Coming to Terms with Military History: Civil War, WW1, WW2, Vietnam, Iraq

I have not posted much on this blog about the powerful military leaders, strategies and battles in history, when in fact there are whole courses, schools and museums devoted to military history. For some students, especially those who go on to serve in the military, that IS what history is mostly about, war games. For others, studying the details of past battles and strategies is very boring, a sinkhole, not seeing the forest for the trees, generally a failure to grasp the big picture.

I grew up in the South, near where Union General William T. Sherman marched on his brutal scorched-earth campaign to the sea. My relatives and teachers recalled what their ancestors told them: that Sherman was terribly cruel and unfair, making few distinctions between soldiers and civilians, burning down homes and destroying farms, and that’s one way the Yankees won the civil war.

I was raised by elders who believed that soldiers and military leaders won or lost wars. I learned that General John J. Pershing was critical to American victory in WWI, and Generals George Patton, Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower won WWII, or so it seemed.

Recent American military history since the 1950s, however — the stalemate of Korea, defeats or quagmires in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan — suggests the military’s failure to understand a region’s history, culture, politics and language(s) — will not result in ultimate victory.

The foolish and racist General Curtis LeMay appeared eager to nuke Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His conversations with President Kennedy were recorded and are public. He was the model for Dr. Strangelove.

My respect for military leaders diminished greatly during the Vietnam conflict. “We have to destroy the village in order to save it” was the (now disputed) quote that seemed to symbolize the American military’s view of that conflict. General William Westmoreland, senior US commander in Vietnam and chief of staff of the Army, appeared to be the general who lost the war.

Generals Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, and David Petraeus seemed competent enough in military strategy but ultimately could not change the course of quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While historians tend to be liberals, and determinists, military historians tend to be conservatives, believing that good strategy, along with plentiful resources, or shock and awe, can turn the tides of history.

While historians look at the big picture — a region’s history, politics, culture, economy, the lives of civilians, winning “hearts and minds” — military historians tend to focus more narrowly on winning the peace through military strength.

They also tend to be skeptical of politicians and diplomats managing war strategy, putting impossible restraints on the military. They tended to blame President Harry Truman for restraining the US military in Korea, the two Chinas; Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and diplomats for loss of Vietnam; Presidents Bush, Clinton and Obama for the lack of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan; unpreparedness on 9/11 and poor strategy in the “war on terror.” (See “Was 9/11 Avoidable, Preventable?“)

But there is a natural and healthy tension between military and civilian leadership, between hard power and soft power. One of the key principles of American power, embedded in the US Constitution, is civilian control of the military.

Leaders of the military may privately think that they know better how to run countries and wars, they can give advice and counsel, but they must always remain subservient to political leadership, and stay out of politics. Otherwise, the nation could easily fall into a military dictatorship, in which might makes right, not a government by consistent principles, constitutional rights and the rule of law but martial law.

Google highlights the top 50 or so military historians.

Drill Deeper:


One thought on “Coming to Terms with Military History: Civil War, WW1, WW2, Vietnam, Iraq

  1. Pingback: US Civil War: Prelude, Battles, Reconstruction, and Red Shirt Rebellion – Teaching History's Slender Threads, Including 'What Ifs', Almosts, Alternatives and Turning Points

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