“What does it profit the reader to wade through
wars and battles and sieges if he is not to penetrate
the knowledge of the causes which made one party
succeed and the other fail?”
Polybius was the most perceptive chronicler of Rome’s rise to greatness. He concentrated on political and military history not merely to record the facts or to entertain an audience, but to provide lessons for the statesman. Today, however, military history is out of favor in academic circles. Scarcely one out of 10 universities offers courses in the field, which makes it the least represented of the many subdisciplines of history. In survey courses, wars are mentioned but rarely studied. They are little more than dates around which other material is organized. At the Ph.D. level, a candidate finds it almost impossible to convince a committee that military history provides any serious topics for scholarship. The military history courses that do exist are usually the creation of individual scholars, not standard departmental offerings, and if the faculty member leaves or retires, the course goes with him.
Of course, Polybius lived in a violent age; the Roman Republic was at peace only twice in its entire history. Military matters naturally loomed large in the affairs of state. The same can be said for the other ancient historians: Thucydides, Livy, Xenophon, Herodotus, Arrian, Josephus, Tacitus. Yet today’s world is no less violent, with terrorism to “limited” wars to the threat of a Third World War. The study of military history should be at center stage, but it is not. In fact, America’s last war, Vietnam, provoked a backlash against the serious study of war or military security. Universities were instead to dedicate themselves to more enlightened pursuits.
There is, of course, a great deal of “popular” military history on the market. A look through any bookstore reveals that war, in fact or fiction, has an enormous appeal to the reading public. But one suspects that most of this audience reads these books as adventure stories or out of a fascination for the technical details of the hardware involved. Not that there is anything wrong with this. Personal accounts of the rigors of war and the stress of command, as well as knowledge about weaponry, are essential elements of the study of military history. John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, Martin Van Creveld’s Fighting Power, Charles MacDonald’s Company Commander, and anything by S.L.A. Marshall are essential. The problem is that the field is larger than this, both in its scope and in the audience it should reach. The decline in historical perspective among the general population is an often cited consequence in the overall decline in formal education. Military history has suffered even more because its neglect is purposeful.
The explanation is bound up with matters both of taste and ideology. Academics have been repulsed by the carnage of war, a reaction that has blended with the liberal belief that wars are “futile,” a waste of blood and money. It is not war but the “invisible hand” of economics or the civilizing trend of enlightened philosophy that changes the world. War is a phase that man will outgrow. To study war will only perpetuate it. In this sense, historians have betrayed their own field by claiming that history is something to escape from rather than something to learn from.
In such an environment, it is no wonder that students who plan leadership careers have fled history for business or law. By abandoning the framework of Polybius, history has been stripped of its usefulness. For if historians themselves claim that there is nothing of practical value to learn from the past, why bother memorizing a meaningless list of names and dates? History departments have suffered from this, but so has society. The lack of historical perspective makes policy the victim of abstract theories and costly experiments. Wishful thinking proves a poor substitute for understanding how the world works. Experience is still the best teacher, and history is the record of human experience.
Of course, these attempts to escape the past have the usual elaborate intellectual superstructures that one expects in academe. They can be placed in two broad categories: the liberal (or Whig) interpretation of history and the Marxist interpretation. Both see history as a progression. History is studied to detect changes—to determine whether mankind is moving towards some ideologically determined goal on schedule and what can be done to speed up the pace of progress.
The liberal version is the most prevalent, with peace and individual freedom at the end of history. For example, Herbert Spencer’s theory of social evolution was based on two ideal types: the military and the industrial. Throughout history, the military has dominated because the “continued existence of a society implies, first, that it shall not be destroyed bodily by foreign foes.” However, Spencer thought that a new era was at hand: the rise of the industrial society. External threats were diminishing, allowing more individual freedom, for “in the absence of hostile societies, corporate action is no longer the primary requirement.” The centralized state made necessary for the mobilization of the nation’s strength in war could now be replaced by a decentralized state that would exist only to protect the “life, liberty, and property” of individuals. “Among competing industrial societies, there must be a gradual replacing of those in which personal rights are imperfectly maintained, by those in which they are perfectly maintained.” Competition was to be waged along commercial rather than military lines.
A pleasant notion, but it has not come to pass nor is it plausible in the near future. What grounds there may have been for this view in the 19th century were thoroughly overturned by the world wars and other conflicts that have dominated the 20th century. Even before 1914 some previous adherents to this view were coming to their senses. John Stuart Mill near the end of his life deplored the decline of patriotism and honor in a land that valued only money. Mill termed the Liberal Party’s position on defense as “smitten with imbecility” and advocated universal military training and the expansion of both the Army and Navy. Alarmed by the rise of Germany, the century’s best-known liberal expressed in a letter to a friend that “I shall henceforth wish for a Tory government.”
However, the theory continues to thrive in many corners. Even those who normally have nothing good to say about business proclaim their belief in an interdependent global economy as a support for peace. Meanwhile, those who cannot contain their enthusiasm for entrepreneurship are driven to new heights of fantasy by the vision of a world united under a “capitalist international.”
The Marxists also see global peace, but only after the final triumph of the proletariat. History is a series of class struggles with the number of classes being reduced over time. Eventually only one class will remain, the struggle ends and harmony reigns. Both liberals and Marxists envision world peace and thus see a withering away of the state. The Marxists plan to wait until after the revolution and the reeducation of the masses by the dictatorship of the proletariat before dismantling the state, while the liberals advocate that the state (or at least regressive segments of the state, like the military) be dismantled first in order to remove an obstacle to the development of (or a return to, for those who believe in an idyllic natural society) a society based on peace and freedom.
These totalitarian and libertarian Utopias have much in common, which should not be surprising given the large number of philosophers their traditions have held in common since the Enlightenment. And in regard to their attitudes toward history, the modern ideologist is merely following the medieval theological tradition of interpreting passing events as the unfolding of a Divine Plan, only now in secular humanist terms.
Marxists, however, have not been as ready to drop military history as have the liberals. Friedrich Engels was an avid amateur military historian, and Lenin was a devoted reader of Clausewitz. M.V. Frunze became the Soviet regime’s leading military theorist by elaborating on the Leninist concept of war as the extension of politics. Clearly, an ideology based on class warfare has an obvious need for knowledge about the strategy and tactics of armed conflict. Unlike the libertarians, the Marxists have never considered sweet reason or self-interest alone to be sufficient to transform society.
In the West, a line might be drawn between liberal Marxists (democratic socialists) and the more hard-core radicals. The democratic socialists have softened their claims that pacifism is a “bourgeois delusion.” Being in a liberal environment, they have acquired a distaste for the study of war, no matter how much they may repeat the catechisms about armed struggle when discussing a situation thousands of miles away. This lack of serious thought has led to such romantic notions as “inevitable revolutions” and the myth of the guerrilla. Self-satisfying images and useful propaganda devices—providing the audience is equally ignorant. In contrast, the radicals do devote time and effort to the study of guerrilla warfare tactics, nuclear strategy, and geopolitics. They may still join their more liberal brethren to encourage the peace movement, arms control, and a noninterventionist foreign policy, but for the very subversive reasons that conservatives suspect. They are the more dangerous adversaries and also the more worthy of respect. Unlike the liberals, they at least know what they are doing.
Lenin claimed that it is the “men with ideas” who are dangerous to society. But without Trotsky’s creation of the Red Army and its victory in the Russian civil war, the Bolsheviks might have found in the end that their ideas were dangerous mainly to themselves rather than to the world at large. Before Mao said “power comes from the barrel of a gun,” Lenin and Trotsky (and Stalin) had shown it to be true. Communism has spread entirely by military means and has never been stopped or overthrown by other than military means.
But Communism is not the only example of a system of belief that has relied on force. It took only 50 years for the Mohammedan Arabs to conquer an empire stretching from North Africa to India in the 7th century; an empire that established Islam as a major religion still at the center of world events 1,300 years later. Islam might have spread further had not its armies lost to Leo III at Constantinople in 718 and to Charles “The Hammer” at Poitiers in 732; or if Malta had not withstood the siege of 1565 or Vienna the siege of 1683. When Constantinople did finally fall to the Turks in 1453, the Christian empire of Byzantium fell under the Moslem yoke.
While there have been exceptions, in general ideas have consequences only if those who hold them have (or can gain) sufficient power to impose them on society. Individuals may be converted by debate or meditation, but the masses are won from the top down by the exercise of authority and the establishment of sustaining institutions. Thus the Roman Empire was Christianized by Constantine after he read a message in the sky before the battle of the Mulvian Bridge. The Protestant cause survived because the sword-arm of the Counter-Reformation, the Hapsburg Empire, proved unable to subdue Europe under Charles V or his successors. In our own day, Nazism was driven from Europe not by persuasion or election, but by conquest. But “democratic capitalism” took its place only where the armies employed by democratic capitalist states were able to advance.
To the modern liberal, this view of the world is too painful to face. Indeed, this is a view against which the liberal must contest to preserve his own values. As Arthur Ekireh warned the American Historical Society in 1957, “military history involves the danger that its very bulk . . . may result in our literature as well as our society becoming further militarized.”
This statement is typical of the liberal desire to discuss the military only as a domestic interest group, thus implicitly rejecting the idea that the military still performs a necessary function as a fighting force. This is reminiscent of Richard Cobden’s claim, made nearly a century and a half ago, that the military and naval forces of the British Empire did nothing more than provide “outdoor relief for the aristocracy.”
The basis for this view is not objective scholarship but moral principle. In his recent study of Liberalism and Naval Strategy, Bernard Semmel has traced the origin of this doctrine to Immanuel Kant, who died the year Cobden was born. Kant espoused all the liberal positions on international relations: disarmament, nonintervention, anti-imperialism, free trade, international law, and a world federation. These ideas were further spread by the dissemination and secularization of the doctrines of Dissent.
Dissenters were convinced that God—and secular Radicals that historical progress—intended a millennial reign of peace, and that this new era was at hand. To prepare for war displayed an unredeemed nature. . . . They stood for a true Christian ethic. For them “strategy,” any plan for exerting or projecting military or naval force was ipso facto wrong.
Semmel fears for the future because “liberals appear as unwilling as ever to confront questions involving power and strategy.” But if to study war is to perpetuate it, does this mean that if war is ignored it will go away? Or will it merely come as a surprise? Judging by recent experience, America never ceases to be surprised.
History for the liberal simply leads him to agree with Otto Hintze that “power politics, mercantilism and militarism are all related” without sufficient consideration given to the context in which Hintze was speaking. That “in a period of permanent political tension . . . the international system as well as the absolutist state and the standing army” were created “in order that single states could preserve their independence and thus the basis of all prosperity and culture.” Only where geography provided insular security (England and later the U.S.) could institutions of a freer kind develop. And then this “surplus” security was used to create global empires.
While it is easy to see how this liberal outlook has been carried over from Kant and Cobden to today’s liberal-left in the United States, it should be noted that conservatives have not been completely immune from its harmful effects. At the operational level, conservatives are nationalists and anti-Communists, but these positions spring from the fact that at a deeper level conservatives are realists. Respect for tradition and the “lessons of history” in regard to the enduring characteristics of human nature have led them to a healthy skepticism towards ideologies based on abstraction and sentimentality. But over the last half-century, conservatism has been weakened by the indiscriminate incorporation of classical liberal economic theories which cannot be completely severed from the larger liberal world view from which they developed. More recently, these libertarian ideas have been strengthened by some elements among the “neoconservatives” who have carried various liberal notions into the conservative camp from another direction. Thus a tension has developed within the right. Conservatives know that the world is a dangerous place with myriad threats to the nation’s security and interests, but at the same time they are inhibited by liberal influences from taking those steps necessary to overcome the challenges that confront the country.
Among the debates within the right are the use of military conscription, troop commitments to NATO, the effectiveness of anti-Communist guerrilla movements, the effectiveness of a “world democratic-capitalist revolution,” and the play of the “China card.” Like the debates between right and left over such topics as the use of covert operations and assassination, the Strategic Defense Initiative, support for authoritarian allies, and the war powers of the President, most of these discussions are influenced far too much by subjective value judgments and romantic notions. What is needed is a deeper study of military history to provide a more objective basis for evaluating policy alternatives with an eye to obtaining successful outcomes, or to use oldfashioned terminology, to obtain victories. Not that military history always provides clear and ready answers. Analogies are always debatable. But military history can provide a framework for discussion that avoids the flights of fancy that usually characterize arguments made without the benefit of historical perspective.
We must remember that wars do change things. Nothing equals the difference between winning and losing a war. That the Greeks stopped the Persians at Marathon and Salamis, that Rome destroyed Carthage, that the Christian Theodoric defeated the pagan Attila at Chalons, that China failed to conquer Japan in the 13th century, that the English drove the French out of North America, that the North won the American Civil War, that the Communists won the civil wars in Russia and China, or that Napoleon and Hitler were defeated are just a few of history’s many decisive conflicts. The way millions have lived for centuries has often been determined by a few hours on the battlefield.
As Cyril Falls put it in The Place of War in History:
What I want to urge is that all men, common and uncommon, great and small . . . have been profoundly and unceasingly influenced by war. Our literature, our art and our architecture are stamped with the vestiges of war. Our very language has a thousand bellicose words and phrases woven into its fabric. And our material destinies, our social life and habits, our industry and trade, have assumed their present forms and characteristics largely as the result of war. . . . We are, all of us, indeed, the heirs of many wars.
The idea that the United States developed in “splendid isolation” from such evil influences and thus should not descend to the level of its well-armed opponents is false. To build the country to its present size from a huddle of colonial settlements required wars with the British, French, Spanish, Mexicans, and Indians. Though technically much of American territory was purchased, foreign states were willing to sell because they knew their claims could not be defended. The U.S. has fought as often as any other major power over the last century and gained superpower status and the leadership of the West in World War II.
Fighting a war is a practical matter. It is not a game or an exercise in chivalry. Defeat comes with an unlimited liability clause. “Being in the right” or having a higher civilization or standard of living is no guarantee of safety, as the survivors of the 476 sack of Rome or the 1940 fall of France would attest.
Second, military history assumes that history is cyclical rather than linear-progressive. It also assumes that human nature has not changed substantially over the millennia. Civilizations can decline and fall as well as rise and expand. This point may be the hardest for Americans to accept, since their own history has, until recently, been one long upward spiral. This is why there are no American macrohistorians to rival Toynbee or Spengler. Americans need to escape their parochial view. The current position of the U. S. in the world is different from what it has been for most of American history. Only by learning from the experiences of other world powers through history can Americans come to terms with what is necessary and expected of them. As A.T. Olmstead argued in his History of the Persian Empire:
In reading this story, we naturally identify ourselves with the Greeks. . . . We quite forget that we ourselves long passed through the town-meeting stage when we governed ourselves much like the Athenians, and have now become a mighty world empire whose problems are those of the Persians. . . . We [must] re-read the delightful tales of Herodotus with eyes wide open to present-day American difficulties.
Accepting the possibility of defeat and even destruction is a necessary step towards concentrating the mind and getting down to work. Vietnam should have done this, but the liberals continue to outmaneuver the right on the interpretation of that war. The failure of the right to deal effectively with the Vietnam challenge, both during and since the war, is most disquieting. President Ford’s statement, made as Hanoi’s tanks rolled into Saigon, that there should be no recriminations or investigations as to why the U.S. lost, was the worst possible reaction. It means that it will require an even larger disaster to provoke serious thought on the nature of war. This thought must be based on experience—that is, on military history.
By military history is meant the general history of organized international conflict, for more than purely military operations on the battlefield are included under this heading. Military history is concerned with how nations prepare for war, how they wage and terminate wars, and how preparing for and fighting wars influences society. On this last point, it is often said that since armies reflect society, there is nothing the U.S. can do to improve on its defense under the circumstances of its open and materialistic democratic culture. This fatalistic assessment overlooks the many examples of history where societies, faced with external dangers, did act to correct internal weaknesses. Societies are not static; they evolve over time, and security concerns have been a major factor promoting reform and renewal.
During much of history, only a few decisive baffles (sometimes only one) were needed to determine victory in war. But the hope of repeating Arbela or Hastings or Waterloo or of “being home by Christmas” has often been a delusion. Industrialization is often said to have made decisive warfare obsolete, replacing it with wars of attrition. The American Civil War and the two world wars are the obvious examples. Yet, Hannibal tried for 19 years to subdue Rome only to fail in the end. And Israel in the Middle East and the U.S. in Grenada have shown that decisive campaigns are still possible. And even apparently decisive battles or campaigns have only marked a part of a larger struggle. The Punic Wars, the Thirty Years War, the century of colonial wars between England and France, and the quarter-century of Napoleonic warfare all exhibited their share of lopsided battlefield victories that brought particular “wars” or phases to a conclusion, but which contributed to the final victory only in a cumulative fashion.
Thus even before industrialization, a country’s “staying power,” based on available resources and morale, was a crucial strategic factor. Industry, by increasing the resource base of nations, contributed to this situation but did not create it. As Gen. Douglas MacArthur stated in his 1935 report as Army Chief of Staff, modern war is characterized by “a nation at war, rather than a nation in arms.” It is in industry that “the great proportion of the employable population will find its war duty.” Yet, in contemporary American strategic planning, little attention is paid to economics.
Case in point: For at least 300 years, war finance has been a critical limiting factor. It was England’s great advantage to be able to draw on accumulated foreign assets, a favorable trade balance, and the capital of its prosperous businessmen in time of crisis. But as Milton Friedman pointed out a decade ago, the U.S., with its high peacetime taxes and deficit budgets, is already using emergency measures to finance its everyday activities. What is left in reserve? And in the decade since, the strains have grown worse as the U.S. has become a net international debtor and seen its industrial expansion halted by foreign competition.
History also shows what basic unit of social organization is best fitted for combining resources and leadership. That unit is the nation-state. As long-cycle theorist George Modelski has concluded:
The nation-state proved to be the only organization capable of spearheading and then sustaining large operations at long distances and on a global scale. Papal coordination was tried but generally found wanting in the organization of the Crusades; city-states alone, like Venice; powerful continental empires, such as those of the Hapsburgs, the Ming dynasty or the Mughals, did not or could not make it. The nation-state mobilized the resources and also supplied the coherence, motivation, and strength of purpose required for extraordinary ambitious and far-flung enterprises. . . . Nation-states have proved the most effective units for fighting global war; other competing organizations have been selected out. The basic unit of world order has become the one best fitted to survive a world conflict. Those who are looking for a new basis for world order, be it the United Nations, the international solidarity of the working class, or some network of transnational corporations, are searching in vain. Even such “universal” creeds as Christianity, Islam, and Communism have failed to provide unity even among those who profess them.
Those on the right who, like George Gilder in National Review, have denounced “nationalistic fetishes” in favor of a “global economy,” are making a strategic blunder of the most profound kind. The world is in the disintegration phase of its current cycle. Communications and transportation technologies may be making global commercial (and military) operations easier, but the factors that count—the number of competing sovereign political units, the level of violence, the bitterness of ideological and religious rivalries—are all moving away from stability and peace. In such an environment, self-sustaining national power is critical.
Another element of instability is the technological advance in weaponry. Human nature may hold constant over the centuries, but weapons and their modes of employment change constantly (though at different rates in different eras). Indeed, the advantages that innovations in equipment, tactics, or strategy can confer provide strong incentives to those seeking expansion—and thus must provoke equally dynamic responses from those who wish to resist such expansion. It is an appreciation for this process of change more than the details of how a long-bow penetrated plate armor that the general student of military history should acquire. By the same token, it is the combination of factors such as speed, firepower, shock, and morale that provide the basis for comparing Genghis Khan’s horsearchers with General Guderian’s panzers despite the centuries between.
These operational concepts, along with logistics, recruitment and training, geography, intelligence, and communications, provide the basis for the “principles of war,” a body of knowledge drawn from history. The classic exponents of strategic thought—Vegetius, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Saxe, Guibert, Jomini, Glausewitz, Fuller, and Liddell-Hart—all had personal experience in war and statecraft. America’s most influential and famous historian, Alfred Thayer Mahan, wrote The Influence of Seapower Upon History as a Navy captain. The Pentagon makes extensive use of military history to refine its doctrines, and military history has figured prominently in the debates surrounding the work of the military reform movement. But in a democracy, more than just the defense professionals need an understanding of the basic concepts. The elder Field Marshal Moltke thought strategy was merely “common sense applied to the art of war,” but it is clear that today’s political leaders and the journalists who set the parameters of public debate know little of these men or their work. Thus Moltke’s “common sense” is anything but common.
Since change is a vital lesson of history, skepticism should meet any notion like Mutual Assured Destruction based on a static force of permanently invulnerable ICBM’s of set number and design. That the Soviet Union is working to counter U.S. nuclear forces and to fight and win the next war should not be the least surprising. Moscow is behaving normally. It is the U.S. that is open to Thucydides’ criticism for following “the habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.”
Another example is the obsession with arms control negotiations. There is nothing in history, from the 1139 Vatican Edict against using the crossbow against Christians through the Hague Conferences before World War I and the Washington-London naval conferences before World War II on to SALT, that provides any evidence that arms control has either prevented or limited war. It is a particularly futile effort in an era of rapid technological change and unresolved international rivalries.
Deterrence itself is open to question as the basis for national security. Military history is primarily a record of the failure of deterrence and would be a far shorter record if deterrence played any consistent role in international affairs. Basing the nation’s survival wholly on the expectation that deterrence makes war “unthinkable” is suicidal.
A 1974 study, Military Deterrence in History by Raoul and Frada Naroll and V. L. Bullough, is most interesting. A crosscultural study of 20 major confrontations running from the border struggle between the Han dynasty and the Huns (125-116 B.C.) to the renewed English-Bourbon struggle during the American War for Independence (1775-1785), it examines the rivalries between the Egyptian, Hebrew, Islamic, Greco-Roman, Western European, Russian, Hindu, and Chinese states, concentrating on the most active power (the Conspicuous State) in each time period. The study also took into account factors of geography, trade, military preparation, type of government, and whether the Conspicuous State was in a defensive stance vis-a-vis its rival. The conclusion:
Our study indicated that there is no real support for the belief that either military or diplomatic efforts have tended in the long run to make peace much more likely among the defensively oriented Conspicuous States we studied. . . . The world arena of power politics has been a bloody one. Prominent states cannot avoid involvement in war. . . . In the absence of a world order, we must continue to live with the waste and slaughter of war.
The study also found that the most important variable in national success was the age and experience of its leader. This is nothing new to military historians. When Napoleon said that “there are no bad regiments, only bad colonels,” he was speaking a truth about leadership that applies from the smallest scouting party to the greatest empire. Biography is thus often recommended as the best starting place for the study of military history. As Field Marshal Sir Archibald Percival Wavell advised:
Study the human side of history . . . to learn that Napoleon in 1796 with 20,000 beat combined forces of 30,000 by something called economy of force or operating on interior lines is a mere waste of time. If you can understand how a young unknown man inspired a half-starved ragged rather Bolshie crowd; how he filled their bellies; how he outmarched, outwitted, outbluffed and defeated men who had studied war all their lives . . . you will have learnt something worth knowing.
As Arthur Ferrill has recently written, “Strategic decisions produce successful or unsuccessful results. . . . A good general or political leader will bear the burden and solve his strategic problems.” But a poor or unlucky leader will fail and condemn his society to defeat and disaster.
National leadership is a weak point in the Western democracies.