Why Study War, Indeed

Via Arts & Letters, two articles on City Journal came to my attention, both- one explicitly, one somewhat less so- extolling the virtues of war against the naysaying of ignorant and probably subversive peaceniks. I shall deal with one below, and, Lord willing, examine the other later this week.

First, Victor David Hanson describes in Why Study War? the lack of knowledge about things military amongst college students- and most other Americans for that matter. He spends a considerably amount of time detailing a percieved lack of attention in academia to war: as proof he offers the dearth of military historians in contemporary academia. Herein lies my first quibble. Being a college student, and a student of history at that, I have spent a little time in and around academia listening to peopel talk about history and reading book after book about history. My particular area of interest is things medieval: which means a great deal of war, and a great deal of religion. My library- which includes some quite contemporary titles amongst the older dustier ones- has plenty of volumes overflowing with gore and battle. My classes- albiet so far mostly at a small private, more-conservative-than-many college- have had a great bit of battle and bloodshed, and I have spent many enjoyable hours discussing long-gone military campaings with both my professors and fellow students.

Perhaps my experience is the exception; perhaps modern academia really has insulated itself from the real world of combat and warfare. However, I doubt whether this is Mr Hanson’s true concern- rather, as he reveals further into his article, it isn’t that academia ignores warfare, but it doesn’t talk about it correctly. He complains of the focus by historians on silly things like Japanese internment camps, refugee issues, and gender and race roles in war. Such things distract from the real business of military history, which should, as we gather later in the article, be concerned merely with winning wars for the right side, and encouraging the citizens of the republic in their support of war. If historians keep up the business of looking deeper into war and its consequences they will probably only discourage the war-planners. Moving into the heart of the article- where Mr Hanson lays forth what we would be learning from military history, were we to study it- we are treated to the following gem:

Affluent Western societies have often proved reluctant to use force to prevent greater future violence. “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things,” observed the British philosopher John Stuart Mill. “The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.”

No examples of these affluent societies are given- perhaps we are meant to think of those degenerate Swiss in their mountain hideouts eating chocolate and eschewing taking up the White Man’s Burden? One is hard pressed to think of modern Western nations who have ever expressed a great deal of genuine reservation towards massive displays of force against their neighbors, their own people, and the rest of the world.

Hanson continues with the tired attempt at linking the current occupation of Iraq to World War II- the good war, don’t you know- and mouthing off platitudes about appeasement and such. It would seem that the only lessons we are to draw from the study of military history are militaristic ones, that we must go steady on, fight for our noble cause, and never ever give into appeasement. That there may be other lessons to draw from the study of human conflict does not show up on the campaign map. Yet I could think of a few, drawing upon conflicts and sources I do not think Mr Hanson could have any trouble with. From the story of Xenophon and his Ten Thousand- one of my favorites- we should have easily drawn the lesson that regime change in Mesopotamia isn’t as easy as the war salesmen make it, and one should always, always have a good exit strategy. Failing that, you’d best pray the gods you have a Xenophon or two on hand. Dusty old Thucydides could have told us a great deal about democracies that play at empire, and how real wars are much more ambiguous than good guys versus bad guys (sometimes so ambiguous one gets a headache trying to keep all the alliances and turn abouts straight). Herodotus, besides illuminating us on how Egyptian cats immolate themselves on occasion, has a great deal to say about pre-emptive wars of conquest, and how scrappy seemingly dissunited and even downright obscurantist peoples can be in the face of invasion and occupation. I could continue, up to the most recent conflicts. One should learn from Thucydides at the very beginning that war is hardly the moralistic force Mr Hanson seems to think of it- the reality is far messier and less romantic. One may also learn that the best course for the average citizen in dealing with war is to look carefully into the mass of propoganda and claims and fervor that accompanies any war, and try to discern the truth behind the conflict.

Mr Hanson does pen one line of exceeding veracity:

Some men will always prefer war to peace; and other men, we who have learned from the past, have a moral obligation to stop them.

Indeed. And since, as history teaches us, those amongst us who prefer war usually cloak their violence in appeals to freedom, nation-state, religion, pride, democracy, destiny, and heaven knows what else, it is our duty to see through the fog of war they weave, and stop them, if possible, before the bullets start flying. History hardly teaches us utter pacificism- but it isn’t really pacificism the war-mongerers- right and left, by the way- have issue with, as it’s hardly a major force in the world. Their issue is with people who’d rather not stage bloody revolutions, or subdue the natives, or spread democracy- or communism or whatever- at the point of the gun (for, as should be evident from the simplest perusal of their propoganda through the past hundred plus years, rightists and leftists diverge but little in their worship of the gun barrel). A proper study of history and its all too numerous wars teaches us the horror of war, and hence the advisability, from merely a pragmatic point, of eschewing all but defensive war. History also teaches us that one rarely needs to incite people to the defense of their homelands; it is rather more difficult to convince the average person that it is in his interest to fight and conquer an unknown people five thousand miles away, for what and for whom he never really knows.  

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