While the academic study of military history is in a state of sickness unto death in the academy, it lives because of its popularity with the American people. In his terrific essay “Why study war,” Victor Davis Hanson observes:
The university’s aversion to the study of war certainly doesn’t reflect public lack of interest in the subject. Students love old-fashioned war classes on those rare occasions when they’re offered, usually as courses that professors sneak in when the choice of what to teach is left up to them. I taught a number of such classes at California State University, Stanford, and elsewhere. They’d invariably wind up overenrolled, with hordes of students lingering after office hours to offer opinions on the battles of Marathon and Lepanto.
Popular culture, too, displays extraordinary enthusiasm for all things military. There’s a new Military History Channel, and Hollywood churns out a steady supply of blockbuster war movies, from Saving Private Ryan to 300. The post-Ken Burns explosion of interest in the Civil War continues. Historical reenactment societies stage history’s great battles, from the Roman legions’ to the Wehrmacht’s. Barnes and Noble and Borders bookstores boast well-stocked military history sections, with scores of new titles every month. A plethora of websites obsess over strategy and tactics. Hit video games grow ever more realistic in their reconstructions of battles….The importance—and challenge—of the academic study of war is to elevate that popular enthusiasm into a more capacious and serious understanding, one that seeks answers to such questions as: 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 essay recently posted at JWR was originally published in the Summer 2007 number of City Journal. Like Thomas Sowell’s popular Christmas columns, the essay comes both at JWR and at City Journal with VDH’s recommended reading for the study of military history. VDH recommends (titles in bold):
While Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, a chronicle of the three-decade war between Athens and Sparta, establishes the genre of military history, the best place to begin studying war is with the soldiers’ stories themselves. E. B. Sledge’s memoir of Okinawa, With the Old Breed, is nightmarish, but it reminds us that war, while it often translates to rot, filth, and carnage, can also be in the service of a noble cause. Elmer Bendiner’s tragic retelling of the annihilation of B-17s over Germany, The Fall of Fortresses: A Personal Account of the Most Daring, and Deadly, American Air Battles of World War II, is an unrecognized classic.
From a different wartime perspective—that of the generals—U. S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs is justly celebrated as a model of prose. Yet the nearly contemporaneous Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman is far more analytical in its dissection of the human follies and pretensions that lead to war. Likewise, George S. Patton’s War As I Knew It is not only a compilation of the eccentric general’s diary entries but also a candid assessment of human nature itself.
Fiction often captures the experience of war as effectively as memoir, beginning with Homer’s Iliad, in which Achilles confronts the paradox that rewards do not always go to the most deserving in war. The three most famous novels about the futility of conflict are The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, and August 1914, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. No work has better insights on the folly of war, however, than Euripides’ Trojan Women.
Although many contemporary critics find it passé to document landmark battles in history, one can find a storehouse of information in The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, by Edward S. Creasy, and A Military History of the Western World, by J. F. C. Fuller. Hans Delbrück’s History of the Art of War and Russell F. Weigley’s The Age of Battles center their sweeping histories on decisive engagements, using battles like Marathon and Waterloo as tools to illustrate larger social, political, and cultural values. A sense of high drama permeates William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru, while tragedy more often characterizes Steven Runciman’s spellbinding short account The Fall of Constantinople 1453 and Donald Morris’s massive The Washing of the Spears, about the rise and fall of the Zulu Empire. The most comprehensive and accessible one-volume treatment of history’s most destructive war remains Gerhard L. Weinberg’s A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II.
Relevant histories for our current struggle with Middle East terrorism are Alistair Horne’s superb A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962, Michael Oren’s Six Days of War, and Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down. Anything John Keegan writes is worth reading; The Face of Battle remains the most impressive general military history of the last 50 years.
Biography too often winds up ignored in the study of war. Plutarch’s lives of Pericles, Alcibiades, Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Alexander the Great established the traditional view of these great captains as men of action, while weighing their record of near-superhuman achievement against their megalomania. Elizabeth Longford’s Wellington is a classic study of England’s greatest soldier. Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command, by Douglas Southall Freeman, has been slighted recently but is spellbinding.
If, as Carl von Clausewitz believed, “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” then study of civilian wartime leadership is critical. The classic scholarly account of the proper relationship between the military and its overseers is still Samuel P. Huntington’s The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. For a contemporary J’accuse of American military leadership during the Vietnam War, see H. R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam.
Eliot A. Cohen’s Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime is purportedly a favorite read of President Bush’s. It argues that successful leaders like Ben-Gurion, Churchill, Clemenceau, and Lincoln kept a tight rein on their generals and never confused officers’ esoteric military expertise with either political sense or strategic resolution.
In The Mask of Command, Keegan examines the military competence of Alexander the Great, Wellington, Grant, and Hitler, and comes down on the side of the two who fought under consensual government. In The Soul of Battle, I took that argument further and suggested that three of the most audacious generals—Epaminondas, Sherman, and Patton—were also keen political thinkers, with strategic insight into what made their democratic armies so formidable.
How politicians lose wars is also of interest. See especially Ian Kershaw’s biography Hitler, 1936–1945: Nemesis. Mark Moyar’s first volume of a proposed two-volume reexamination of Vietnam, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965, is akin to reading Euripides’ tales of self-inflicted woe and missed chances. Horne has written a half-dozen classics, none more engrossing than his tragic To Lose a Battle: France 1940.
Few historians can weave military narrative into the contemporary political and cultural landscape. James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom does, and his volume began the recent renaissance of Civil War history. Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August describes the first month of World War I in riveting but excruciatingly sad detail. Two volumes by David McCullough, Truman and 1776, give fascinating inside accounts of the political will necessary to continue wars amid domestic depression and bad news from the front. So does Martin Gilbert’s Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour, 1939–1941. Donald Kagan’s On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace warns against the dangers of appeasement, especially the lethal combination of tough rhetoric with no military preparedness, in a survey of wars from ancient Greece to the Cuban missile crisis. Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation reminds Americans that their idealism (if not self-righteousness) is nothing new but rather helps explain more than two centuries of both wise and ill-considered intervention abroad.
Any survey on military history should conclude with more abstract lessons about war. Principles of War by Clausewitz remains the cornerstone of the science. Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Art of War blends realism with classical military detail. Two indispensable works, War: Ends and Means, by Angelo Codevilla and Paul Seabury, and Makers of Modern Strategy, edited by Peter Paret, provide refreshingly honest accounts of the timeless rules and nature of war.
While we all have our favorites, it’s good to have VDH’s list with which to pursue our interests and continue our studies.