J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

“We have an interest in the efficacy of agency”

In a book review titled “Wild Thing” in the 14 Mar 2011 New Yorker, Harvard professor Louis Menand wrote:

There is history in the way Tolstoy imagined it, as a great, slow-moving weather system in which even tsars and generals are just leaves before the storm. And there is history the way Hollywood imagines it, as a single story line in which the right move by the tsar or the wrong move by the general changes everything.

Most of us, deep down, are probably Hollywood people. We like to invent “what if” scenarios—what if x had never happened, what if y had happened instead?—because we like to believe that individual decisions make a difference: that, if not for x, or if only there had been y, history might have been plunged forever down a completely different path. Since we are agents, we have an interest in the efficacy of agency.

Stories of intelligence operations, of espionage and covert warfare, sabotage and assassination plots have a lot of “what if” fascination about them. There is always the hope that one ingenious plan, one stolen document, or one successful assassination might change the course of history.
Which tempts us to treat espionage operations as especially significant historical events. Who knows what enemy operations they might have prevented?

I’ve been digging into George Washington’s espionage efforts during the siege of Boston, and, sad to say, they really don’t seem to have made that much difference in the course of the campaign. They obviously caused a lot of drama for the individuals involved, but from a distance those folks look like leaves whirling around in the wind but not traveling very far.


George Lovely said...

Even if we take Tolstoy's view of history as a vast weather system, we still need to allow for Lorenz's "Butterfly Effect". This time last year could anyone have imagined that Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire could possibly topple regimes throughout the Middle East? Like seeding clouds, you may only be able to have agency when the conditions are right, but it is still agency.

EJWitek said...

I think Mr. Menand, an English Professor by trade, presents us with a false dichotomy when presenting a choice of history as viewed by Tolstoy or by Hollywood. That said, I am more struck by what I perceive to be a lack of understanding as to just what "intelligence" is. Espionage and covert operations are not "intelligence" even if they are seen so in the popular imagination. But there have been successful espionage operations which have materially affected history: e.g., the Soviet penetration of the Manhattan Project.
George Washington's initial espionage operations at the seige of Boston can be characterized as amateurish, but Washington did get better as the war went on. The biggest intelligence failure, in fact, was the British inability to determine that, after Bunker Hill, the Colonial Army beseiging Boston was dangerously low in powder and a determined effort could have shattered the seige. But given the blow the British Army, especially its officer corps, had taken at Bunker Hill and the personality of William Howe, I'm not sure anything would have been done had they been certain of this intelligence.

Chaucerian said...

I'm a little puzzled by Mr. Witek's comment, because I don't think that the issue being discussed is specific to espionage or intelligence efforts. What I was prompted to think about by the original post was the impossibility of my knowing which of my vigorous actions in life makes any difference to anybody. I want so much to think that if I do x, y will certainly follow -- and be beneficial to all concerned. I regret to report that that has not been the case so far, but I still choose my actions on the basis of the same parameter. (Full disclosure: long ago, I completed several years of graduate school studying English literature.)

J. L. Bell said...

Menand was writing in the context of reviewing a book (a biography of the founder of the C.I.A.), and therefore considered what we the public generally look for in such books. His two models of history do indeed come from the world of fiction: a novelist on the one hand, and a movie factory on the other. But those models simply clarify the distinction in outlook that he wanted readers to consider. He never states which outlook is more accurate historically, only which is more appealing in that context.

I don’t think Menand’s words need be read as equating intelligence and espionage. Rather, he appears to reel off all the operations that the O.S.S. and C.I.A. undertook.

The British failure to realize or take advantage of the Americans’ lack of gunpowder in August 1775 is a good example of the temptation to ascribe too much to agency. As I discussed back here, a meme has spread crediting Washington with a disinformation campaign that misled the British command. There’s no evidence for that story. But authors of both fiction and nonfiction like it because it provides Washington with agency.

The Mohamed Bouazizi story is indeed an example of an individual action having a large effect. At the same time, we mustn’t forget that that effect depended on inaccurate rumors about Bouazizi and other circumstances beyond his control, and that he almost certainly didn’t foresee or intend the ultimate results of his act. Can we say that a butterfly has agency when it flaps its wings and changes the weather if it neither controls nor comprehends the ultimate effects of its actions?

Personally, I do believe in and look for examples of individual agency in history, while also being skeptical and demanding about such claims for precisely the reason Menand identifies—we humans want to believe that our actions can make a difference.

EJWitek said...

Inaction can be just as important as action. Indeed, one can charactize inaction, at times, as action. The British Army, holed up in Boston after Bunker Hill, was still presented with an excellent opportunity to deliver a decisive blow that certainly would have altered future events. Independence was not a foregone conclusion in the summer and fall of 1775 even if historians present it as such. It's the age old problem of looking back through time and thinking that because things turned out as they did, that it was all inevitable.
I am a little puzzled at the sense I get that history is being viewed as a stream in which forces determine outcomes and individual action doesn't matter. It's an almost Homeric view in which mortals are just the instruments of the Olympian Gods.
Finally, I do think Mr Menad does not really understand just what intelligence is; but that's just my opinion.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m baffled by the suggestion that “historians” or even a small but significant number of them describe American independence as a foregone conclusion in 1775. All the analyses I’ve read describe a gradual change in public and political opinion over that year, the effect of Paine’s Common Sense and American military victories in early 1776, and continuing arguments that summer. Many also discuss the public’s up-and-down adherence to the cause over the following years, and other possible outcomes besides what came out of the Treaty of 1783.

Some historians argue that in the long run, because of distance, demographics, and economics, Britain’s North American colonies would eventually have become independent. But when we’re discussing forces and change on that scale, individual actions rarely matter. (Perhaps only in the area of technology.)

I rather agree with Gage and Howe that there was little military value in holding Boston after June 1775. The British army could indeed have broken out of the town—at some cost—if its commanders chose to force the Americans to use up their scarce gunpowder in early August and then broke through the siege lines. But what benefit would that have been? The New England countryside would have been even more hostile. The troops would have been further from supplies and support by sea. Disgruntled men would have had a better chance to desert.

The later years of the war showed that the British military (in larger numbers) could hold American ports and cut through the countryside like a hot knife through butter. But the Crown forces couldn’t hold inland areas, rarely subdued the populace, and stayed out of the New England countryside except for a few overnight raids. That doesn’t suggest a lot of opportunity in that region in 1775.

EJWitek said...

The psychological effect of a British follow-up victory after Bunker Hill would have been devastating inside and outside of New England. The surrender or capture of a number of Patriot leaders with transport to London for trail for treason would certainly have altered the situation. The British could have adopted the tactics they used against the Scottish rebels. No one can say how it would have turned out but the dynamic would have changed. The time to crush the rebellion was at the very start.
Howe didn't even follow his own strategy. When given orders to execute it by London in November 1775 and abandon Boston and isolate New England, Howe dallied in Boston throughout the winter doing nothing, only managing to make an ignominious retreat under the threat of the Ticonderoga guns. A more imaginative and aggressive commander would not have sat idly by all of those months - certainly not Marlborough.

J. L. Bell said...

Howe was certainly no Marlborough. He wasn’t a minister in the government, or Captain-General of all the king’s armies, and his command in North America came suddenly and without authorization to proceed as he saw fit.

By the time the London government approved Howe’s plan to leave Boston for another region, he said it was too late in the season to gather the necessary ships, so he decided to stay in the well-protected (and now adequately-supplied) town. Perhaps a different commander would have acted without London’s approval and risked condemnation or tsk-tsking afterward. But I’m not convinced many would.

I think the “Powder Alarm,” Lexington alarm, and response to news of Burgoyne’s march south in 1777 showed how New Englanders would have reacted to news of a British military break out of Boston in August 1775. There would have been a general uprising. Hampered, to be sure, by lack of powder, but not by lack of men or fervor.

If the British army managed to capture some front-line American commanders (Putnam and Sullivan? Or maybe Thomas and Ward. Even Washington), those men would have been held up as martyrs, as Ethan Allen was. If they were tried in London, at least some of Britain’s Whigs would have supported them, and the trial would have taken years. The American political leadership would still be in Philadelphia. I don’t see that as a devastating blow. Meanwhile, the British would have moved into less defensible positions off the peninsulas, and their forces would be ebbing away. At least, that’s what I think would have been the most likely outcome.