ilitary history took a beating in the 1960s and 1970s. The specter of nuclear Armageddon challenged the very idea that there could any longer be rules and lessons of wars. How might there be the prevailing logic went when a push of a button could end an entire civilization, regardless of its moral right or abject evil, despite its brilliant generals or inept commanders, without a care for the number or nature of its tanks.
The specter of a 100-megaton weapon seemed to make what Napoleon had said irrelevant. Who needed to learn from Caesar's campaign in Gaul or how the German army went through the Ardennes, when Mutually Assured Destruction trumped all other considerations?
Instead of military historians, there arose strategic planners, weapons specialists, and political scientists, whose expertise was in technology, diplomacy, or Soviet Studies. Modern theories were the key to expertise wisdom that was purportedly always changing and entirely predicated on the rapid clip of technological progress and the enemy of the moment, rather than age-old rules based on the banal assumption that the nature of man is unchanging and so predictable.
Vietnam had much to do with the decline as well. The tragedy of the American incursion could not be seen as military ineptness or tactical imbecility, much less as national lack of wisdom or will, but was viewed exclusively in ethical terms: using force was bad in itself, but especially evil when attacking former colonial peoples in their own homeland.
Along with this general climate of pacifism, the growth of the therapeutic movement also played a key role in denigrating the study of war. The return of the Rousseauian view that man was innately noble until corrupted by religion, politics, custom, and culture was refashioned into the idea that Americans could find stable and secure lives if they just rid themselves of bothersome pathologies. On the personal level, that meant that everything from new diets and divorce to meditation and drugs might help excise the lingering and pernicious legacy of patriarchy, religious guilt, and indoctrinated conformity. Evil was not innate to humans, but rather acquired through society.
On a national level, new disciplines in the universities, books, and seminars on gender, racism, sexism, and conflict-resolution studies all promised that with proper guidance, knowledge and a little coercion we could build a classless society, without hurt, where all would live in perpetual harmony. In the schools, bothersome facts, difficult grammars, normative syntax, and rigorous training in languages, literature, and history were no longer the requisites to logic and reason, but niggling superfluities that often were used against those with different class, gender, and racial backgrounds. Amid all this, war obviously was retrograde and, like hurtful speech or injurious looks, could be made obsolete by proper training in dialoguing, listening, and compromising.
The result was that by 1990, major universities offered few courses in the study of war and even began to drop classes on World War I or the Civil War to make way for things like "Gender and the Construction of Manhood" or upper-division courses on "Patriarchy and the Church." (Read any list of the titles of doctoral dissertations granted this year and weep.) At the graduate level, other than some top-notch programs at Ohio State and Duke, it became almost impossible to specialize in military history or even to find more than a handful of advisors. Programs in Peace Studies outnumbered those in Military History ten to one.
The discipline's decline was manifest in a variety of other insidious ways. An entire generation of students left the universities with little idea of war other than it was always horrible and thus to be avoided at all costs. The very thought that Mao, Stalin, and Hitler had murdered far more millions off the battlefield than on was incomprehensible. We discovered new takes on race, class, and gender in the Civil War, but forgot the overwhelming lesson of Grant and Sherman: that millions were freed only through the military excellence of Union armies and their leaders.
World War I without the holocaust and as a precursor to Hitler was supposedly due to ignorance, fought stupidly, and ended badly. Few believed that it was a tragedy brought on by an aggressive Germany; fought heroically by amateur French, British, and American soldiers who defeated the professionalism and skill of the German army (the most lethal land force that had yet appeared); and was a result of two different and largely antithetical visions of Europe. No one dared accept that the post-bellum failure to invade Germany, occupy Berlin, and demonstrate the utter lunacy of German militarism had caused World War II; the problem was that the victorious allies had been too mean rather than too fickle.
Of course, throughout the field's collapse, a number of specialists had persevered, writing and editing volumes on particular wars, generals, and theories. But they had clearly lost the attention of the university and worked under the suspicion that they were vicariously bloodthirsty, slightly deranged, or perhaps connected in some mysterious and sinister way to the military itself. One positive legacy of this neglect of military history was the gradual appearance of scholars who began to write about war either from outside the university John Keegan comes quickly to mind or at least in some way not directly involved in its mainstream operations. It is no accident that three of the best of the most recent military histories Max Boot's The Savage Wars of Peace, Eliot Cohen's Supreme Command, and Michael Oren's Six Days of War were written by scholars who have lives beyond the classroom.
What, then, can we learn from military history and why is it returning?
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. The hundred years of talking about slavery was not as important as two days at Gettysburg. The success or failure of Normandy affected Hitler more in an hour than had years of pleading with him in the 1930s. If one really does wish to learn of the important events of the past, one then needs to know something of war. One book on World War II is worth ten on the history of fashion; a class on the Peloponnesian Wars is more valuable than 50 on the rhetoric of gender.
2. Oddly, wars are not uniformly bloody and deadly, as we saw from the Falklands campaign and the Gulf. And even history's most deadly conflicts pale in comparison to the ravages of the 1918 flu or the current AIDS epidemic. The greatest killer of Spartan manhood was an earthquake, not Athenians; the greatest killer of Athenian hoplites was the plague, not Spartans. It turns out there are sometimes worse things for the human condition than war. Saddam Hussein murdered more of his own people at peace than he did Kuwaitis at war. War, military history teaches us, on the right occasions can save more lives than it takes. Pacifism and appeasement can take more lives than they save.
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. What happened on September 11 has not reoccurred as of yet due to the soldiers of America and its alliance not the United Nations or the World Court. In this present crisis, Special Forces have saved more lives than Amnesty International. Mr. Arafat is talking about radical reform because of the retaliation of the IDF to suicide bombing, not due to a change of heart.
4. War should not be left up to the generals. The common fear about the top brass is militarism that they will transform us all into pawns of the military-industrial complex. But military history teaches us the opposite about the French army of 1936, the American forces of the 1980s, and the European defense establishment of today: conservatism and a reluctance to use power are the greater dangers, as staff bureaucrats become set in their ways and prefer planning wars, buying weapons, enlarging the team, and creating bases rather than risking the loss of their precious and hard-won assets in a difficult struggle. Conformity and a resistance to change, not experimentation and broadmindedness, are the real dangers in any military leadership.
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. Soviet worries about the U.S. arsenal kept them out of Europe, and so allowed more gradual forces of change economic ineptness, state perfidy, and corruption and graft to destroy Communism.
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.
And so Americans, who control their armed forces, should read about wars, learn some military history, and become actively involved in monitoring our current crisis always keeping in mind Thucydides's dictum that "an exact knowledge of the past is an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it."