Victor Davis Hanson — Why We Must Study War

Posted By: 'Okie' | 3:41 pm — 8/24/2007 | 4 Comments See comments below:

I ain’t gonna study war no more,
I ain’t gonna study war no more,
Study war no more.
I ain’t gonna study war no more,
I ain’t gonna study war no more,
Study war no more.

anti war posterAside from Cum-ba-ya, those words above were the most heard at all the anti-war happenings encountered in my youth. Hell, what did we know anyway of war — of the real history and consequences of armed conflict throughout history? I’m wracking my brain and can’t remember any significant study of war in my undergraduate classes at Tulsa University in the first half of the ’70s. Sure, in ancient history there was coverage of the rise and fall of civilizations, but not any in-depth analysis of just what battle in what location with what results contributed to which rise and fall. With footage from Viet Nam on the tube most every night, maybe those in charge just didn’t feel like we needed anymore exposure to the horrors of war. Besides, around every corner someone was answering the question you see posed in this poster like this — “Absolutely nothin’.”

In hindsight, that was a terrible mistake for them to make, although I’m sure they wouldn’t agree. In Why Study War, Victor Davis Hanson states, “Military history teaches us about honor, sacrifice, and the inevitability of conflict.” Far too many of my generation, the Boomers, denegrated the concepts of honor and sacrifice and to them, any “inevitability of conflict” was only gonna be between them and the man. Hanson makes the point that our ignorance in this regard is a big factor in the public reaction to our current war in Iraq.

A wartime public illiterate about the conflicts of the past can easily find itself paralyzed in the acrimony of the present. Without standards of historical comparison, it will prove ill equipped to make informed judgments. Neither our politicians nor most of our citizens seem to recall the incompetence and terrible decisions that, in December 1777, December 1941, and November 1950, led to massive American casualties and, for a time, public despair. So it’s no surprise that today so many seem to think that the violence in Iraq is unprecedented in our history. Roughly 3,000 combat dead in Iraq in some four years of fighting is, of course, a terrible thing. And it has provoked national outrage to the point of considering withdrawal and defeat, as we still bicker over up-armored Humvees and proper troop levels. But a previous generation considered Okinawa a stunning American victory, and prepared to follow it with an invasion of the Japanese mainland itself—despite losing, in a little over two months, four times as many Americans as we have lost in Iraq, casualties of faulty intelligence, poor generalship, and suicidal head-on assaults against fortified positions.

The MSM assault on the war effort via its constant US body counts, its focus on civilian casualties and its all-negative-news-all-the-time editorial philosophy has so far succeeded in turning the majority against what they have made stick as Bush’s war. Even as those on the other side of the isle who, after 9/11, originally supported and voted to fund the taking down of Saddam now backtrack and try to subvert the successes of the “Surge”, we now hear talk of going into Darfur — showing a willingness to trade leaving the current sectarian-violence and near-certain genocide of Iraqis for getting involved in another radical Islamic caused sectarian fight in Africa, supposedly to stop the genocide occurring there. There’s petroleum politics involved in both places and China is a major player (possible adversary?) in the Sudan to boot.

Military history teaches us, contrary to popular belief these days, that wars aren’t necessarily the most costly of human calamities. The first Gulf War took few lives in getting Saddam out of Kuwait; doing nothing in Rwanda allowed savage gangs and militias to murder hundreds of thousands with impunity. Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and Stalin killed far more off the battlefield than on it. The 1918 Spanish flu epidemic brought down more people than World War I did. And more Americans—over 3.2 million—lost their lives driving over the last 90 years than died in combat in this nation’s 231-year history. Perhaps what bothers us about wars, though, isn’t just their horrific lethality but also that people choose to wage them—which makes them seem avoidable, unlike a flu virus or a car wreck, and their tolls unduly grievous. Yet military history also reminds us that war sometimes has an eerie utility: as British strategist Basil H. Liddell Hart put it, “War is always a matter of doing evil in the hope that good may come of it.” Wars—or threats of wars—put an end to chattel slavery, Nazism, fascism, Japanese militarism, and Soviet Communism.

It never fails to astound me when I hear a pacifist opine that no good has ever come from war. Hanson addresses this by showcasing the following quote from British philosopher John Stuart Mill, “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.” Along with the anti-war sentiments as presented above comes what one might refer to as a Cindy Sheehan statement. That nothing is worth the live of an American soldier. That would certainly be news to our fighting men and women, our warriors — as the potential of dying in service to their country, although not on their to-do list, is always a possibility in their volunteered line of work. If they should suffer the fate of giving all, then that sacrifice should never be minimalized, never berated, never forgotten. To remember those that died to make us free requires that we make the effort to learn about them and their conflicts and battles.

Finally, military history has the moral purpose of educating us about past sacrifices that have secured our present freedom and security. If we know nothing of Shiloh, Belleau Wood, Tarawa, and Chosun, the crosses in our military cemeteries are just pleasant white stones on lush green lawns. They no longer serve as reminders that thousands endured pain and hardship for our right to listen to what we wish on our iPods and to shop at Wal-Mart in safety—or that they expected future generations, links in this great chain of obligation, to do the same for those not yet born. The United States was born through war, reunited by war, and saved from destruction by war. No future generation, however comfortable and affluent, should escape that terrible knowledge.

As a culture, we are addicted to violence in our sports, our video games, television shows and movies. However, our educators don’t want to inflict the details of actual battles, actual defeats, actual heroism. They either want to infantilize their students thinking by protecting them from this type of knowledge or they want to culturally engineer them toward pacifism in misguided attempts to to create their own version of a Utopian society. Either option is doomed to failure by the very nature of humankind.

In the end, the study of war reminds us that we will never be gods. We will always just be men, it tells us. 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.

VDH then follows up this piece with a bibliography for the study of war. Sure looks like a lot of work — a small price to pay for developing some real understanding of this most basic activity of mankind. Sure a damn site better to read and study these tomes than to sit in a circle and sing something like this:

“We will take gun powder to have fun
Then get rid of the atom bomb
Something else that we can do
Get rid of all those rockets too


The money spent on bombs alone
Can build poor people a happy home
Something good we can do
You treat me like I treat you

No more starving in the nation
Everybody gets an education
Everytime a baby is born
We know he’ll have him a happy home


No more sleeping in the street
We all happy whoever we meet
Then we all will shake their hand
And make this world a promised land.”

Ain’t gonna study, study war no more
Ain’t gonna think, think war no more
Ain’t gonna fight, fight war no more
We’re givin’ it up, we gonna let it go
We’re givin’ it up, we gonna let it go

Like I’ve written quite a few times over the last three years — collectively, we the Boomers, are indeed a sorry lot. To those that actually believe that if the U.S. disarms, that if we Americans just let the world go its own way, if we all simply eat our fiber, go green, ride the bus and wear hemp that all the evil and violence in the world will go away I wish for them some avenue of enlightenment, some path back to reality. Most I fear will reach the end of their days still lost in the labyrinth of their own fantasy-land mentality.

As history has shown us over and over . . .

Unfortunately, sometimes — War IS The Answer.

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