Four-Star Generalists

Military history pierces the philosophical fog that often surrounds the other humanities.

THE war in Kosovo elicited questions and realizations that went far beyond the air campaign and the Balkan politics associated with it. What constitutes a "just" war? Assuming we had the choice, for instance, wouldn't it be more defensible morally to assassinate the evil ruler of a country than to kill civilians at a distance of 15,000 feet? The ancients would have considered it just to capture the Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic, and parade him down the streets of Rome in a cage for the gawking populace. But to kill from such a distance would have been considered cowardly, and perhaps even unjust. Look at the moral distance Germany has traveled: upon arrival its ground troops began vigorously protecting people singled out for retribution purely because of their ethnicity. The economics, too, were fascinating. Who knows what kind of subtle economic pressure was put not only on Russia but also on the poorer and more troublesome members of the NATO coalition, Greece and Italy, to keep them from deserting the war effort? The work required to keep Greece and Italy in line by their richer counterparts in the European Union showed that "Europe," whatever its pretensions, is still a Northern European affair, in which the south is bribed and bullied to shut up. And if it's true that all politics is local, think what came clear about Russian internal politics through the prism of the war: sending 200 soldiers to take a deserted airport, where they had to beg for supplies from NATO soldiers, apparently sufficed to shore up Russian pride and to get Communists and neo-fascists off Boris Yeltsin's back. Finally, consider the technological complications of a world more interconnected than it was in previous centuries: shutting off Serbia's electricity completely would have affected our ally Macedonia, which uses the same electricity grids.

Military campaigns, because they are fights for the sheer survival of nations and cultures, offer the most telling insights about the values, technologies, social relations, and intellectual life of historical periods. And because both death and defeat are undeniable, a military historian is forced to pierce the accumulated fog of philosophical abstractions and political agendas that frustrates other historical disciplines. Though rarely regarded as such, military history is as august a field as any in the liberal arts.

The irrelevance of abstractions and the bleak view of human nature fostered by war give classical history its pellucid edge, and perhaps account for a recent resurgence of interest in ancient Greek and Roman authors. In fact, classical literature is overwhelmingly military history. The conduct and aftermath of the Trojan War form the plot of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. The book that gave "history" its name -- Herodotus' The History -- is about the war between Greece and Persia in the fifth century B.C. and its origins. The Peloponnesian War contains Thucydides' surgical insights into human behavior -- for example, after hearing Pericles' funeral oration celebrating virtue, the Athenians' every-man-for-himself reaction to a disease outbreak exposed their lack of virtue. Livy's The War With Hannibal is the first-century Roman historian's most memorable work. (Is there a better introduction to the Mediterranean world of the third century B.C. than Livy's description of Hannibal's army as being composed of mercenaries who often did not understand one another's languages?) There is probably no more penetrating portrait of the difficulty that Jews have had in governing themselves than The Jewish War, by the first-century historian Flavius Josephus, who described a Saturnalian pageant of interfactional bloodletting -- one that any Beirut militiaman today would find familiar -- prior to the Roman conquest of Jewish Jerusalem, in 70 A.D.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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