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.

Nearer our own day there is Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Memoirs, largely a recollection of Civil War battles, which Mark Twain, Edmund Wilson, and Gertrude Stein considered to be among the handful of books crucial to understanding American civilization. And those present-day books that have best bridged the gap between academia and best-sellerdom often concentrate on military history: the works of Shelby Foote, Stephen Ambrose, John Keegan, Paul Fussell Jr., and Paul Kennedy, for example. Serious television, both public and cable, has demonstrated a large appetite for documentaries about past wars. A recent scan of the Borders bookstore in Ann Arbor, near the University of Michigan, showed a section on military history as large as the one on Western philosophy, and larger than the sections on Asia, Africa, and the Middle East combined.

University military-history courses are today frequently oversubscribed. Of course, part of the reason is that relatively few such courses are offered. At a time when the social sciences have been increasingly politicized, military history has few supporters within the academy. Of the 180 sessions and events listed in the program of the most recent convention of the Organization of American Historians, only a few dealt with military history, whereas a third covered race, class, ethnicity, or gender. Dennis Showalter, a military-history professor at Colorado College and the president of the Society for Military History, told me not long ago, "War has been until recently a gendered activity, involving men, so it is a field in which new female academics have little interest. War is also about sacrifice and heroism, of the kind glorified from the Trojan War through the Second World War, which many academics do not hold in high esteem." Left-leaning academics see military historians as warmongers; conservatives, preoccupied with saving Western-civilization courses and unhappy with some military histories of Vietnam, have not truly come to the discipline's defense.

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And yet military history will never diminish in relevance. It comes closest of all the liberal arts to being a hard science. And its reach is broad. No other branch of the humanities bestows its highest honors on generalists who have the ability to educate a wide audience. Take The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865, a recent book by a young assistant professor at Ohio State, Mark Grimsley, which military historians praise. Written with as much skill as the best general-interest books, it offers a scholarly account of how Lincoln brought the war to southern civilians by stages, yet never to the extent suffered by civilians in European wars. What stands out is the author's effort to weave world history and culture into a study of just one aspect of the Civil War. Although teaching positions in military history are scarce, Grimsley's and other books show that thinking and writing in the field have rarely been healthier. This is partly because military historians, to a much greater degree than others in the liberal arts, have real clients: the military and diplomatic communities, which demand clear, nonacademic prose.

At a time when the humanities are perceived as the domain of lackluster academicians, and as being increasingly abstruse and irrelevant, it is odd that college presidents and search committees do not try to bolster the one liberal art that embodies the scientific and analytical rigors demanded by a corporate, entrepreneurial age.

Robert D. Kaplan is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book is

Illustration by David McLimans.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; Four-Star Generalists - 99.10; Volume 284, No. 4; page 18-20.