Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Recommended: "Why Study War?" An Essay by Victor Davis Hanson

Military history teaches us about honor, sacrifice, and the inevitability of conflict.

Presented in City Journal, Summer 2007

The Western Front: Almost Any Day in World War 1

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.

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  1. Great article. And oh so true re college teaching on war in all its aspects, classic or modern.

  2. Hansen is wrong to assert that military history as an academic field has declined as a result of the 60s. It has never received much attention in history departments at US universities and colleges. A possible exception are those institutions in the South where the Civil War is still being fought. I agree that war is a subject students should learn about. However, even more important is knowing about the social, economic, and political factors that produce conflicts. How can one understand the Civil War without first knowing about slavery and the growth of industrialism in the North. How can one study World War Two without first knowing about the impact of the depression on Germany and all the western nations. Examining wars by themselves, in isolation from the events preceding them is just what the History Channel does. It panders to an audience interested in violence and technology, not history.
    By the way, the US may have won the TET battles from a strictly military perspective. But in terms of their impact on American public opinion, the Viet Cong won. After being told continually by Westmoreland and others in the Johnson Administration that the Viet Cong were on the verge of defeat, their offensive against US forces which even included entering the grounds of the US Embassy was a shock . Many Americans decided the war could never be won and wasn't worth the loss of US lives.

  3. Most people can learn from their own mistakes, but smart people learn from the mistakes of others. That's why smart people study history. The National World War One Museum and Memorial in Kansas City has policy of "no winners, no losers, no good guys, no bad guys," (says the curator). Essentially, no one made a mistake. That rather limits the use of the museum to study history. There is a fine collection of artifacts, but they are presented out of context, like abstract art, and the things which cannot be illustrated by artifacts, like inflation and malnutrition and genocide, are not mentioned. Technology is largely ignored. For example, there is no mention, anywhere, of smokeless powder or the evolution of poison gasses from chlorine to phosgene to mustard gas and their effects on tactics. Events, like battles, are listed chronologically, but the significance, like who won, is not explained. The first video says no one knows why the war started ( a hundred years of scholarship for naught!), and the last asks, "Is peace possible?" (without answering the question).

  4. It is interesting that now, after Korea or Tet, we speak of wars not being won with military force but only through political negotiations. That is what the NVA new... The last 'war' the U.S. won was WWII, in fact we stopped calling them wars and something other than victory became the goal. We now engage in continuing 'conflict' without regard to the Constitution and expect soldiers to serve and come back after we decide to pull out. Settling for what ever small victories can be obtained along the way.