On War

Victor Davis Hanson has a long essay on the study of war and its value to a society in the City Journal. It will take you some time to get all the way through, but it is a fascinating look at the state of the study of war. Frankly, it is almost becoming a lost art – and that is a bad thing for society.

Try explaining to a college student that Tet was an American military victory. You’ll provoke not a counterargument—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 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.

I came to the study of warfare in an odd way, at the age of 24. Without ever taking a class in military history, I naively began writing about war for a Stanford 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 topic fascinated me. Was the strategy 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, when on my family farm in Selma, California, it took me almost an hour to fell a mature fruit tree with a sharp modern ax? Yet even if the invaders couldn’t starve civilian populations, was the destruction still harmful psychologically? Did it goad proud agrarians to come out and fight? And what did the practice tell us about the values of the Greeks—and of the generals who persisted in an operation that seemingly brought no tangible results?

A recent review of the faculties of the top US colleges showed that of more than 1,000 professors only 21 were military historians. Not understanding war and the nature of war can lead to dreadful mistakes – and to the easy spread of disinformation as well. Read the whole thing, it really is a fascinating essay.

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3 Responses to On War

  1. markg8 says:

    That’s why we have West Point and Annapolis. If you want to study war those are the best universities in the world to major at.

    Having read Hanson’s piece it makes me wonder why he, a man who claims he was surrounded by relatives who rehashed their personal war stories all the time didn’t enlist himself. I too have relatives who served, a West Point graduate grandfather, an uncle who almost died in both the Battle of the Bulge and Tet, and my father who spent three years flying around the South Pacific as a flight engineer on a B-24 when he would have preferred to be at the University of Illinois on that football scholarship he earned. None of them regaled us with war stories as far as I remember. None of them “talked constantly about battle”. I had a hard time prying any of that personal history out of them. Recalling the time a friend’s bomber blew up on takeoff or the days when my uncle almost lost his toes to gangrene in the Ardennes weren’t pleasant for them. Watch almost any interviews with WW11 soldiers, no one who has been in combat glories in war. They tell sad tales of long dead friends who never got the chance to grow up or the last look on the faces of the enemy soldiers they killed. Faces they’ll never forget. It makes me wonder what kind of family Hanson was born into. Maybe
    descendants of Viking berserkers or maybe just bullsh*t artists who think puffing up their chests in front of the kids is an important quality in a man. Maybe it explains why Hanson is the warlover he is. Too bad he never got firsthand experience. Really too bad.

  2. Chris says:

    It’s also too bad the MarkG8 assumes that anyone who doesn’t behave like he does is morally inferior to him. Studying something as ubiquitous and far-reaching as war does not make one a “warlover”, it makes one a student of an event which has tremendous effects on whole civilizations.

    Understanding the past is the only way to understand the present, and to make calculated guesses about the future. With people like MarkG8 to guide us, we can start learning Chinese now, and beat the rush.

  3. Lugo says:

    markg8, the idea that anyone interested in military history is a “warlover” is truly moronic, as is the thinly-veiled chickenhawk accusation.

    Everyone should study military history – not just West Point and Annapolis cadets.

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