Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Why Military History is Necessary

New York's City Journal has an excellent piece in the print version of the magazine on this topic (no link) entitled "Why Study War." It's written by the accomplished military historian Victor Davis Hanson and it is well worth checking out. Hanson is a Senior Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, a conservative, and a contributing editor to the conservative and provocative City Journal.

I'm not going to do a walkthrough of the piece; that's not really my bag. I will say that the whole thing is worth reading and that Hanson's central point is refreshing and penetrating. The thesis of the article is that military history is inherently valuable because it teaches the inevitability of conflict in our world, involves study of strategy and generalship, and celebrates honor and virtue while denigrating cowardice and dishonorable deeds. This is a valuable statement, especially in a culture throttled by pacificists who denounce all war, no matter who is being fought or or on what grounds, as inherently wrong. Hanson's essay shows us that war can be used for ill gains and evil ends, yes, but that matters of war are often quite complex and thus require careful study. In the end, such study often shows that war must be fought and that battle draws out the best of character from the best of men, even as it reveals the sordid character of the worst.

Hanson alludes occasionally to the Iraq war, and his comments are worth considering. I don't fashion myself a political commentator, but I have often wondered to myself throughout the Iraq war whether the media has successfully poisoned the minds of most all the American people, including conservatives, on this matter. There seems to be precious little patience in the American spirit nowadays; one sees this in far less important "fields" like football or basketball, where rookie athletes are labeled busts after only one poor year and coaches are canned in midseason when their teams fail to perform. One sees this is the details of our everyday lives as well. When a website fails to load in less than six seconds, we pound the desk and hiss at the computer under our breath. When caught behind a slow-moving car, we yell at our windshield and angrily mutter about poor drivers. The grocery store isn't a place for shopping--it's full-scale warfare with metal carts, each bedraggled worker hustling to dump as many items in their cart as they can before other shoppers arrive. We are a fundamentally impatient, demanding, critical society, and it's ugly to watch. When one thinks of the Iraq war, surely one is under no delusions that the campaign has gone perfectly or even well; and yet one is also reminded that past wars included terrible catastrophes, prolonged defeats, and frustrated plans, even as the number of American casualties rose. I am not a general or a military mind, but I am convinced by my own read of the situation and by Hanson's writing that the Iraq war is not nearly so misguided or unsuccessful as the media makes it out to be and that history teaches us to be patient before passing judgment and throwing up our hands. We ought not to catch the cultural tide of impatience on this matter, but would be better served, in my opinion, by supporting our country, speaking well of our government, praying for peace in Iraq, and waiting on time to yield the verdict on this war, all the while paying little attention to doomsday naysayers and pacifists.

Hanson also has some great material on how the American academy largely ignores military history, and yet how many students devour it when offered a chance to do so. This is quite true, and was proven at my college where a class on the Civil War drew far more students than did more parochial studies of agrarian peasant feuds and farming practices. Military history is excellent stuff, even if it is full of sadness and tragedy. How ironic that the academy refuses to offer much of it even while it trips over itself to offer the latest race and gender-focused class designed to please the intellectual left. Hanson's salvo lands. His whole piece does, as a matter of fact, and I encourage you to seek out a copy of this article. Study war, for in so doing, you study society, you study human nature, and in some sense, you study yourself.


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