West Point historian says if his cadets can understand the history of war, so can Congress

Historians in the News
tags: Congress, war



Col. Ty Seidule is the Professor and Head of the Department of History at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is an editor of The West Point History of Warfare.




Their constituents prepare themselves for the weighty decisions of American strategy and war? There seems to be no precedent for the terrorists who run the so-called Islamic State. Cyber attacks are a new and growing threat. Pandemic diseases and global warming present severe security dilemmas. Nuclear proliferation remains a serious concern. And then there’s still boots-on-the ground, jets-in-the-air, ships-off-the-coast “traditional” war. War is the most complex, chaotic, dangerous and unpredictable activity undertaken by humans. How is it possible to prepare for making decisions on questions of national security without a lifetime of study?

War is unlike business, the law, sports or any other profession. The only thing like war … is war. If Congress or the American people want to prepare for the most important questions of our time, studying the history of war and its ramifications is imperative. Cadets enter West Point, where I lead the history department, with little to no knowledge of military history, yet they leave with a strong intellectual foundation for understanding war and the decisions made during times of peace and aggression. If students can learn to analyze warfare and military decisions, so too can any American citizen or politician. Here are a few key historical issues to start with:

What is war?

Carl von Clausewitz, the German philosopher of war, wrote nearly two hundred years ago that war is a contest of political will executed through violence. Though war has changed considerably since Clausewitz’s time—we are now waging wars against terrorists and non-state actors—his dictum is still accurate: Not only do wars serve to achieve political ends, but they are waged by the political will of citizens, as exercised through their elected representatives. Political will can change dramatically during war. In 1964, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the use of force in Vietnam. In 1975, Congress refused to allow any military funding to stop North Vietnamese armor formations from rumbling through Saigon. Over the course of those 11 years, America lost the political will to fight in Vietnam.

History also helps us to understand why war remains prevalent throughout the planet, despite the catastrophic examples of the 20th century. Thucydides wrote 2,500 years ago that countries go to war for one of three reasons: Fear, honor or interest. War in the 21st century is no different. The United States went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 because it feared another attack from Al Qaeda and it felt the nation’s honor was at stake. As for Iraq, we continue to argue over why America went to war there in 2003. Was it fear of Weapons of Mass Destruction? Interest in creating a democracy in the Middle East? Interest in oil? Restoring honor after 9/11? No matter what you decide, there’s no doubt that the real reason was some combination of fear, honor and interest.

The questions politicians and generals ask before going to war have changed little over the centuries. Why are we going to war? What are our goals? Are those goals achievable with the strategy we intend to use? How long will the war take? Can we expect the people to support war for long periods of time? None of these questions are easy, yet our political and military leaders must try to answer them and to maintain a solid understanding of means and ends. Of course, even if there is an answer today, that answer will likely change. War remains the most unpredictable of human endeavors, which means that one must remain flexible to changing conditions. If that sounds difficult, war is fiendishly more complex than merely difficult....







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