Victor Davis Hanson: Why Study War

Roundup: Talking About History

[Victor Davis Hanson is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University , a professor emeritus at California University , Fresno , and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services.]

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.....

Military history is as often the story of appeasement as of warmongering. The destructive military careers of Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler would all have ended early had any of their numerous enemies united when the odds favored them. Western air power stopped Slobodan Miloševi?’s reign of terror at little cost to NATO forces—but only after a near-decade of inaction and dialogue had made possible the slaughter of tens of thousands. 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.”

Indeed, by ignoring history, the modern age is free to interpret war as a failure of communication, of diplomacy, of talking—as if aggressors don’t know exactly what they’re doing. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, frustrated by the Bush administration’s intransigence in the War on Terror, flew to Syria, hoping to persuade President Assad to stop funding terror in the Middle East. She assumed that Assad’s belligerence resulted from our aloofness and arrogance rather than from his dictatorship’s interest in destroying democracy in Lebanon and Iraq, before such contagious freedom might in fact destroy him. For a therapeutically inclined generation raised on Oprah and Dr. Phil—and not on the letters of William Tecumseh Sherman and William Shirer’s Berlin Diary—problems between states, like those in our personal lives, should be argued about by equally civilized and peaceful rivals, and so solved without resorting to violence.

Yet it’s hard to find many wars that result from miscommunication. Far more often they break out because of malevolent intent and the absence of deterrence. Margaret Atwood also wrote in her poem: “Wars happen because the ones who start them / think they can win.” Hitler did; so did Mussolini and Tojo—and their assumptions were logical, given the relative disarmament of the Western democracies at the time. Bin Laden attacked on September 11 not because there was a dearth of American diplomats willing to dialogue with him in the Hindu Kush. Instead, he recognized that a series of Islamic terrorist assaults against U.S. interests over two decades had met with no meaningful reprisals, and concluded that decadent Westerners would never fight, whatever the provocation—or that, if we did, we would withdraw as we had from Mogadishu.

In the twenty-first century, it’s easier than ever to succumb to technological determinism, the idea that science, new weaponry, and globalization have altered the very rules of war. But military history teaches us that our ability to strike a single individual from 30,000 feet up with a GPS bomb or a jihadist’s efforts to have his propaganda beamed to millions in real time do not necessarily transform the conditions that determine who wins and who loses wars....
Read entire article at City Journal (Summer Issue)

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Lon Becker - 8/29/2007

Ignorance of past wars is certainly a problem. But overly simplistic analysis of wars to fit ones preconceived notions is at least as big a problem.

To take an example above, Hanson notes Clinton's success at bringing down Milosevic (although not surprisingly without putting it that way) through air power. But then points to all of the carnage that preceded it as if the same thing would have happened had we bombed sooner. But there is no reason to think that the exhaustion brought about by the civil war was not a major reason why the Serbs deposed Milosevic in response to our bombing. To imply, without argument, that the same thing would have happened had the first Bush done a similar bombing campaign is silly.

Equally silly is the suggestion that Pelosi thought that her trip to Syria would magically fix the problem of Syria by bringing him information that he lacked.

It is also not hard to think of wars that started because of a failure of communication. The first Gulf war came about because Hussein believed that we would not do anything about an invasion of Iraq. Had our ambassador made clear that there would be consequences to the invasion, it is doubtful that Hussein would have invaded.

So here we have another bit of simple mindedness. Hanson casts the idea that wars are started because the agressor thinks he can win as somehow opposed to the idea that miscommunication can contribute to war. But in reality they go hand in hand. Communication can make clear what is actually in people's interests. And if war is a result of people pursuing their perceived interests, which seems right, then communication can be an important step to preventing them.

But that is not true if one manages to shove all of histories wars into cases in which there was not enough aggression to stop the aggressors.

James Martin - 8/25/2007

Absolutely profound. Profound, if it weren't so obvious. More than profound since we're in "the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling."