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THE FATHER OF US ALL
War and History, Ancient and Modern
By VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
Copyright © 2010 Victor Davis Hanson
All right reserved.
Chapter One Why Study War?
Military History Teaches Us About the Tragic Inevitability of Conflict
Military History?—How Odd
Try explaining to a college student that Tet was, in fact, an American military victory. Or, in contrast, suggest that the Vietnamese offensive of 1968 was a stunning enemy success. Either way, you will not provoke a counterargument—let alone an assent—but a blank stare: Who or what was Tet?
When doing some radio interviews about the recent hit movie 300, I encountered similar bewilderment about battles of the past from both listeners and hosts. Not only did most of them not know who the movie's eponymous three hundred Spartans were or what Thermopylae was, but they also seemed clueless about the Persian Wars altogether. Was not Marathon a long-distance race, nothing more?
Americans tend to lack a basic understanding of military matters. Even when I was a graduate student, thirty-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 seem even less receptive to the subject.
This state of neglect in our schools is profoundly troubling. Democratic citizenship requires knowledge of war—and now, in the age of weapons of mass annihilation, more than ever.
I came to the formal study of warfare in an odd way at the age of twenty-four. Without ever taking a class in military history, I naively began writing about war for a Stanford University classics dissertation that explored the effects of agricultural devastation in ancient Greece, especially the Spartan ravaging of the Athenian countryside during the Peloponnesian War. The rather esoteric topic seemed far more complex than merely attacking farms. Was the Spartan strategy really all that effective? Why assume that ancient armies with primitive tools could easily burn or cut trees, vines, and grain on thousands of acres of enemy farms? On my family farm in Selma, California, it took me almost an hour to fell a mature fruit tree with a sharp modern ax, and it usually wasn't easy to burn grain, except during a brief dry period in late spring and summer.
Yet even if the invaders could not starve civilian populations, perhaps the destruction was still harmful psychologically, and to an extent to achieve military objectives of prompting an armed response. After all, soldiers would not persist in a tactic for centuries that did not work—or would they? I certainly saw farmers in my own environs outraged about even the most trivial damage to their crops and fields. So did the very idea of a Spartan arrogantly trampling through an Athenian vineyard goad proud agrarians to come out and fight in pitched battle—for matters of honor that far transcended any actual damage to their olive trees? And what did the practice tell us about the values of the Greeks—and of the generals who persisted in an operation that often must have brought few tangible results in terms of destroying the material resources of the enemy?
I posed these questions to my prospective thesis adviser, adding all sorts of further justifications. The topic was central to understanding the Peloponnesian War, I noted. The research would be interdisciplinary—a big plus in a field where jobs were scarce—drawing not just on ancient military histories but also on archaeology, classical drama, epigraphy, and poetry. I also could bring a wealth of practical experience to the study, having grown up around veterans of both world wars who talked constantly about battle. And from my upbringing on a farm, I wanted to add practical details about growing trees and vines in a Mediterranean climate.
Yet my adviser was skeptical. He knew better than I the prevailing attitudes in scholarship of the times. Agrarian wars, indeed wars of any kind, were not popular in classics Ph.D. programs—even though farming and fighting were the ancient Greeks' two most common pursuits, the sources of anecdote, allusion, and metaphor in almost every Greek philosophical, historical, and literary text. Few classicists seemed to remember that most notable Greek writers, thinkers, and statesmen—from Aeschylus to Pericles to Xenophon—had served in the phalanx or on a trireme at sea and that such experiences permeated their work.
Dozens of nineteenth-century French and German dissertations and monographs on ancient warfare—on the organization of the Spartan army, the birth of Greek tactics, the strategic thinking of Greek generals, and much more—by the 1970s went largely unread. Only a handful of essays were devoted to the role of war in the ancient world, despite the almost constant war making of the imperial Athenians and Romans.
Nor was the larger discipline of military history itself, once central to a liberal education, in vogue on campuses in the seventies. It was as if the academic community had forgotten that history itself had begun with Herodotus and Thucydides as the story of armed conflicts. Did Xenophon, Polybius, or Livy write about much other than wars and the brief hiatuses between them?
Why the Neglect of Military History?
What lay behind this academic lack of interest, as opposed to the ongoing fascination of war among the public at large? An obvious explanation was the general climate of the immediate post-Vietnam era in the seventies. The public perception in the Nixon, Ford, and Carter years was that America had lost a war that for moral and practical reasons it should never have fought—a veritable catastrophe, thought many in the universities, that America must never repeat. The necessary corrective was not to learn from history how such unpopular wars started, went forward, and were lost or won. Instead, it was better to ignore anything that had to do with such an odious business in the first place—or at least to craft alternatives that might settle disputes without force or suggestions that the lessons of Napoleon in the Iberian peninsula could help explain Hue.
The nuclear pessimism of the Cold War, which followed the horror of two world wars, likewise dampened academic interest in different ways. The obscene postwar concept of "mutually assured destruction" had ensured an apocalyptic veneer to contemporary war. As President John F. Kennedy warned, "Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind."
Conflict had become something so destructive, in this view, that it no longer had any relation to the battles of the past. Even in the present, it seemed absurd to worry about a new tank or a novel doctrine of counterinsurgency when the press of a button, unleashing nuclear Armageddon, would render all military thinking superfluous. What did it matter whether Alexander the Great on the Indus or Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley offered lessons about both strategic and tactical doctrine if a volley of nuclear missiles could make all such calculations obsolete? Harry Truman, after all, in conjunction with Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, radically cut back American arms following the end of the Second World War. Johnson himself wished to dismantle the Marine Corps and felt nuclear weapons had made all such conventional arms unnecessary.
Further, the age of social upheaval and reform during the 1960s had ushered in a certain well-meaning pacifism deemed antithetical to formal academic thinking about war. The demise of the tragic view—the acceptance of suffering in the human experience and the need for heroic struggle against it—suggested that money, education, and better intentions could at last arrest the gory march of history. Government, the military, business, religion, and the family had conspired, the new Rousseauians believed, to warp the natural "make peace, not war," "give peace a chance" individual. The 1960s might rectify that by teaching us that we could make the world anew without war within a generation—and better use defense expenditures for pressing social programs hitherto sorely neglected.
For many, the Cold War also demanded an unthinking militaristic mind-set of "them or us." To assert that military history suggested that wars broke out because bad men, in fear or in pride, sought material advantage or status, or because sometimes good but naive men had done too little to deter them, was understandably seen as antithetical to a more enlightened understanding of human nature. "What difference does it make," in the words of the now much-quoted Mahatma Gandhi, "to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?"
It depends. Military history reminds us that those who died on behalf of democratic freedom to stop totalitarian killing were a different sort than totalitarians who died fighting against it to perpetuate killing. The sacrifice of the former meant that generations yet born might have a greater likelihood of opportunity, security, and freedom; the latter fought for a cause that would have increased the suffering of future generations. Most accept that those of the 101st Airborne at the Battle of the Bulge were a different sort from those of the Waffen SS, and that we today would also be different sorts had the latter won there and elsewhere as well.
In addition, the changing nature of the university ensured the decline of the formal discipline of military history. Race, class, and gender studies sought to deal with the anonymous masses of history, not its medaled grandees and deskbound planners. Within this new egalitarian emphasis on campus, it became more palatable to learn of how women struggled against patriarchal oppression, minorities endured white racism, and the poor were deprived of opportunity than to expand on John Keegan's face-of-battle descriptions of the horror of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme for the thousands of nameless who were marshaled to fight there.
Of course, academic careerism and trendiness explain much as well. Military history is ancient; in contrast, the construction of racial identity and the rhetoric of masculinity are relatively new turf that offer new sources, new opportunities, and new exposure for the aspiring academic. An entirely new discipline is as sexy as a very ancient one is not.
So despite the growing frequency of wars across the globe, this academic neglect of the formal study of war has become even more acute today. Military history as a formal academic discipline has atrophied, with very few professorships, journal articles, or degree programs in comparison with other areas of the humanities. In 2004, Edward M. Coffman, a retired military history professor who taught at the University of Wisconsin, reviewed the faculties of the top twenty-five history departments, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. He found that of more than one thousand professors, only twenty-one identified war as a specialty. In 2007 the American Historical Association noted that of some 15,487 history faculty in American universities, 1.9 percent were identified as primarily military historians. Military historians, of course, bitterly resent the notion of their own decline. Sometimes they suggest that the data mislead because war is often studied in ways that cannot be quantified, or they insist that three hundred military historians nationwide is not such a depressing figure after all.
Yet even when war does show up on university syllabi, it is so often not quite war as we knew it. The focus instead is frequently on the race, class, and gender of combatants and wartime civilians, and so our attention is turned away from the front to larger questions of ideology and identity. A class on the Civil War might focus almost entirely on the Underground Railroad and Reconstruction, not on the battles at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Understanding how heroic but neglected people dealt with oppressions is central to understanding the Civil War and must be welcomed as long overdue, but the conflict that ended chattel slavery is unfathomable without a sense of what Robert E. Lee was trying to accomplish militarily in 1863 against Union forces.
A course on the Second World War might emphasize Japanese internment, Rosie the Riveter, and the horrors of Hiroshima, not necessarily Guadalcanal, Midway, or Normandy. That too is understandable, as all three topics are critical to appreciating how the global war was more than just the action at the front between combatants. That said, victory or defeat was, after all, decided largely by action at the front among soldiers.
A typical survey of the Vietnam War will devote lots of time to the inequities of the draft, media coverage, and the antiwar movement at home, and less mention to the air and artillery barrages at Khe Sanh. Current courses on Afghanistan and Iraq deal with American geopolitical interests in oil or the post-traumatic stress syndrome of veterans, rather than the heroism of the Marines at Fallujah or the nuts and bolts of the success of General David Petraeus in stifling the radical Islamic insurgency in Baghdad. Note here that in all three examples, contemporary academics wish to impart relevant present-day lessons by focusing on neglected social aspects of America's wars—forgetting that there are indeed rich lessons as well for today's students from learning why Americans landed on and endured Normandy Beach.
In contrast, those who want to study war in the traditional manner, which centers on combatants on the battlefield, face intense academic suspicion, as Margaret Atwood's poem "The Loneliness of the Military Historian" suggests:
Confess: it's my profession that alarms you. This is why few people ask me to dinner, though Lord knows I don't go out of my way to be scary.
"Scary" historians of war must derive perverse pleasure, their critics in the university suspect, from reading about carnage and suffering—as if the oncologist somehow has an odd attraction to cancerous tumors, or the volcanologist perversely enjoys the destructive effects of magma.
Why not channel such interest to figure out instead how to outlaw war forever? society objects, as if it were not a tragic, nearly inevitable aspect of human existence. Hence, the recent surge of the noble-sounding discipline of "conflict resolution," which emphasizes the arts of diplomacy, negotiation, and arbitration strategies in eliminating the need for force altogether and establishing a perpetual peace, even between antagonists of quite different methods, values, and objectives. Admirable peace studies professors surely must not like war; dark and gloomy military historians obviously do.
War and the Popular Culture
The universities' aversion to the study of war certainly does not reflect the public's lack of interest in the subject. Students—for both bad and good reasons—love old-fashioned war classes on those rare occasions when they are offered, usually as courses that professors sneak in when the choice of what to teach is left up to them. (I cannot imagine any dean, in today's climate, complaining to a history department chair that a major university's curriculum offered few, if any, classes on the history of war.) I taught a number of such classes at California State University, Fresno, and elsewhere. They would invariably wind up overenrolled, with plenty of students lingering after office hours to offer opinions on battles from Marathon to Lepanto. An absence of student interest does not explain the dearth of formal military history courses.
Excerpted from THE FATHER OF US ALL by VICTOR DAVIS HANSON Copyright © 2010 by Victor Davis Hanson. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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