“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you,” is a quote attributed (apparently incorrectly?) to Leon Trotsky.
Whether or not he actually said it, it seems true.
And getting truer all the time—at least the first half of it, rephrased as “You may not be interested in the study of war…” The insightful and articulate Victor Davis Hanson has written an insightful and articulate article on the subject that I recommend reading in its entirety.
Hanson’s thesis is that modern post-Vietnam-war education has virtually ignored the study of military history, once considered a necessary part of a liberal education that emphasized ancient military history and classical history in general. This has had enormous and dire consequences (a point I’ve made, as well; see this).
Hanson writes about the effect of ignorance of military history:
…by ignoring history, the modern age is free to interpret war as a failure of communication, of diplomacy, of talking—as if aggressors don’t know exactly what they’re doing.
I used to joke, back when I was in high school, that history was easier for earlier generations because there was less of it to learn. But what did I know? History is always being added to, of course. But there’s plenty to go around, and earlier generations concentrated in depth on different aspects of history.
One change that’s readily apparent is the shrinking of the importance of what used to be the center of Western education, classical history. It’s no accident that Hanson writes about this; his interest in warfare comes not only because he has been a military historian, but from his earlier background as a classics scholar.
In 1998, before he became a well-known post-9/11 essayist, Hanson was already concerned about the demise of classical education, with its grounding in what used to be known as “ancient history”—that is, the story of the Greeks and the Romans.
When I was growing up we got some exposure to these basics. But it was perfunctory, and no one even seemed to try to integrate that knowledge in a way that would make it relevant to our lives. Perhaps that’s an inherently hard sell, especially to teenagers.
But I remember finding, during rainy-day explorations of our musty attic (trunks of old clothes, old love letters, old clippings), amidst the wristlet dance cards (dance cards? what’s a dance card?) and the paisley shawls and beaded bags, my mother’s history notes.
My mother had been a history major during the early ’30s, and she had saved all her notes, which she took on yellow legal-sized pads, in a cramped and spidery hand that managed to fit an extraordinary amount of information on a single page (she said it facilitated studying, since she seemed to remember things visually, as I do).
Most of it was about classical history. Things I’ve never heard of and never will, details of names and dates and concepts. She’d had to learn Latin in high school, as well, because it was required, although by the time I got there that was no longer true.
It used to be the mark of a literate person to know such things, and references made to ancient history were assumed to be understood by all who had had even a high school education and certainly a college one. Now, of course, such historical references usually have to be explained.
What was the point of all this study of the ancients? Well, as Wiki puts it in its entry on “classical education,” classical education is not only an education in the classics of Greece and Rome, it’s an education according to a system set up in ancient times by the Greeks and Romans, with an emphasis on history itself as the key to nearly everything:
History was always taught to provide a context, and show political and military development. The classic texts were from ancient authors such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Cicero and Tacitus.
…In modern terms, these fields might be called history, natural science, accounting and business, fine arts (at least two, one to amuse companions, and another to decorate one’s domicile), military strategy and tactics, engineering, agronomy, and architecture.
Notice the importance of military history, as Hanson points out. But these things were not taught because it was so important to know the dates and names. There was a loftier goal:
These are taught in a matrix of history, reviewing the natural development of each field for each phase of the trivium. That is, in a perfect classical education, the historical study is reviewed three times: first to learn the grammar (the concepts, terms and skills in the order developed), next time the logic (how these elements could be assembled), and finally the rhetoric, how to produce good, humanly useful and beautiful objects that satisfy the grammar and logic of the field.
History is the unifying conceptual framework, because history is the study of everything that has occurred before the present. A skillful teacher also uses the historical context to show how each stage of development naturally poses questions and then how advances answer them, helping to understand human motives and activity in each field.
I leave it up to you to determine whether your own history classes, or those of your children, come up to this standard. I’m not so sure that older history courses—those my mother took, for example—met it all that often, either, human beings being what they are. But that was the goal, and it was both laudable and designed to create a citizenry that could make informed decisions based on knowledge rather than airy speculation.
The generation that came of age in the 60s (mea culpa, I plead guilty to being a card-carrying member) believed itself to be free of history and its depressing lessons; we could reinvent the world in a way that would usher in a new and far more wonderful age than had ever dawned before. But I learned even in college that we were not unique at all, that history had the strange propensity of cyclically repeating itself with slight changes that could make it hard to recognize the fact that it was happening, especially if one was ignorant of history. And even in my generation’s sense of uniqueness and special purpose to create a golden future superior to the past, we were showing just how repetitive we were being.
And how ignorant of that past. Would a classical education have helped? Probably. But that was one of the things we wanted to throw away with the bath water.
War is another thing everyone would like to throw away. After all, as Hanson writes (quoting as British strategist Basil H. Liddell Hart): “War is always a matter of doing evil in the hope that good may come of it.”
To understand this is to understand the way human beings function. To understand the way human beings function, one cannot ignore the past. History may be a nightmare from which we (along with James Joyce), are trying to awake, but any awakening that could possibly happen cannot come from turning away from the study of history, but turning towards it.
Like it or not, the history of Western culture and Western civilization is founded on its beginnings in Greek civilization, and in their military history as well. There is much we can still learn—and need to learn—from it. Hanson understands this; the study of military history can help answer the following vital questions:
Why do wars break out? How do they end? Why do the winners win and the losers lose? How best to avoid wars or contain their worst effects?
The entire issue of classical history and military history dovetails—strangely enough—with one of the major concerns of therapists as well, and that is the understanding of human nature and its lessons for future action. It’s a topic that can hardly be studied in a vacuum, moral or otherwise. You might say that one of the main goals of therapy is to help the client understand the patterns of his/her own personal history and how this knowledge can inform his/her future. The same is true for learning any history; in focusing on the past we are trying to learn the best way to affect the future.
I’ll let Hanson have the last word on the subject:
We must abandon the naive faith that with enough money, education, or good intentions we can change the nature of mankind so that conflict, as if by fiat, becomes a thing of the past. In the end, the study of war reminds us that we will never be gods. We will always just be men, it tells us. Some men will always prefer war to peace; and other men, we who have learned from the past, have a moral obligation to stop them.
[NOTE: The title of this post refers to the lyrics of this song.]