Why Should We Study War?

Military history tells the story of human nature at its great heights and terrible lows.

by Bruce S. Thornton // Defining Ideas 

In the latter years of World War I, Winston Churchill met with the novelist and poet Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon was a winner of the Military Cross––he single-handedly routed 60 Germans and captured a trench on the Hindenburg Line––and a fierce pacifist. Sassoon’s reminiscences of that meeting reveal how odd my title question would have struck most people before our time. He recalled that during their conversation, Churchill “gave me an emphatic vindication of militarism as an instrument of policy and stimulator of glorious individual achievements.”

After Sassoon left, he wondered, “Had he been entirely serious . . . when he said that ‘war is the normal occupation of man’? [I]t had been unmistakable that for him war was the finest activity on earth.” Churchill, remember, had served under fire in India, Sudan, Cuba, and South Africa even before his service in the trenches, so his comments were not the braggadocio of the armchair militarist unfamiliar with the horrors of war.

Many of us moderns, of course, find Sassoon’s beliefs, expressed in his poems and novels, about the futility and misery of war more attractive than Churchill’s idealization of it, and consider such enthusiasm untoward, if not sinister. Such attitudes have made war a disreputable topic of study. Once vigorous in the academy, military history programs are rarely found at universities and colleges today, even as  “peace studies” programs have proliferated. Reasons for this change are not hard to find. America’s historically unprecedented military power, its enormous wealth, and since 1865 its freedom from battle on its own soil and from foreign invasion have all insulated Americans from war, and enabled the perception that rather than a foundational and ennobling experience of humanity, war is an unnatural anomaly, a species of barbarism from our benighted past, and hence an unsavory topic of formal study, even as it remains a lucrative (and, to many people, low-brow) subject for books, movies, cable television channels, and video games.

In contrast to the modern disdain for studying war, most people before the twentieth century would have found Churchill’s comments unexceptional, indeed banal, and they would have considered self-evident the answer to the question raised in this essay’s title. The ancient Greeks were one of the most civilized, artistic, and cultured peoples in history. But they never questioned the eternal necessity of war. “War is the father of all,” Heraclitus said of the original “creative destruction.”  Plato in the Laws has Cleinias say, “Peace is only a name; in reality every city is in a natural state of war with every other.” The arch-realist Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War has an Athenian ambassador tell the Spartans that states fight one another because of the constants of human nature such as fear, honor, and self-interest, and invoke higher ideals such as “justice” only when they cannot achieve their aims by force.

All these Greeks agree with Churchill that war is a non-negotiable necessity and a legitimate “instrument of policy,” given the realities of human nature and its perennial passions and interests. In a harsh world of limited resources and violent men, war is as critical for the survival of civilization as agriculture, and as such, it would be as great a folly not to study war, as it would be to ignore the craft and skills of farming.

So too with Churchill’s praise of war as the “stimulator of glorious individual achievements.” From the beginnings of Western literature in Homer’s Iliad, and of history in Herodotus’ Histories, the glorious deeds of warriors, their bravery and self-sacrifice for honor and community, have been celebrated and admired. Who can forget the doomed valor of Hector, when despite knowing he is fated to die at the hands of Achilles, says before his last charge, “But now my death is upon me. Let me at least not die without a struggle, inglorious, but do some big thing first, that men to come shall know of it”?

And even today, in an age of historical amnesia, the last stand of the vastly outnumbered Thespians and Spartans at Thermopylae is still remembered, when, as Herodotus writes, the Greeks, their spears and swords shattered, “defended themselves with knives, if they still had them, and otherwise with their hands and teeth, while the Persians buried them in a hail of missiles.”

Those before us knew that for all its horrors and misery––which our ancestors acknowledged as much as its glories––war is when the best that men are capable of is manifested, and great deeds worthy of memory are achieved. And they understood as well that the commemoration of these deeds by men “who knew their duty and had the courage to do it,” as Pericles said of his fellow Athenians, creates models of virtue and honor for subsequent generations to study and emulate. Only in that way can a civilization survive in a world of limited resources and ruthless aggressors.

Churchill’s comments, then, suggest two reasons for the study of war, one practical, and the other philosophical. If war is an unavoidable and necessary instrument of statecraft, then we should study the origins, conduct, successes, and failures of wars in order to find, as the Roman historian Livy describes the purpose of history, “what to imitate,” and to “mark for avoidance what is shameful in the conception and shameful in the result.” This need is particularly pressing in a democracy, where the military is subordinated to the civilian government, and the voters have the responsibility to debate and deliberate policies, and to choose leaders whose charge is to serve the security and interests of the citizens both in the short and in the long term.

Two historical examples, one ancient, one modern, illustrate the importance of military history for teaching the lessons of the past. In 415 B.C., over ten years into the war against Sparta, the democratic Assembly of Athens voted to send an expeditionary force 800 miles to attack the rich and powerful city of Syracuse. In Thucydides’ telling, this decision was based neither on short-term nor on long-term strategic national interests and security, but on the promise of an expanded empire and the greater revenues that would be available to the citizens through the tribute of subject states.

The charismatic and ambitious Alcibiades was a prime mover of the expedition. He dangled the lure of greater empire, telling the Assembly, “We shall either become masters, as we very easily may, of the whole of Hellas [Greece], or in any case ruin the Syracusans, to the no small advantage of ourselves and our allies.” As for the Assemblymen, Thucydides writes, “The idea of the common people and the soldiery was to earn wages at the moment [the treasury increased the pay for rowers, and the commanders of the ships promised bonuses as well], and make conquests that would supply a never-ending fund of pay for the future.” The expedition sailed, and became one of the most famous military disasters in history. The Athenians lost 6000 men and 200 ships, the whole expeditionary force and a relief fleet as well.

This disaster offers many lessons. First, dispassionate knowledge of the enemy and the logistics of war are critical for success. According to Thucydides, the Athenians were “ignorant of [Sicily’s] size and of the number of its inhabitants, Hellenic and barbarian, and of the fact that they were undertaking a war not much inferior to that against the Peloponnesians.” Thus the Athenians woefully underestimated the power and resources of the Syracusans and the dangers of resupply and relief when 800 miles from home, both factors in the ultimate debacle. Next, parochial self-interest, the selfish desire for personal wealth and glory rather than the safety and well being of the state as a whole, are dangerous motives for undertaking a war, as they obscure the limits and obstacles a more sober consideration might reveal.

Finally, politicians like an Alcibiades––who according to Thucydides was “exceedingly ambitious of a command by which he hoped to reduce Sicily and Carthage, and personally to gain in wealth and reputation by means of his success”­­––will end up sacrificing the state as a whole in order to further their own ambitions. These are all dangers that the citizens should beware when contemplating the use of force to pursue policy, and when deliberating and evaluating the aims which war will achieve.

The modern lesson comes from the origins of World War II. As Winston Churchill said in his famous “Sinews of Peace” speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946, “There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe. It could have been prevented in my belief without the firing of a single shot.” Churchill was referring to the period before 1935, when Germany’s serial violations of the Versailles treaty, particularly its clandestine programs for rebuilding its army and armaments industry, were met with indifference or appeasement. But even later, timely military action could have stopped Nazi Germany at a fraction of the 50 million dead World War II cost.

In 1936, Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland, the territory between the French border and the Rhine River, in violation of the Versailles treaty. His 36,000 policemen and green army recruits faced nearly 100 French and Belgian divisions, who did not fire a shot. Later Hitler would admit that the Germans would have had to “withdraw with our tails between our legs” had the French resisted. Two years later, England and France abandoned their ally Czechoslovakia, and Germany absorbed this strategically critical country. Yet if England and France had fought back with force, an outnumbered Germany would have been defeated, as Poland and the Soviet Union would likely have followed their ally France’s lead. A French advance east from the Maginot Line would have opened a second front and overwhelmed Germany’s manpower and materiel. As historian Williamson Murray writes, “Germany would have faced overwhelming Allied superiority . . . The results would have been inevitable and would have led to the eventual collapse of the Nazi regime at considerably less cost” than the butcher’s bill of World War II.

Once Hitler’s ambitions became obvious even to the appeasers after the debacle of Munich, the French and British announced that they would protect Poland’s territorial integrity should Germany invade. But this was the wrong place and time to draw that particular red line. The occupation of Czechoslovakia had strengthened Germany and put the Wehrmacht on the southern border of Poland, beyond the state-of-the-art fortifications the Czechs had built in their mountainous western region. And Germany now possessed the military hardware of the Czechs and the Skoda works, one of the largest arms manufacturers in Europe. In fact, the Panzer 35(t) and 38(t) tanks used in the invasion of Poland were actually Czech tanks produced by Skoda. Given Germany’s advantages, there simply was not much England and France could do militarily to help the Poles, which explains the 8 months of “phony war” marked by the Allies’ inaction after Hitler invaded Poland.

The lesson we should learn from this sorry history is that preemptive war is a necessity when facing a determined aggressor, and that the time and place of a potential conflict, and the capacity to wage war until its successful conclusion, must be carefully considered and prepared for when making treaty commitments and pledging the nation’s blood and treasure. This means that often a nation cannot merely wait to react to aggression, but must anticipate where the blow will fall.

To use the simile of the great fourth-century Greek orator Demosthenes, when he chastised the Athenians for serially failing to react to Philip of Macedon’s aggression, a nation must not deal with an aggressor the way a barbarian boxes: “The barbarian,” Demosthenes said, “when struck, always clutches the place; hit him on the other side and there go his hands. He neither knows nor cares how to parry a blow or how to watch his adversary.” Given that Hitler had 13 years earlier laid out his plan of conquest in Mein Kampf, the Allies should have anticipated the sequence of aggression that would culminate in the attack on Poland, and resisted the Germans in 1936 in the Rhineland, or in 1938 in Austria or Czechoslovakia.

The larger lesson, however, of this “low dishonest decade,” as W.H. Auden called the thirties, is that success in war depends on morale, not material superiority. Long before 1938, England and France had lost their nerve, and simply did not have the will to fight. Instead they had bought into the illusions of internationalism and collective security, pacifism and disarmament, which had merely fed the alligator of Nazism, to paraphrase Churchill, in the vain hope that they would be eaten last. And this brings us to the philosophical lessons the study of war teaches. Contrary to our modern therapeutic utopianism, the history of war shows us the unchanging, tragic reality of human nature and its irrational passions and interests that will spark state aggression and violence.

The modern world, in contrast, rejects the notion that human nature comprises destructive passions and selfish interests that will start wars only force can stop. On the contrary, to the modern optimist, humans are universally rational and peace loving, if only the external, warping constraints on these qualities––ignorance, poverty, parochial ethnic and nationalist loyalties, the oppression of priestly and aristocratic elites––can be removed. Then people will progress to the realization that their true interests like peace, freedom, and prosperity will be achieved not by force but by international trade, economic development, democracy, and non-lethal transnational institutions that can adjudicate conflict and eliminate the scourge of war.

This influential belief was famously expressed by Immanuel Kant in his 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace.” In it Kant imagined a “federation of free states” that would create a “pacific alliance . . . different from a treaty of peace . . . inasmuch as it would forever terminate all wars, whereas the latter only finishes one.” In his conclusion, Kant expressed the optimism that would become an article of faith in subsequent centuries: “If it is a duty, if the hope can even be conceived, of realizing, though by an endless progress, the reign of public right––perpetual peace, which will succeed to the suspension of hostilities, hitherto named treaties of peace, is not then a chimera, but a problem, of which time, probably abridged by the uniformity of the progress of the human mind, promises us the solution.”

Throughout the nineteenth century international institutions were created to realize this dream and lessen, if not eliminate, the savagery and suffering of war. The First Geneva Convention in 1864 and the Second in 1906 sought to establish laws for the humane treatment of the sick and wounded in war. The first Hague Convention in 1899 established an international Court of Arbitration and codified restrictions on aerial bombardment, poison gas, and exploding bullets.  The preamble to the first Hague Convention explicitly acknowledged its Kantian aims: “the maintenance of the general peace” and the “friendly settlement of international disputes” that both reflected the “solidarity which unites the members of the society of civilized nations” and their shared desire for “extending the empire of law, and of strengthening the appreciation of international justice.” One wonders how such optimism made sense of the Franco-Prussian War three decades earlier, when two of the world’s most “civilized nations” suffered nearly a million casualties, including 170,000 dead.

Even after the industrialized carnage of World War I showed international solidarity and universal progress to be a fantasy, the Versailles treaty established the League of Nations, the transnational institution intended to realize Kant’s dream of a “federation of free states” that would keep the peace and promote global progress. But within a few years the League had been exposed as ineffective, since the same sovereign nations that had fought each other so brutally in the war continued to pursue their zero-sum interests, frequently with force. No more effective has been the United Nations, a “cockpit in the Tower of Babel,” as Churchill feared it might become, that also has failed at its foundational goal of maintaining peace, becoming instead an instrument of the member-states’ nationalist interests, one that frequently supplements and abets, rather than controls or limits state violence.

Familiarity with the history of war should disabuse people of these Kantian illusions. Studying the causes and nature of armed conflict reveals that technological progress, better education and nutrition, global trade, and increased prosperity has not eliminated or reduced wars, but often made them more brutal and destructive. Military history teaches us that war is not a distortion of a peace-loving human nature that not yet has sufficiently progressed beyond such savage barbarism, but rather is a reflection of a flawed human nature, and the necessary instrument for states to protect their security and pursue their interests, whether these are rational and good, or irrational and evil. The study of war, in short, can remind us of the tragic wisdom evident on every page of history: that humans are fallen creatures prone to destructive violence that only righteous violence can check.

The lessons we can learn from studying war, of course, are more numerous than the few discussed here. Our judgment of any war, whether of its origins or its conduct, must be based on the record of history rather than the utopian fantasies of a world that will never exist. From the standard of history, in any conflict we should always expect mistakes, unforeseen consequences, civilian casualties, deaths from friendly fire, barbarism, and cruelty. All of these contingencies can be found in every war, including the so-called “good war,” World War II, from the Market Garden disaster in September 1944 that cost the Allies 16,000 casualties, to the harvesting of gold teeth from the Japanese dead in the South Pacific. These evils are the costs of using violence to defend our security and interests, and should be expected, though never condoned, the moment the decision to go to war has been made.

We also should expect­­––particularly in constitutional states where citizens are responsible for the decision to go to war––impatience, second-guessing, and frustration with these unfortunately perennial evils of armed conflict. And we should not be surprised when the citizens want to punish the politicians and leaders who started and managed the war. After news of the disaster in Sicily reached Athens, Thucydides writes, the people “were angry with the orators who had joined in promoting the expedition, just as if they had not themselves voted it.” We recently experienced the same phenomenon during the Iraq war in 2004, when many of the same Senators who had voted to invade Iraq year earlier, a decision based on the same intelligence the Bush administration had studied, responded to growing criticism of the war by turning against it and attacking the president.

Leon Trotsky allegedly said, “You may not believe in war, but war believes in you.” Though likely a mistranslation, the sentiment is still valuable. War and its horrors will always be with us, along with its unavoidable suffering and cruelty, “such as have occurred and always will occur as long as the nature of mankind remains the same,” as Thucydides writes. And as long as we cherish our way of life, with its freedom and human rights, its prosperity and its opportunity, we will at times have to make the awful decision to send our citizens to fight, kill, and die to defend those goods from those who want to destroy them. The more we know about war, the better equipped we will be to make that choice and see our efforts succeed.

This essay is based on a speech delivered at Hillsdale College. 

Bruce S. Thornton is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He received his BA in Latin in 1975 and his PhD in comparative literature–Greek, Latin, and English–in 1983, both from the University of California, Los Angeles. Thornton is currently a professor of classics and humanities at California State University in Fresno, California. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays and reviews on Greek culture and civilization and their influence on Western civilization. His latest book, published in March 2011, is titled The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama’s America.

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