy.

Technocracy is often understood, like racism, to foster a kind of psychological essentialism or reductionism, which is responsible for certain evils because it distances the perpetrators of these evils from the humanity of others.  Unlike racism, technocracy is usually identified as a peculiarly modern mentality.  And bombing, perhaps more than any other military technology or strategy, has been identified as a peculiarly modern evil.  (If you’re interested in this theme, Brett Holman’s blog, Airminded, will be a regular part of your blog diet.)  Thus it has been common to link bombing to a technocratic mentality.  An exemplary case is Michael Sherry’s The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (1987), particularly chapters 7-9 (“The Sociology of Air Warfare”, “The Sources of Technological Fanaticism“, and “The Triumphs of Technological Fanaticism”).

The theme of the technocratic mentality also shows up in more general cases, such as Errol Morris’s fine film, The Fog of War (2003), a compelling set of interviews with Robert McNamara, the figure who, more than any other, has been seen as using technocracy to produce war.  One reason I like the film is that it does not preoccupy itself with pinning McNamara to a certain mentality, permitting him to show through as a thoughtful, self-conscious figure.  Nevertheless, Morris can’t resist the idea entirely, providing viewers with diagnostic cues, such as a graphic of bombs falling on Japan, which then turn into numerals.  It shows up in the film’s trailer:

This point about technocracy is routinely used more generally to explain the baleful effects of state action, be they moral failures (what I have been referring to as “evils”), or merely failures of policy.  In the academy, this idea usually shows up in left-leaning critiques of “modern” or “liberal” policies.  James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998) is probably the most commonly referenced academic articulation of the idea these days.

However, I am continually surprised by how seldom academics seem to notice that this has traditionally been a conservative critique.  (The critique of the mentality of modernity, in particular, is a longstanding staple of Catholic thought).  In the popular press, the idea is presently most apparent in the writing of high-minded conservatives like David Brooks and George Will.  Generally, the cognitive dissonance seems to be overcome by assuming that conservative free-market ideologies are themselves a kind of technocratic faith, albeit one centered on rational actors rather than the state.

Anyway, back to bombing and the image from the beginning of this post: there is no question that Air Forces documents more frequently contain images like this:

Or, indeed, like this:

Both of the above images are depictions of what is now the Hankou district of Wuhan, China, which was then occupied by the Japanese.  They are taken from XX Bomber Command, Operations Analysis Report No. 19, “Study of Incendiary Attack on Dock and Storage Area, Hankow, China” (also from Folder 3, Box 37, Papers of Curtis E. LeMay, Library of Congress, Washington, DC).

These pictures are very much functional images that are indeed aimed at a technocratic project to improve the efficacy of mass destruction and slaughter.  But, again, what the image at the beginning of this post drives home to me, is that we need not take such images to imply that their creators actually possessed a deviant mentality, which allowed them to create the images, and to perpetrate the inhumane policies those images served.  They could have a good sense of the ground-level effects of what they were doing — they could think a lot like you and me — and still strategically bomb civilians.

To ascribe such activities to a deviant, enabling mentality is, to me, to attach a great deal of superfluous explanatory apparatus to something that has always seemed very simple: Allied policymakers felt more responsibility for protecting the lives of their troops (whom they seem to have generally thought of as civilians forced into service by war) than they did for protecting the lives of Axis civilians.  Therefore, without regard to foreign civilian deaths, they pursued policies that they judged could spare troops’ lives and lead to a lasting peace.†  Their judgment may have been in error — and this point can, has, and should be retrospectively discussed and revisited — but the error would not have been sufficiently obvious that it is necessary to introduce further psychological factors to explain it.

To my mind, ascribing deviant mentalities to historical actors should be a historiographical strategy of last resort, because it cuts off further consideration of their motivations and thought.  Alex’s aforementioned post is astute on this point:

Historians have found conceptual metaphors useful tools because they help us make the argument that the way in which historical actors talk about something is actually important. Paul Edwards, in his classic The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (MIT Press, 1996), uses [linguist George] Lakoff quite explicitly in this way, arguing that the hegemonic metaphors that Cold Warriors like Robert McNamara used in trying to articulate their technological systems were more than just figures of speech — they actually tell us a lot about how someone like McNamara conceptualized the Cold War itself.  There are no doubt limits to this line of analysis, as many folks have pointed out, and perhaps we historians should be suspicious about how adopting too many forms of deconstruction that make us focus on the style rather than the substance of our historical actors, but when done right (and I find Edwards’ book useful and compelling), it does enlighten us a bit.

What Alex is saying here concerning metaphors (the “style”) versus the “substance” of historical actors’ thought maps more-or-less onto what I mean by cutting off consideration of actors’ thinking by resort to mentality.  But I think I have a less charitable opinion of metaphor analysis than Alex, not because I don’t agree it can be valuable — it can — but because I tend to think historians routinely abuse it rather badly.  The Closed World is actually a good example.

When I began working on the history of fields like operations research and systems analysis a decade ago, I initially followed the guidance of secondary works, including Edwards.  And, bit by bit, I was forced by primary sources to backtrack almost systematically on the insights I had gleaned from these works. So, where Edwards ascribed historical policy, defense system design, and cognitive science to a closed-minded mentality of all-encompassing observation and control, I found individuals who perpetually worried about the robustness of their models, about the ability of technology designs to integrate into policy goals, about the ability of policies to tolerate deep uncertainties about the war, about their own ability to integrate multiple perspectives into analyses, and about the very meaning of rational thought within policymaking processes.

If ascribing a deviant mentality to historical actors causes us to get so far away from what they seem to have thought, why do we do it?  The best explanation I can seem to find is, ironically, that it separates us from them.  Where others have failed to be moral or to institute successful policies, it is comforting to imagine that these people occupied an entirely different mental space from ourselves.  The more foreign Robert McNamara is to us, the easier it seems to be for us to understand choices he made that are foreign to our understanding of what is right and sensible.  We can even define past actors’ mentality as “modern” and our own as “postmodern”, thus consigning them to an entirely different epoch from our own.

Further, it is flattering to ourselves to imagine that by diagnosing others’ moral and policy failures as arising from an identifiable mentality, we academics have the power to prevent future failures simply by doing our job.  If, however, we allow that we have no more expansive mentality, no greater self-consciousness than those we are diagnosing, then we lose the ability to diagnose, and with it a sense of professional cogency.

My fear is that this strategy is actually doing substantial harm to our professional cogency, because it causes us to rewrite history in a way that serves our own professional interests.  In particular, ascribing a mentality to others’ thought should never be portrayed as a novel analytical tool that we have developed — it is a crucial intellectual tactic that is characteristic of the historical thought that we are studying.  In the case of technocracy, before, during, and after World War II, the baleful moral effects of “science” and a bureaucratic mentality was a commonplace of intellectual and political discourse.  Before historians added detailed narrative to the diagnosis in the 1980s and ’90s, the basic outlines of the narrative were already on TV in the 1960s and ’70s.  I’ve posted before on Jacob Bronowski’s defense of science against being implicated in the evils of [the nuclear bomb and‡] the Holocaust (and to make a similar point), but it’s worth re-posting the moving finale to his 1973 Ascent of Man series:

Well before any of the books cited in this post, we find an emphasis on human failure as a result of a dehumanizing mentality, whatever its origin or label.  The larger point, however, is that while these sorts of declarations and debates are very interesting as intellectual history, they have never even come close to providing us with useful representations of past ideas concerning things like science, technology, policy, and human suffering.  They do not allow us historians to make sense of the discordant image.

*This seems a good point to note that I have a policy never to use the word “obsessed” in my writing, precisely because it usually makes a too-strong claim about the psychological state of the obsessed; unless the evidence is overwhelming, the farthest I’ll go is “preoccupied”.

†Of course, an extended cultural account would observe that civilians were often seen as a legitimate target of vengeance, especially from the distance of the air, but my impression is that this was more at the visceral level of combat experience, and less at the level of policy and planning.

‡Edit, July 2012: This is a new clip from the original post, which includes Bronowski’s discussion of Hiroshima as an evil stemming from science.



1. Charles Day - February 11, 2012

Your post reminds me of some of the reactions I had when I watched Arthur “Bomber” Harris being interviewed on ITV’s World At War. He evoked technical and strategic imperatives to defend the RAF’s bombing of German cities. He came across as reasonable. Yet his rationales left me with a troubling, chilling feeling — not about his tactics, but about the man himself

2. Jonathan Dresner - February 11, 2012

No, the writing on the banners isn’t legible Japanese or Chinese: it’s pretty standard cartoon Japanese; the artist may have been looking at actual Japanese, but didn’t put any effort into copying so much as giving an impression.

It’s worth remembering, when we’re analyzing historical mentalites, that there are plenty of contemporary mindsets that are sufficiently foreign to academic understandings as to constitute a challenge to our historical empathy. All we can do is build context and hope for the best.

3. Will Thomas - February 12, 2012

Thanks, Jonathan. I suspected as much — the characters didn’t look familiar to me, but then I’ve never studied them. My own guess is that the artist wasn’t actually copying anything in particular, so much as he was trying to emulate the style from memory and limited experience. I have a suspicion that he was an amateur admirer of Japanese aesthetics. But that’s speculation, of course.

Charles, there definitely is something particular to be said about the mentality of the people in charge of planning these campaigns. LeMay, like Harris, is an interesting figure. The people who served under LeMay all seem to speak very highly of him as a commander, but there can be no question that he was deeply, recklessly committed to bombing, and the threat of bombing, as a tool of belligerent diplomacy. Later, of course, when he was put in charge of the Strategic Air Command, and, later still, as Air Force Chief of Staff, he was a forceful proponent of nuclear belligerency, and his political superiors had to have confidence in their ability to overrule his recommendations. His supporters have also had an awkward time defending him against charges of racism following his decision to become VP candidate on George Wallace’s segregationist ticket in ’72, arguing that his interest in running with Wallace was only motivated by his desire to promote a hawkish, pro-nuclear foreign policy. Any way you cut it, though, he is not a figure I’m fond of for these reasons.

At the same time, I think it’s important to try and understand LeMay’s (or Harris’s) mentality at some level beyond a crass or technocratic brutality, not so much for the sake of apologetics, but because it will help us to gain a better understanding of different cultures of violence, as well as the origins of our own ideas about what constitutes a brutal mentality. I would argue, in particular, that our general understanding of what the brutal mentality entails arises from criticisms dating from the First World War concerning military planners’ brutal indifference to the men under the command, and their related apparent unwillingness to innovate a way out of the war of attrition in the trenches.

Understanding that that vision of brutality is a very specific one can help us to understand that the forms brutality took in the Second World War are in some ways a response to those criticisms of brutality in the First. I would say that the more civilianized view of combatants mentioned in this post, as well as the special appeal of technological expedients like bombing to achieving peace, can be at least partially understood as such a response. Notably, one reason LeMay was highly regarded as a commander was because he did have a genuine concern for the safety of the men he commanded. (This line of thought can also tell you about other things, like Winston Churchill’s enthusiasm for his own invention, “Nellie”.)

4. Alex Wellerstein - February 13, 2012

Will —

Thanks so much for this thoughtful post, as well as the plugs. (It’s nice that someone out there thinks that I am “astute” at times.)
Here are some thoughts of mine, on the thoughts of yours, on the thoughts of mine.

First off: what an amazing image that is. Ground-level, full of fear, drawn with artistic ability, horrifying. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in that sort of context. I wonder if the lack of realism in the script is a sign that the artist was either not an eye-witness (which seems hard to imagine) or not a speaker of the language. A real historical puzzle if there ever was one.

A few dissents, though.

You argue here that the primary purpose of metaphor analysis (or discourse analysis) is a job of Othering the past by the historian.
I don’t think that’s quite right, either in intention or fact. There is, of course, a tension as an historian as to whether we make the past look exceedingly foreign or exceedingly familiar. In practice we always tend to do a bit of both depending on how it fits the argument: things that seem too obvious today we like to make unusual or contingent; things which seem too strange about the past we like to show as much more straightforward as they appear.

Does Errol Morris intend to make McNamara look foreign to us? I don’t think so. The entire movie is an expression of McNamara’s life and viewpoints from McNamara’s point of view; it’s an effort to make McNamara comprehensible to a public that otherwise might dismiss him as a technocrat, a warmonger, a butcher, what have you. It is McNamara, not Morris, who introduces the idea in “Fog of War” that the bombing was about numbers. He is quite clear about the fact that his job for LeMay was to make the numbers work out, and that bombing-by-numbers required a total disassociation with emotional sentiment.

This isn’t to say, though, that I think Morris would label either McNamara or LeMay as having a “deviant mentality.” Perhaps I project too much of my own beliefs on Morris, but it seems quite permissible that one can have a “technocratic” mentality and not be “deviant.” It is certainly a distinct “mentality,” but I did not see any implications that there was a baseline that it was meant to be deviant from. It is McNamara, of course, who becomes his own harsh critic in that film: he deplored that none of those involved really “came to grips” with the implications of the mass killing of civilians. I don’t see an “othering” there, other than the “view from above” one gets when bombing people in general (which is, perhaps, a truly “deviant” viewpoint, in the literal sense that viewing things from the air is a relatively new development in human history).

In fact, I would argue that the very power of Morris’ film is that it doesn’t make Robert McNamara very “strange.” (Pun intended.) He comes off as exceptional, to be sure, but terribly recognizable as a 20th-century American man. It’s the fact that he was never malicious in his goals that makes him relatable. He was a smart guy looking to solve tough problems. That his best efforts at times resulted in utter calamity and destruction is, I think, meant to be a meditation on the human “problem” in general. That’s how I read it, anyway.

Ditto with Edwards. Is Edwards trying to make the historical actors look strange? I’m not so sure. I think for Edwards the articulation of the metaphor is not meant to be a disassociation with it, but the identification of a common thread, one in which computers (his main subject) played a strong role. I buy it on those terms. I’m not sure it’s “deviant,” though I think Edwards would perhaps argue that computers gave historical actors a very different vocabulary for understanding politics and technology than they might have had before. (The question of whether the Closed World/Green World are good metaphors for understanding Cold War science and technology strikes me as a different discussion. I find them pedagogically useful and synthetically fruitful though I do not use them explicitly in my own research, and I agree that there are plenty of examples of individual actors defying such a categorization. As you know I have a rather loose relationship with theory and am happy to use it for inspiration, but don’t consider myself very bound by its specifics.)

5. Is the Past Strange or Familiar? « Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog - February 13, 2012

[…] bring this up in the context of a very interesting discussion that Will Thomas has posted on his blog, Ether Wave Propaganda. Will’s post was in response […]

6. Will Thomas - February 13, 2012

Hi Alex, thanks for the great comment and follow-up post on your blog. Actually, I mostly agree with you about Fog of War. I probably should have cited it more clearly as an example of a really very good analysis of past thought in all its self-awareness and, indeed, familiarity. I was only really talking about the numerals graphic, which I found simplistic compared to the challenging spirit of the rest of the film. That said, I didn’t take the “fog of war” point to be specifically about a numbers-based approach, so much as it is a comment on how difficult it is to know what is going on in war, and which decisions are right within war, whatever your thought process looks like.

I guess if I had a point I wanted to make n this post, it is that the architects of strategic bombing seem to have had a good, even humanized sense of what they were doing (as much as anyone but the survivors can, anyway), and did it anyway, because they thought it was necessary or justifiable. It’s not something that shows up much in documents, but I do think that peeks through in the placement of the image in an otherwise dry and analytical report, as well as in LeMay’s wartime comment to McNamara that had they lost the war, they could have been charged with war crimes.

More generally, I should clarify that I think of the “othering” of the past as more of an unintentional effect or subconscious motivation than a clear intention. “Deviant” might not be a very good term to describe it, but I was looking for some word that gets at what the literature rather explicitly makes out to be a psychological effect (e.g., Sherry’s “fanaticism”). However, the central historiographical point I want to make is in the connections I draw between this psychologizing and attempts to “diagnose” the causes of events in the past that are perceived by the historian as pathological, in some sense or another.

Obviously I am being a bit hypocritical in attributing a particular underlying mentality to this sort of historiographical diagnosis and psychologizing. Still, I think it’s worth at least bringing up so we can think about whether or not it may be the case. Hunter Heyck actually has a nice line in his good Herbert Simon biography to the effect of “we who have tasted of the postmodern tree of power-knowledge believe ourselves wiser about the ways of experts than those of Simon’s generation”.

If, however, that older generation actually knew pretty much what we know about experts, the distancing effects of technocracy, etc., and did the things they did anyway, then either we don’t understand the things they did very well (which I’ve found to be the case with things like operations research and computer modelling), or we don’t have a good sense of their motivations or reasoning. This isn’t to say that it’s never possible to find that past actors were premising their actions on specious assumptions or a certain style of thinking. But I do think it’s important we try hard not to cut off our analyses before we’re sure we’ve reached that point.

Finally, not in response to any point of yours, I do want to clarify that I don’t think I’m making a breakthrough point here. More it’s an articulation of strategies pursued implicitly or explicitly by the good number of historians who achieve deep insights on the past, as well as of the pitfalls on the path to arriving at such insights.

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