Victor Davis Hansen: Why Study War?

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[Not a Military Historian, I Presume]

This is from The City Journal

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.

I came to the study of warfare in an odd way, at the age of 24. Without ever taking a class in military history, I naively began writing about war for a Stanford classics dissertation that explored the effects of agricultural devastation in ancient Greece, especially the Spartan ravaging of the Athenian countryside during the Peloponnesian War. The topic fascinated me. Was the strategy effective? Why assume that ancient armies with primitive tools could easily burn or cut trees, vines, and grain on thousands of acres of enemy farms, when on my family farm in Selma, California, it took me almost an hour to fell a mature fruit tree with a sharp modern ax? Yet even if the invaders couldn’t starve civilian populations, was the destruction still harmful psychologically? Did it goad proud agrarians to come out and fight? And what did the practice tell us about the values of the Greeks—and of the generals who persisted in an operation that seemingly brought no tangible results?

I posed these questions to my prospective thesis advisor, adding all sorts of further justifications. The topic was central to understanding the Peloponnesian War, I noted. The research would be interdisciplinary—a big plus in the modern university—drawing not just on ancient military histories but also on archaeology, classical drama, epigraphy, and poetry. I could bring a personal dimension to the research, too, having grown up around veterans of both world wars who talked constantly about battle. And from my experience on the farm, I wanted to add practical details about growing trees and vines in a Mediterranean climate.

Yet my advisor was skeptical. Agrarian wars, indeed wars of any kind, weren’t popular in classics Ph.D. programs, even though farming and fighting were the ancient Greeks’ two most common pursuits, the sources of anecdote, allusion, and metaphor in almost every Greek philosophical, historical, and literary text. Few classicists seemed to care any more that most notable Greek writers, thinkers, and statesmen—from Aeschylus to Pericles to Xenophon—had served in the phalanx or on a trireme at sea. Dozens of nineteenth-century dissertations and monographs on ancient warfare—on the organization of the Spartan army, the birth of Greek tactics, the strategic thinking of Greek generals, and much more—went largely unread. Nor was the discipline of military history, once central to a liberal education, in vogue on campuses in the seventies. It was as if the university had forgotten that history itself had begun with Herodotus and Thucydides as the story of armed conflicts.

[continue reading]

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2 responses »

  1. Unfortunately, the New Centrist clip of VDH’s essay gets cut right before VDH’s thesis (you can continue reading via the link). VDH surmises that military history is dying (nee dead) because we live in a post-Vietnam, Cold War-panic state of emotion. That is, because politics took a left turn during the 60s, we lost dispassionate reason and appreciation for critical analysis and are now patchoulli-stinking peaceniks.

    Once again, VDH’s right-leaning, “things-were-so-much-better-then” throwback politics lay bare under the guise of critical analysis. Military history is not dead because American academia got soft. Military history suffers from the same disease that so many other historical sub-disciplines (like labor history, women’s history) as well as possibly other social sciences (sociology, anthropology, geography) suffer from and that is the increasing push by colleges to pursue more lucrative professional degrees.
    There has been a steady decline in tenure-track hirings throughout the country. Furthermore, in these “everyone’s a millionaire but me” days, students increasingly are going for degrees that will result in high-pay and not saddle them with massive student loan debts or unemployment.

    Sorry, VDH–the demise of military history is not that big of a mystery.

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