Military History’s Value in Preparing, Preventing Next Wars

American Universities Declare War on Military History. Academics seem to have forgotten that the best way to avoid conflict is to study it,” writes British journalist and military historian Max Hastings on Bloomberg.com. “North America’s great universities should be ashamed of their pusillanimity. War is no more likely to quit our planet than are pandemics. The academics who spurn its study are playing ostriches. Their heads look no more elegant, buried in the sand.”

Military history has lost favor in part because people perceive it glorifies war. Indeed, George C. Patton remains quite a popular war hero, as is WWII, a war that had to be fought. Less popular may be studies of “unnecessary” wars like Vietnam and Iraq. But if academics don’t study all wars, Hastings argues, opportunities will be missed to see parallel circumstances from history in current events.

Hastings points out that military history remains a subject of great public fascination. “History sells prodigiously in the world’s bookstores. I have produced a dozen works about conflict, and my harshest critic would struggle to claim that these reflect an enthusiasm for it. I often quote a Norwegian World War II Resistance hero, who wrote in 1948, “Although wars bring adventures that stir the heart, the true nature of war is composed of innumerable personal tragedies and sacrifices, wholly evil and not redeemed by glory.”

“Those words do not represent an argument for pacifism. Our societies must be willing, when necessary, to defend themselves in arms. But our respective presidents and prime ministers might less readily adopt kinetic solutions — start shooting — if they possessed a better understanding of the implications.   

“Before resorting to force, governments, as well as military commanders, should always ask: “What are our objectives? And are they attainable?” Again and again — in recent memory, in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya — those questions were neither properly asked nor answered, with consequences we know.”

Governments frequently succumb to what he called the gesture strategy.  Specifically, Britain in the run-up to WWI, made a commitment to warfare on the European continent without an army designed for continental war.

The NYT published a rave review of Hasting’s 2013 book “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War” by Hew Strachan, a professor of the history of war at the University of Oxford, compares the book to Barbara Tuckman’s classic “The Guns of August” and concludes it is actually better. “Tuchman has been supplanted,” the review declared.

In the comments, one post accuses Hastings of a “straw-man argument.” “It took me two minutes’ googling to learn that Harvard history classes are open to all first-year students, with no prerequisites. And they have plenty of classes about war, if that’s what you’re into. https://history.fas.harvard…

Max Rottersman was impressed by Hastings’ argument. “Never have conditions been so ripe for war. Perhaps it’s better most people don’t know. They knew what to do to control Covid, but couldn’t even do that. Deterrence only works when a people 1) truly fear war and 2) understand expected casualty or success from the weapons at hand. Weapons have evolved so much since the last conflict it’s just a matter of time before someone decides they have an iron-clad advantage and use it. All war history begins with “They thought they’d be victorious within months if not weeks….”

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