By Chandra Jayaratne –
With the third wave of the pandemic now engulfing the entirety of the island; and the executive making the same mistakes again and again; with clear evidence of unpreparedness; and not having in place contingency plans and disaster prevention support systems, structures, organizations, networks, communications, high tech IICT facilitations, along with perfectly aligned capable human resources support and operating within a visionary thought leadership vacuum, the citizens are left helpless to fend for themselves sans essential services, financial support and even proper directions. The worst affected in this situation are the poor, the vulnerable and marginalized segments of society, including the daily wage earning workers, farmers, fisher folk, small time traders, school going children etc.
The high power Presidential Task Force for Economic Revival and Poverty Alleviation, with immediate networking links to the apex of governance, having publicly assured that it has set up emergency call centres at each District Secretariat Office to resolve all issues faced by people during the current travel restriction periods, giving Telephone Numbers to call; and Ministers further assuring that despite the head of the Task Forcing leaving for overseas after duly assigning and delegating all tasks to other capable leaders, the daily scenes of the disastrous experiences and woes of farmers and fisher folk seen on media channels are a reflection of the real situation at ground level.
George Santayana, a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist quoted in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and Edmund Burke, Irish statesman, economist and philosopher quoted, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” How accurate predictors they were, as we witness that the leadership in governance repeating the same mistakes once again; despite having committed earlier during the first and second waves of the epidemic to learn from those experiences and have plans in readiness to deal with future similar situations. Even after so many possible solutions and best advice for contingency preparedness and disaster mitigation, with simple but efficient, effective and economic systems, structures, networks and ICT solutions having been placed by the caring professionals before the egoistic executive, the repeat unpreparedness is totally unacceptable..
Taking a lesson from the Edmund Burke that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”, the professionals in civil society must set up a system for all those engaged in the apex pyramid of governance ( ie. political leaders and the executive) to be engaged in a book club to read and update their capability in governance based on right knowledge, skills, attitudes and values.
The first book suggested to be read is” Why Don’t We Learn from History?” by B.H. Liddell Hart, described as the fascinating essay by the most respected and controversial military writer of the twentieth century. Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart, was an English soldier, military historian and leading inter-war theorist. The book in summary sets out the following;
”History is only a broad guide — never offers precise details or blueprints — to dealing with current and future events in life. The real lessons come from history’s negative value — in learning what to avoid — because it not only records the common mistakes many others made before us but how and why mistakes were made”.
A reviewer notes that it is an excellent collection of lessons from history based primarily around warfare and was described as “A must read for both the people and the leaders of ALL the dictatorial regimes around the world (democracies would also surely benefit). A book for all times to come. His understanding & explanation of where the real power lies is outstanding. What s breathtaking is how relevant his arguments are today and how strikingly similar the working of all governments turn out to be (as generalized by Hart). He deals with issues such as ‘patterns and psychology of dictatorship’, ‘power politics in a democracy’ & lastly the ‘desire for power’ and ‘War’.”
History may have pointers even to realize what went wrong and to address our nation’s second biggest challenge at present-managing the external debt crisis. The solution does not lie here in articulating egoistically that there are no daunting issue in its management; and presenting back of the envelop calculations of how easily it will be managed in the short to medium term. The way forward does not include options of taking a high handed positions; rejecting any approach to the IMF for assistance; failing to secure best available professional technical advisory support in restructuring the debt in the medium to long term nor in taking short term import restrictions, enforced selling of exporters and expatriates remittance inflows and imposing restrictions in forward trading to ease the pressure on balance of payments. The pathway to resurrection from the crisis is also not depending entirely on the Port City Operations being the fairy god mother nor in securing currency SWAPS and project loans.
Jacob Burckhardt, a Swiss historian of art and culture is quoted as “The state incurs debts for politics, war, and other higher causes and ‘progress’. . . . The assumption is that the future will honour this relationship in perpetuity. The state has learned from the merchants and industrialists how to exploit credit; it defies the nation ever to let it go into bankruptcy. Alongside all swindlers the state now stands there as swindler-in-chief.”
Liddell Hart, in the Foreword of the book ”Why Don’t We Learn from History?” wrote “I would emphasize a basic value of history to the individual. As Burckhardt said, our deeper hope from experience is that it should “make us, not shrewder (for next time), but wiser (for ever).” History teaches us persona philosophy. Over two thousand years ago, Polybius, the soundest of ancient historians, began his History with the remark that “the most instructive, indeed the only method of learning to bear with dignity the vicissitude of fortune, is to recall the catastrophes of others.” History is the best help, being a record of how things usually go wrong.
Summary Notes on the Book as published records the author as stating thus:
“I would add that the only hope for humanity, now, is that my particular field of study, warfare, will become purely a subject of antiquarian interest. For with the advent of atomic weapons we have come either to the last page of war, at any rate on the major international scale we have known in the past, or to the last page of history.”
“Fools,” said Bismarck, “say they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by other people’s experience.”
“There are two roads to the reformation for mankind— one through misfortunes of their own, the other through the misfortunes of others; the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful… the knowledge gained from the study of true history is the best of all educations for practical life.”
“History is the record of man’s steps and slips. It shows us that the steps have been slow and slight; the slips, quick and abounding. It provides us with the opportunity to profit by the stumbles and tumbles of our forerunners. Awareness of our limitations should make us chary of condemning those who made mistakes, but we condemn ourselves if we fail to recognize mistakes.”
“Far more effort is required to epitomize facts with clarity than to express them cloudily. Misstatements can be more easily spotted in sentences that are crystal clear than those that are cloudy.”
“To cope with the problems of the modern world we need, above all, to see them clearly and analyze them scientifically.”
“If a man reads or hears a criticism of anything in which he has an interest, watch whether his first question is as to its fairness and truth. If he reacts to any such criticism with strong emotion; if he bases his complaint on the ground that is not “in good taste” or that it will have a bad effect— in short, if he shows concern with any question except “Is it true?” he thereby reveals that his own attitude is unscientific.”
“The student must first learn to approach the subject in a spirit of doubt.”
“If you can doubt at points where other people feel no impulse to doubt, then you are making progress.”
“We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance.”
“How rarely does one meet anyone whose first reaction to anything is to ask “Is it true?”
“Loyalty is a noble quality, so long as it is not blind and does not exclude the higher loyalty to truth and decency. But the word is much abused. For “loyalty,” analyzed, is too often a polite word for what would be more accurately described as “a conspiracy for mutual inefficiency.” “Loyalty is a noble quality, so long as it is not blind and does not exclude the higher loyalty to truth and decency. But the word is much abused. For “loyalty,” analyzed, is too often a polite word for what would be more accurately described as “a conspiracy for mutual inefficiency.””
“The most dangerous error is failure to recognize our own tendency to error. That failure is a common affliction of authority.”
“Hence the duty of the good citizen who is free from the responsibility of Government is to be a watchdog upon it, lest Government impair the fundamental objects which it exists to serve. It is a necessary evil, thus requiring constant watchfulness and check.”
“A life spent in sowing a few grains of fruitful thought is a life spent more effectively than in hasty action that produces a crop of weeds. That leads us to see the difference, truly a vital difference, between influence and power.”
“One of the clear lessons that history teaches is that no agreement between Governments has had any stability beyond their recognition that it is in their own interests to continue to adhere to it. I cannot conceive that any serious student of history would be impressed by such a hollow phrase as ‘the sanctity of treaties.’”
“A model boy rarely goes far, and even when he does he is apt to falter when severely tested. A boy who conforms immaculately to school rules is not likely to grow into a man who will conquer by breaking the stereotyped professional rules of his time — as conquest has most often been achieved.”
“I would suggest the corollary that, if we take care of the means, the end will take care of itself.”
The summary above and the reviewers quotes noted earlier amply demonstrate the folly of the present style and practices of governance and shows the way to overcome such weakness and the way forward to realize growth and prosperity.
The Million Dollar question before us today is; was this classic ”Why Don’t We Learn from History?” by Liddell Hart and his other works not a part of Sandhurst Royal Military Academy Cadets compulsory reading list.