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We sure could use honest and critical teaching about military history and war in America.

I don’t mean celebratory BS. I don’t mean potted histories of the American Revolution and its freedom fighters, the Civil War and its freeing of the slaves, World War II and America’s greatest generation and so on. I mean history that highlights the importance of war together with its bloody awfulness.

Two books (and book titles) come to mind: “War is a force that gives us meaning,” by Chris Hedges, and “A country made by war,” by Geoffrey Perret. Hedges is right to argue that war often provides meaning to our lives: meaning that we often don’t scrutinize closely enough, if at all. And Perret is right to argue that America was (and is), in very important ways, made by war, brutally so in fact.

Why study war? Shouldn’t we affirm that we ain’t gonna study war no more? Well, as Leon Trotsky is rumored to have said: You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. Among other reasons, students of history should study war as a way of demystifying it, of reducing its allure, of debunking its alleged glories. War is always a bad choice, though there may be times when war is the least bad in a series of bad choices. (U.S. involvement in World War II was, I believe, less bad than alternatives like pursuing isolationism.)

How are we to make sense and reach sound decisions about war if we refuse to study and understand it? A colleague sent along an interesting article (from 2016) that argues there’s not enough military history being taught in U.S. colleges and universities, especially at elite private schools. Here’s the link.

Visit your local bookstore and you’ll probably see lots of military history — it’s very popular in America! — but critical military history within college settings is much less common. This is so for a few reasons, I think:

  • Many professors don’t like the “stench” of military history. When I was at Oxford in the early 1990s, I had a professor who basically apologized for spending so much time talking about mercenary-captains and war in early modern Europe. Yet war and controlling it was a key reason for the growth of strong, centralized nation-states in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.
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  • Many professors simply have no exposure to the military — they’re ignorant of it, almost proudly so. Having taught college myself for fifteen years, including survey subjects like world history, I know the difficulty of teaching topics and subjects where your knowledge is shallow or dodgy. Far easier to stand on firm ground and teach what you know and ignore what you don’t know — or don’t like. But the easier road isn’t always the best one.
  • Critical military history suggests lack of patriotism. I taught college as a civilian professor for nine years, and I was once told to “watch my back” because I wrote articles that were critical of the U.S. military’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I’m a retired Air Force officer!
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So, with history professors often preferring to ignore or elide military subjects, military history is left to buffs and enthusiasts who focus on great captains, exciting battles, and famous weapons (often featured in glossy coffee-table books) like Tiger tanks and Spitfire fighters. Such books often sell well and make for exciting reads. What they don’t do is to make us think critically about the costs of war and how disastrous wars often prove.

A subject I taught at the USAF Academy was technology and warfare, and one of my concerns was (and remains) America’s blind faith in technology and the enormous sums of money dedicated to the same. The Pentagon will spend untold billions on the latest deadly gadgets (actually, as much as $1.7 trillion alone on the F-35 jet fighterthroughout its lifespan) but academia won’t spend millions to think and teach more critically about war.

As an aside, weapons alone don’t make an effective military. It’s not the gladius sword that made Rome dominant but the citizen-soldier wielding it, empowered by republican ideals, iron discipline, and a proven system of leadership by example.

When the principled citizen-soldier ideal died in Rome, a warrior ideal consistent with a hegemonic empire replaced it. There’s much for Americans to learn here, as its own military today identifies as warriors and finds itself in the service of a global empire.

There’s more to military history than drums and trumpets — or bullets and bombs. For better or for worse, and usually for worse, we as a people are made and defined by war. We would all do well to study and understand it better.

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