Why I read military history [UPDATED]

| May 16, 2007

Victor Davis Hanson talks about why study of military history matters:

1. All history is not equal. There is something about battle — the ghastly effort to kill young people with state sanction — that accelerates time and reduces other considerations to trivialities….

2. Oddly, wars are not uniformly bloody and deadly, as we saw from the Falklands campaign and the Gulf….

3. So there is also a utility to war. All the great national sins of the last 200 years have been ended by war alone or by the threat to use military force — American chattel slavery, German Nazism, Italian fascism, Japanese militarism, and Soviet Communism….

4. War should not be left up to the generals….

5. We can also learn that deterrence, not communication and good intentions, historically has prevented the outbreak of wars. It is often advisable to be a good neighbor, to give aid to the weak and poor, and to follow international protocol. But such world citizenship does not prevent a continental thug from seeing you as weak rather than as humane. Had the Kaiser feared the French, Hitler Britain and America, or Japan the Seventh Fleet, it is likely that war would not have broken out when it did….

We should all promote the teaching of military history precisely because we wish to avoid wars and seek to preserve lives. Instead of listening to lectures about the snows of Afghanistan, the graveyards of the British and Russians, and the horrific nature of warlords, Americans should rediscover that their own record of war-making, far more than that of others, has been frighteningly lethal and effective. The Taliban and al Qaeda have never turned out geniuses such as Stonewall Jackson, W. T. Sherman, Nathan Bedford Forrest, or George Patton. And the world has rarely seen armies arise like Sherman’s Army of the West, Patton’s Third Army, Ridgeway’s reconstructed Korean forces, or the American armada in the Gulf. I think I would still place bets on Sherman’s Midwesterners with muzzle-loading cannons marching against the combined high-tech forces of the current Gulf States.

We should also remember that such deadly militaries have been used for moral causes: to end slavery, ruin Nazi fascism, hold off Communism, and neutralize Iraqi aggression. Had we read military history in the recent crisis, and not journalistic warnings of Vietnam redux or snippets about Afghanistan on the Internet, then we would have known that the challenge of ending the Taliban was not if we could, but how we should. In the present war, the only two impediments in the world to the United States military are the American public’s own sense of economy and morality. Our forces cannot be stopped by al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein, but only when — or if — we, the people, conclude that the fighting has become either antithetical to our own interests or abjectly unethical.

Read the whole thing. ..bruce..

[UPDATED 05/18/07 – 1015 MDT]

Speaking of which — here are a few paragraphs from a review by Rachel Neuwirth over at American Thinker about the recently published book This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (James McPherson, Oxford University Press, 2007):

McPherson describes how extremely unpopular the Civil War had become in the Northern states by the summer of 1864, after three years of extremely bitter fighting and huge losses of life. The Union armies had lost close to 300,000 men killed in action — proportionate to the American population of today, that would be about 3 million men. The injured, permanently disabled and prisoners of war greatly added to the toll. The casualty rate had sharply risen in the past few months as the Union army of Ulysses S Grant and the Confederate Army of Robert E. Lee were locked in a brutal stalemate on the Virginia front. President Lincoln had just called for 500,000 more Union volunteers-the equivalent of about 5 million men today. Yet military victory still seemed far away to the people of the loyal Northern states. Should they really be asked to sacrifice the lives of still more of their young men? Understandably, much of the population of the North now said, “No. We have had enough. Let us have peace.”

The “peace” movement was steadily gathering momentum. The opposition Democratic Party nominated General George B. McClellan, who advocated a negotiated settlement of the war, as their candidate for the Presidential election scheduled for November 1864. Leading strategists and politicians of the Republican Party, to which President Abraham Lincoln belonged, told him that their party had no chance at all in the coming elections unless he negotiated peace with the South. That would mean Union recognition of the Confederate States of America as an independent nation, and acceptance of the permanent break-up of the United States of America.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. ..bruce..

[UPDATED 05/20/07 – 2195 MDT]

James G. Poulos give his own discussion at length on the study of military history and (in his opinion) the rhetorical pitfalls therein:

The trouble with this analogy, as any good paleocon and an assortment of libertarians knows, is that the Civil War was, in every way but one, actually a drawn-out orgy of deliberate tyranny, needless slaughter, federal overreach, irreversed power centralization, civil liberty abuse, unconstitutional statehood, constitutional evisceration, illegal occupation, and general horror for anyone who loved anything about the original USA. Of course the redeeming factor is understood to be the destruction of slavery — a task which required not only the trampling of many vintages, the loosing of much lightning, and the terribly drawn-out slowness of a great deal of civil war surgery, but also the eating of rats on a mass scale in besieged major cities, the annihilation of an entire economy, the killing off of a record high of once and future Americans, and the institutionalization of a great deal that has continued to be wrong with America.

All of which might strike one still, in the balance, as a bargain worth taking, or at least worth praising with the right amount of humility in hindsight — but none of which has anything remotely at all to do with World War Two, in which no portion of America was destroyed, no American civilians (outside of Pearl Harbor and, I think, the Alaskan islands) were starved, and only the Japanese US citizens were treated with crass fiat, and that for reasons utterly unconnected to Fightin’ the Nazis. In short, linking the Best War (as WWII is morally judged) with the Worst War (not judged morally but judged in the terms that all wars’ victims judge them) is a crude, inaccurate, and dangerous act of political rhetoric….

It should come now as no surprise that the study of war is a central component of being a student of pleading in the way that I’ve laid it out. Because the best thing one can say about the study of war — and I think this is, in spite of Hanson, what Fred’s saying in his plea to avoid war by default — is that it gets you as close as you can get to war without being in one. In studying war you learn the reality of glory but also its cruel limits and bottomless opposite; you learn the advantages to be gained from victory and the merciless horrors of defeat; and you learn that even Machiavelli maxed out human power at the ability to control fortune half the time. With odds like those, you learn that warlike pleading holds a certain pride of place over pleading for war.

Your mileage may vary, but read the whole thing. ..bruce..

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Category: Commentary, Geopolitics, History, Main, Military

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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