Why We Should Study War
Published September 07, 2022
The academic discipline of military history is in decline, but it must be revived in order to understand how to prevent wars from occurring. Pretending that wars are a relic of the past ignores recent and distant conflicts and makes unrealistic assumptions about human nature. The notion that wars can be prevented by technological advancement, money, education, or good intentions must be abandoned.
When I was a graduate student some 40 years ago, military history had already become unfashionable on campus. And the academic neglect of war is even more acute today. Military history as a discipline has atrophied, with very few professorships, journal articles, or degree programs.
After the carnage and savagery of the twentieth century’s world wars, leaders and governments attempted to refashion international politics with therapeutic organizations to make war a thing of the past. The League of Nations and the United Nations both fostered the hope that global cooperation would lead to collective security and international order. Nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction were supposed to make future conflicts unthinkable.
Yet our world today is as violent and conflict-ridden as ever. And whether we like it or not, the central issue in our life is whether we are going to have a war. Therefore, studying military history is, in essence, an attempt to prevent it or as least ameliorate its catastrophic effects.
The importance—and challenge—of the academic study of war is to elevate general interest into a more serious and widespread understanding, one that seeks answers to such questions as: Why do wars break out? How do they end? Why do the winners win and the losers lose? How best to avoid wars or contain their worst effects?
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.
This concept dates back to at least 400 BC, when Thucydides wrote his history of the Peloponnesian War. By studying that war, Thucydides believed, people would be better prepared to interpret future conflicts. Human nature, emotions, and rhetoric remain constant over the centuries, and are thus generally predictable.
Indeed, by ignoring history, the modern age is free to interpret war as a failure of communication, or of diplomacy—as if aggressors don’t know exactly what they’re doing. 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.
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 societies have often been reluctant to use force to prevent greater future violence.
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 the study of war tells us that it’s highly doubtful that a new weapon will emerge from the Pentagon or anywhere else that will change the very nature of armed conflict.
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, Verdun, and Okinawa, the crosses in our military cemeteries are just pleasant white stones on lush green lawns.
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.
What, then, can we do to restore the study of war to its proper place in the life of the American mind? The challenge isn’t just to reform the graduate schools or the professoriate, though that would help.
On a deeper level, we need to reexamine the larger forces that have devalued the very idea of military history—of war itself. We must abandon the naive faith that with enough money, education, or good intentions we can change the nature of mankind so that conflict, as if by fiat, becomes a thing of the past.
In the end, the study of war reminds us that we always just be men, not gods. Some men will always prefer war to peace; and other men, who have learned from the past, have a moral obligation to stop them.