Skip to comments.Why study war?
Posted on 08/26/2007 4:56:14 AM PDT by Clive
Try explaining to a college student that Tet was an American military victory. You'll provoke not a counter-argument -- let alone an assent -- but a blank stare: Who or what was Tet? Doing interviews about the recent hit movie 300, I encountered similar bewilderment from listeners and hosts. Not only did most of them not know who the 300 were or what Thermopylae was; they seemed clueless about the Persian Wars altogether.
It's no surprise that civilian North Americans tend to lack a basic understanding of military matters. Even when I was a graduate student, 30-some years ago, military history -- understood broadly as the investigation of why one side wins and another loses a war, and encompassing reflections on magisterial or foolish generalship, technological stagnation or breakthrough and the roles of discipline, bravery, national will and culture in determining a conflict's outcome and its consequences -- had already become unfashionable on campus. Today, universities are even less receptive to the subject.
This state of affairs is profoundly troubling, for democratic citizenship requires knowledge of war --and now, in the age of weapons of mass annihilation, more than ever.
Numerous causes lay behind the lack of interest in military history in the 1960s when I studied it. The most obvious explanation: this was the immediate post-Vietnam era. The nuclear pessimism of the Cold War, which followed the horror of two World Wars, also dampened academic interest. Further, the Sixties had ushered in a utopian view of society antithetical to serious thinking about war. Government, the military, business, religion and the family had conspired, the new Rousseauians believed, to warp the naturally peace-loving individual. Conformity and coercion smothered our innately pacifist selves. To assert that wars broke out because bad men, in fear or in pride, sought material advantage or status, or because good men had done too little to stop them, was now seen as antithetical to an enlightened understanding of human nature.
The academic neglect of war is even more acute today. Military history as a discipline has atrophied, with very few professorships, journal articles or degree programs. In 2004, Edward Coffman, a retired military history professor who taught at the University of Wisconsin, reviewed the faculties of the top 25 history departments, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. He found that of more than 1,000 professors, only 21 identified war as a specialty. When war does show up on university syllabi, it's often about the race, class and gender of combatants and wartime civilians. So a class on the Civil War will focus on the Underground Railroad and Reconstruction, not on Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. One on the Second World War might emphasize Japanese internment, Rosie the Riveter and the horror of Hiroshima, not Guadalcanal and Midway.
The university's aversion to the study of war certainly doesn't reflect public lack of interest in the subject. Students love old-fashioned war classes on those rare occasions when they're offered, usually as courses that professors sneak in when the choice of what to teach is left up to them. I taught a number of such classes at California State University, Stanford and elsewhere. They'd invariably wind up over enrolled, with hordes of students lingering after office hours to offer opinions on the battles of Marathon and Lepanto.
Popular culture, too, displays extraordinary enthusiasm for all things military. There's a new Military History Channel, and Hollywood churns out a steady supply of blockbuster war movies, from Saving Private Ryan to 300. The post-Ken Burns explosion of interest in the Civil War continues. Historical reenactment societies stage history's great battles, from the Roman legions' to the Wehrmacht's.
The public may feel drawn to military history because it wants to learn about honour and sacrifice, or because of interest in technology -- the muzzle velocity of a Tiger Tank's 88 mm cannon, for instance -- or because of a pathological need to experience violence, if only vicariously. The importance -- and challenge -- of the academic study of war is to elevate that popular enthusiasm into a more capacious and serious understanding, one that seeks answers to such questions as: Why do wars break out? How do they end? Why do the winners win and the losers lose? How best to avoid wars or contain their worst effects?
A wartime public illiterate about the conflicts of the past can easily find itself paralyzed in the acrimony of the present. Without standards of historical comparison, it will prove ill-equipped to make informed judgments. It's not that military history offers cookie-cutter comparisons with the past. Germany's First World War victory over Russia in under three years and her failure to take France in four apparently misled Hitler into thinking that he could overrun the Soviets in three or four weeks-- after all, he had brought down historically tougher France in just six. Similarly, the conquest of the Taliban in eight weeks in 2001, followed by the establishment of constitutional government within a year in Kabul, did not mean that the similarly easy removal of Saddam Hussein in three weeks in 2003 would ensure a working Iraqi democracy within six months. The differences between the countries -- cultural, political, geographical and economic -- were too great.
Instead, knowledge of past wars establishes wide parameters of what to expect from new ones. Themes, emotions and rhetoric remain constant over the centuries, and thus generally predictable. Athens's disastrous expedition in 415 BC against Sicily, the largest democracy in the Greek world, may not prefigure our war in Iraq. But the story of the Sicilian calamity does instruct us on how consensual societies can clamor for war-- yet soon become disheartened and predicate their support on the perceived pulse of the battlefield.
Military history teaches us, contrary to popular belief these days, that wars aren't necessarily the most costly of human calamities. The first Gulf War took few lives in getting Saddam out of Kuwait; doing nothing in Rwanda allowed savage gangs and militias to murder hundreds of thousands with impunity. Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and Stalin killed far more off the battlefield than on it. The 1918 Spanish flu epidemic brought down more people than the First World War did. Perhaps what bothers us about wars, though, isn't just their horrific lethality but also that people choose to wage them -- which makes them seem avoidable, unlike a flu virus or a car wreck, and their tolls unduly grievous. Yet military history also reminds us that war sometimes has an eerie utility: as British strategist Basil H. Liddell Hart put it, "War is always a matter of doing evil in the hope that good may come of it." Wars -- or threats of wars -- put an end to chattel slavery, Nazism, fascism, Japanese militarism and Soviet Communism.
Indeed, by ignoring history, the modern age is free to interpret war as a failure of communication, of diplomacy, of talking -- as if aggressors don't know exactly what they're doing. Yet it's hard to find many wars that result from miscommunication. Far more often they break out because of malevolent intent and the absence of deterrence. Margaret Atwood has written in a poem that: "Wars happen because the ones who start them / think they can win." Hitler did; so did Mussolini and Tojo -- and their assumptions were logical, given the relative disarmament of the Western democracies at the time. Bin Laden attacked on Sept. 11 not because there was a dearth of American diplomats willing to dialogue with him in the Hindu Kush. Instead, he recognized that a series of Islamic terrorist assaults against U.S. interests over two decades had met with no meaningful reprisals, and concluded that decadent Westerners would never fight, whatever the provocation -- or that, if we did, we would withdraw as we had from Mogadishu.
Military history reminds us of important anomalies and paradoxes. When Sparta invaded Attica in the first spring of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounts, it expected the Athenians to surrender after a few short seasons of ravaging. They didn't -- but a plague that broke out unexpectedly did more damage than thousands of Spartan ravagers did. Twenty-seven years later, a maritime Athens lost the war at sea to Sparta, an insular land power that started the conflict with scarcely a navy. The 2003 removal of Saddam refuted doom-and-gloom critics who predicted thousands of deaths and millions of refugees, just as the subsequent messy four-year reconstruction hasn't evolved, as anticipated, into a quiet, stable democracy -- to say the least.
Ultimately, public opinion follows the ups and downs -- including the perception of the ups and downs -- of the battlefield, since victory excites the most ardent pacifist and defeat silences the most zealous zealot. After the defeat of France, the losses to Bomber Command, the U-boat rampage and the fall of Greece, Singapore, and Dunkirk, Churchill took the blame for a war as seemingly lost as, a little later, it seemed won by the brilliant prime minister after victories in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy. When the successful military action against Saddam Hussein ended in April, 2003, more than 70% of the American people backed it, with politicians and pundits alike elbowing each other aside to take credit for their prescient support. Four years of insurgency later, Americans oppose a now-orphaned war by the same margin.
Finally, military history has the moral purpose of educating us about past sacrifices that have secured our present freedom and security. If we know nothing of Shiloh, Belleau Wood, Tarawa and Chosun, the crosses in our military cemeteries are just pleasant white stones on lush green lawns. They no longer serve as reminders that thousands endured pain and hardship for our right to listen to what we wish on our iPods and to shop at Wal-Mart in safety -- or that they expected future generations, links in this great chain of obligation, to do the same for those not yet born.
City Journal www.city-journal.org
-Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author, most recently, of A War Like No Other:How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.
Like our esteemed Democrat leaders, Speaker "Lavender Moonbeam" and Senator "Dances with Cash"
Senator “Dances with Cash”....you mean General Betray-us?
Excellent reading. Thanks for posting.
War put an end to the governmental systems that were specifically based on these ideologies. The underlying ideologies of Fascism and Soviet Communism still thrive in American liberal fever swamps. If you don't believe me, spend a week over at DU or the DailyKos. Of course, you won't come back the same person.
Good point, and true.
The answer is simple:
1.) Liberals detest the military and everyone in it.
2.) By and large, liberals control the curricula in schools, both public and private at all levels.
3.) Liberals control what is placed in textbooks, and which textbooks are chosen for schools.
You are running along he right track; just look up for the bigger picture.
Once you admit that there are bad governments out there that need to be contained (the Soviet Union immediately after its formation) or destroyed (Germany 1940) you have destroyed the bedrock of unrestrained liberalism - everything is relative. A hard value judgment with a black or white answer is a threat to liberalism.
Besides, once a student makes his first value judgment on something, and is proven right (had his judgment confirmed by others0 what is to prevent him from doing so again? And again? And so on until his value judgments start affecting the professors life style.
A study of WAR forces the student to make a yes/no value judgment. And, once he learns that skill, the entire liberal establishment has lost his support (vote) and money (vote).
3 Lifesaving Heroes of the 1st Major Battle for Freedom of the Vietnam War in 1965:
BRUCE CRANDALL, Medal of Honor Recipient
RICK RESCORLA. 9/11 Lifesaver
HAL G. MOORE, an American Warrior Supreme
Signed:..”ALOHA RONNIE” Guyer / An In-person Witness
(Battle of IA DRANG-1965 Photos)
“That never stops any of them from being armchair generals who think they are better qualified to run a war than the professional soldiers. Infuriating.”
There is lack of intellectual honesty on both sides of the Iraq debate.
The “armchair generals” that you rail against are all taxpayers and voters who put necessary limits on military ventures.
If you cannot see that there are legitimate and reasonable arguments both for and against the Iraq war and it’s present prosecution, then not only are you also an ‘armchair general’, you are also a poor student of miltary history.
I don’t think anyone really expects Iraqi democracy to survive the departure of American troops. Do you?
In April 2003
President BUSH promised in writing to bring...
Freedom’s return to:
Communist North Korea
..as well as..
Freedom’s arrival to:
All the countries of the Middle East
...as America’s own best self-protection against futue terrorist attacks here at home.
In this new time of war
in a new century
with our own Freedom
directly at stake
right here at home..
...NOTHING less will do.
Civilians, regardless of their tax payer status, have no business running a war. Our Congress is tasked with running domestic affairs. Most have never served and show disdain for our military yet they always seem to know how to run things better than the people who do it for a living.
And after three trips to Iraq (including Desert Storm) I am far from an armchair general. I know there are problems with how things have run over there, I have witnessed them first hand. But it just irks me when civilians who have never had a round come within inches (or fractions thereof) of their head seem to think they are better qualified than we are to conduct a war.
Studyin wars also developers an understanding of what caused them and how to avoid those pitfalls.
Liberals prefer to study things that have no productive use.
This is a subset of the discussion, “Why teach history?”, which can be a pretty complex argument. However, some of the finer points:
History can be taught by way of organizations, such as empires and nations; events, such as wars; cultures, by their uniqueness; about individuals, in their milieu; as progression or evolution of ideas and technologies over time; by statistics; with respect to its recording and analysis, that is, by the records people wrote and their interpretations of the same; for the interesting trivia and phenomena contained within; and by combinations of the above.
While often taught from the past to the present, it can also be taught from the present to the past, to create links with what went on before—effects and causes. It can also be used to connect with current events and extrapolate the future.
Importantly, it must always be remembered that it is a deep and abiding principle of socialism that history is socialism’s greatest enemy; that it must be distorted and eventually discarded in the socialist state. In the short term, they actively make efforts to corrupt it, and to discourage its scholarly study. Witness the “Greater Soviet Encyclopedia.”
So where does this leave war? Unfortunately in the same bucket as history overall. This is because that history, among all school subjects, is most likely to raise arguments. There is little in history that cannot agitate students, their parents, administrators, and the public at large. And such irritation are to be avoided, if a teacher is to avoid being fired.
So before you can teach about war, you must explain to the students the philosophy of war. Good reasons, and not so good reasons, that nations come into conflict. War must also be described as “diplomacy by other means” (and vice-versa), which leads to including diplomacy with war as a subject.
Wars must also be taught with respect to what they achieved, not just in tactical and strategic goals, but also indirectly.
But the list goes on and on. In the final analysis, teaching history and war matters most to students in the way it will affect their future, both in their daily lives, and during wars of the future.
Our goals must be to create and maintain a force so powerful and respected that any adversary would think long and hard to challenge that fighting force.
As a culture we must also be very careful in the manners with which we choose to use that military might. Our men and women are not toy soldiers to be placed upon a shelf until needed to conduct actions when our diplomacy is so failed or inept that the weakness of our hand necessitates its use.
Thank you for your service.
Having spent so much time there, will you please indulge the last part of my previous post:
Do you think democracy in Iraq will survive the departure of American troops?
I don’t know but I am having my doubts. When the parents go back downstairs after breaking up a little fight between siblings, do thing always stay calm? I have a feeling when we leave our stabilizing influence may leave with us.
“President BUSH promised in writing to bring...”
President Bush forgot to ask the taxpayers if they didn’t mind paying for everyone else’s freedom, at the dear cost of their own.
We will fail in every one of the countries you mentioned, including Iraq, because we cannot impose freedom, they need to get it for themselves, assuming they even want it. - and also because the taxpayers won’t agree to pay for it.
We can kill terrorists and secure our country without spending trillions of dollars on third-world countries. Our president just doesn’t want to do it that way.
I wonder why he left China off the list?
there’s a lot to respond to here, so i’ll keep to one point.
our country cannot survive without an informed electorate.
there’s a nativist “know-nothing” attitude that i find intolerable.
combined with the tv 8-12 hours per day,
and a culture of hedonism, drug use, shop-till-you-drop, gangs etc,
this know-nothing attitude becomes destructive.
“I have a feeling when we leave our stabilizing influence may leave with us.”
That is what nearly every Iraqi veteran that I have talked to says, unfortunately.
Also unfortunately, this may make the Democrats right, but for the wrong reasons.
“”Numerous causes lay behind the lack of interest in military history in the 1960s when I studied it. The most obvious explanation: this was the immediate post-Vietnam era. “”
Love the article, but I don’t get this timetable.
To quote former Sen. FRED THOMPSON only yesterday, the Islamic Extremists of the world are preparing for a 100 year long war. They have been fighting Western Civilization for centuries and they feel that they are right on track now.
To quote “ALOHA RONNIE” Guyer over the last several years...
...this new 21st Century of ours is really all about Freeing the women of the world...
...to be all that they already are in GOD’s Eyes...
...and all that they can be here on the Earth.
Our Enemies know this.
So must WE.
Because peace is so damned boring?
“Our Enemies know this.
So must WE.”
Ok, so who’s going to pay for this?
...we are already in a priceless long fight to the Death with our Islamic Fundamentalist Enemy.
The Winning belongs to the most committed Side.
This was yesterday’s message from former Sen. FRED THOMPSON.
Sen. FRED THOMPSON is correct.
We study war in order to win. Refusing to do so means defeat first and bloody shambles second. The rest is commentary.
As my friend Rudolph Rummel, of the Political Science Dept. at U. of Hawaii has written, "Wars begin when the combatants disagree about their relative strength. Wars end when the combatants agree about their relative strength."