Interview with Victor Davis Hanson
John Leo, Editor of MindingTheCampus.com, hosts Victor Davis Hanson to discuss his most recent article from the summer issue of City Journal, “Why Study War?”. Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a City Journal Contributing Editor.
Leo: Welcome Dr. Hanson, your article “Why Study War?,” strongly criticizes the academy for its increasing neglect of military history. How do you explain this neglect?
Hanson: Mostly for three reasons. First, since the campus revolt against Vietnam, academia has associated war exclusively with amorality, forgetting, for example, that chattel slavery, Nazism, fascism, and Stalinism were ended by arms or military deterrence.
Second, multiculturalism — no culture can be any worse than the West — has redefined the history of Western arms as exclusively in the service of racism, colonialism, and imperialism that in turn were unique to the West.
And lastly, the advent of postmodernism, and indeed ‘theory’ in general, into the arts and sciences meant a general disdain for, and absence of mastery of, names, dates, personalities, facts themselves — the stuff of military history — in favor of seeing all of the past as a morality tale to be deconstructed on the basis of preconceived (and often anti-empirical) gender, class, and racial oppression.
The result is that we have self-acclaimed sophisticated graduate students and professors that know very little about what actually transpired in the past, but who fret a great deal over whether anyone can know anything about what they don’t know.
Leo: Is opposition to military history related to the strength of anti-military opinion on campus since the Vietnam War? Or is it more often a feeling that studying war somehow dignifies human mayhem?
Hanson: Both, but there is still this crazy notion that anyone who studies war does so not to understand and thus often mitigate its effects, but rather out of a sort of repressed or even overt desire for bloodletting — as if a oncologist likes tumors or a virologist is de facto an advocate for AIDs. Almost all military history, even if written in the most banal sense of antiquarianism, ultimately seeks to record the tragedy of taking human life, and speculate on the ways in which wars could have either been prevented or conducted with the greatest rapidity and avoidance of loss of life.
Leo: At a time when almost everything prized in the popular culture ends up on a college curriculum, how is it that the enormous upsurge of books, movies and cable shows about war is occurring at the same time that the study of war is fading on campus?
Hanson: War by nature involves the ultimate sacrifice of soldiers, usually of a rare segment of the general population willing to die for an idea, an order, a good or bad cause, to inflict havoc or save humanity. And there is a sort of gut-level fascination why humans would do such things.
In addition, there is a general societal fear, rightly so, that war de facto has the ability to destroy society as we know it — whether the Roman ‘peace’ at the end of the 3rd Punic War or the carnage of WWII Poland, Japan, and Russia — and thus should be examined if for prophylactic reasons alone. War, you see, is the ultimate expression, for good or evil, of action and the collision of material forces — in contrast to the steady devolution in the academia to discourse and theorizing. Pickett’s Charge or Normandy Beach will win anytime over the ‘Transvestism in the Medieval Cloister’ or ‘The Poetics of Manhood in the Renaissance Puppetry.” Finally, there are millions of Americans in the general public who served in the military or are the children, siblings, and parents of those who did, but perhaps far less of such a percentage among the cohort that now runs the academy.
Leo: You argue that a college class today on World War II “might emphasize Japanese internment, Rosie the Riveter and the horror of Hiroshima, not Guadacanal and Midway.” How can we overcome the obsession with race, class and gender in studying military history?
Hanson: I’m afraid an entire generation must pass first. Those who came of age in the university in the 1960s and 1970s — now department chairmen, deans, senior theses advisors, scholarly associations’ presidents, etc — wanted this revolution of easy arm-chair therapeutic moralizing and self-appointed censure of perceive contemporary sins, got it, turned off the students, forfeited hard-won standards, and lost their public readership — and now must suffer the consequences of irrelevancy for a generation. It is not an accident that a David McCullough or John Keegan or Martin Gilbert now writes outside the campus. Vibrant military history has gone on despite, or perhaps even because of the failure of the academia.
Leo: How can we convince academics and students that it’s important to study how wars began, how they were won and lost, and how they shaped our world?
Hanson: I think many genres have stepped up to fill the vacuum.
Television — such as the History or Discovery Channels — mirabile dictu has helped. Dozens of magazines now discuss individual wars. Our politicians should likewise relate military history, both the science of writing it and the facts and lessons of studying it.
Hollywood — whether Saving Private Ryan or the 300 — is doing better here than in its other genres, and being rewarded accordingly with an audience. Our military has regained public stature and soldiers enjoy a far higher reputation than politicians, journalists, and professors. War is an innate human phenomenon; it won’t disappear or be legislated out of existence — nor will the fascination with it. So we can either fail miserably to ignore it, or wish or dictate it gone — or study it to prevent it, in the frightening centuries to come, from ending us all.
©2007 Victor Davis Hanson