Last week, Australia and New Zealand celebrated the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign, one of the bloodiest episodes of the First World War. During Block 8, Dennis Showalter teaches his popular class on World War II. Walk into any bookstore, and you will find numerous works on military history.
In spite of all this, the study of warfare is strikingly absent from academia. Edward Coffman, a retired professor of military history, evaluated the faculties of the top 25 history departments in the country. Out of 1,000 professors, only 21 identified war as a specialty. At Colorado College, only one faculty member of the history department specializes in military history. War is also noticeably absent from high school AP history courses. When war is taught, classes tend to focus on non-military aspects. A class on World War II might discuss the effect of the war on American women, while downplaying Stalingrad or Normandy.
In the wake of the Vietnam War, universities decided that war was a taboo subject that should not be discussed, a sentiment that has grown stronger after Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, academia has decided to treat war the way religious conservatives treat teen sex: if we don’t talk about it then it will somehow go away.
Like teen sex, war won’t simply go away. As shown above, the public has not lost its interest in war. Unfortunately, war is a natural part of humanity. The vast majority of societies in history, from small pre-state tribes to powerful nation-states, have engaged in warfare. Even chimpanzees and ants engage in war. Similar to how abstinence-only sex education leads to more teen pregnancies and STDs, refusing to study war only makes war bloodier.
Academia’s post-Vietnam disdain of war studies did nothing to stop the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. If anything, the United States simply went into both wars unprepared, and it showed in the numerous mistakes (invading with too few troops, fighting two wars simultaneously, failing to implement a proper counterinsurgency from the outset, the lack of a grand strategy, etc.) that could have been avoided with a proper understanding of war. If Donald Rumsfeld or Tommy Franks had a better knowledge of war, perhaps thousands of American, Afghan, and Iraqi lives could have been saved.
In contrast, when war is properly understood, it results in fewer lives lost. For example, the disastrous landing at Gallipoli provided generals and military strategists with important lessons about how to conduct amphibious assault. By studying these lessons, Allied commanders in World War II were able to ensure that amphibious landings like D-Day would be successful and result in far fewer deaths. The best way to limit the worst effects of war is not through rules like the Geneva Conventions, which armies may or may not decide to follow, but rather through a quick and decisive victory, which requires extensive knowledge of warfare.
Understanding war can prevent war in the first place. The poet Margaret Atwood wrote, “Wars happen because the ones who start them think they can win.” Knowledge of war can be used to persuade one’s own leaders that war is unwise or to deter one’s opponents. For example, the Chinese philosopher Mozi used his military genius to dissuade numerous rulers from going to war during the Warring States period.
Furthermore, war is not always the ultimate evil. The Holocaust, American chattel slavery, Japanese Imperialism, and the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides were all ended through war. “War is always a matter of doing evil in the hope that good may come of it,” said the British strategist B.H. Liddell-Hart. If war can be a worthwhile endeavor, then it can also be a worthwhile field of study.
Why not just leave these lessons to the military? Certainly cadets at West Point must understand war, but it is less clear as to why ordinary civilians must be knowledgeable of military matters. The answer is that every citizen must have at least a basic knowledge of warfare in a country that has democratically-elected leaders and civilian control of the military. The American people vote for the president and the president is the Commander-in-Chief. When voters go to the ballots in 2016 they will be deciding who will exercise the highest level of control over America’s military policies. In the same way that ordinary citizens, not just economists and businessmen, must be knowledgeable of economic matters in order to elect leaders who will be good for the economy, ordinary citizens must be knowledgeable of war in order to elect leaders who understand war.
While not every president is a wartime leader and not every election takes place during a war, the role as Commander-in-Chief is nonetheless an important one that must always be considered. No one could foresee World War II would happen when Franklin D. Roosevelt was first elected in 1932. Iraq and Afghanistan received no mention in the 2000 election, yet they dominated Bush’s presidency.
Furthermore, the study of war has many non-military applications. Business, politics, sports, and virtually all other areas of competition have similarities to warfare. Many Japanese companies require their executives to read “The Art of War,” while sports coaches like Bill Belichick and Luiz Felipe Scolari are also known to have turned to Sun Tzu for guidance. The lessons of “The Art of War” have even been applied to dating. Although originally developed for aerial dogfighting, the OODA Loop theory of military strategist John Boyd has been very influential in litigation. Even Gandhi described his approach as “nonviolent warfare.”
Trotsky once said, “You might not be interested in war, but war is interested in war.” Academia has lost in interest in war but war has not lost its interest in us. If America continues to have a militarily illiterate populace then it will continue to stumble from one military blunder to another. In order to avoid more disastrous conflicts, war must no longer be treated as a taboo field of study.