Why Study War?

“There is the need to study the history of war, in able to understand why our society is what it is, as well as what it might become.”                                                                                                                                          Michael Howard

The study of history as an academic discipline is widely accepted both in academic and social circles,  however when one mentions that their specialism  is  that of ‘Military’  History,  then one risks being branded a war-monger.  Even the author`s mother was exasperated when they learned that their son was studying not history in general, but military  history, exclaiming that, “The war spoilt my childhood”, and that it is best forgotten.  So why should war be studied? 

In this essay the term ‘war’ and ‘military history’ are used in the same context;  as although the term war embraces a societal  component, and military history in the traditional sense applies a top down study of leaders, strategies and equipment, for the purpose of this essay they are deemed to be interchangeable simply because most wars are fought by the military.  As Michael Howard wrote, military history can simply be defined as ‘the history of armed forces and the conduct of war’.

With this statement he intrinsically links the two terms.  In The Causes of Wars, Howard states; with regards to the study of war, ‘some attempt must be made to sort order out of chaos’. Thus, it is that following such historic events, governments and the military commission official histories for a variety of reasons.  One is to make claims for territory lost during previous conflicts, such as those made at the Paris Peace Conference following the First World War.

Governments  also use studies of war to inform the public and to formulate policies, whilst the military, commission official histories so as to analyse how well (or otherwise) the campaigns had been executed.  Individual regiments will  wish to immortalise their role for their regimental histories.  And then there is paying society’s ‘obligations to the dead’; which may itself be subdivided. The question ‘was it all worth it?’ must be answered.  Societies collective grief must be addressed, and to this effect memorials play their part in this obligation, the study of the conflicts that they commemorate often being the stimulus to their erection.  Studying wars also makes possible the  eventual location of people missing in action and their repatriation, with the consummate closure for loved ones.  Studies of war can also identify war crimes and their perpetrators. Finally, war, as Gray so eloquently puts it in his essay, ‘Military history is worthy of study for pure entertainment value alone’.[4]  

Academics throughout history have argued that war should be studied; with  J.C.A. Stagg writing in his essay that, although war had formed one of the ‘mainstays of western historiography’ since Greek times, he believes that the topic had ‘fallen into relative disfavour’ amongst serious historians by the twentieth century, and as such ‘military history today is a subject struggling towards a new sense of definition’. Since the Second World War, Stagg argues, ‘the predominantly political’ approach to the study of history in general has given way to a broader range of social, economic and cultural perspectives;  in essence, Howard’s ‘width, depth and context’ approach. However, as Howard has pointed out, ‘there is a certain fear in academic circles whereby military history is liable to be regarded as the handmaid of militarism, and that its chief use may be propaganda and ‘myth-making’.

One’s personal or local history is a popular  reason to study war, with many amateur historians seeking to discover the part  that their family or local area played in these endeavours. Often the catalyst for this are diary’s or letters found long after the combatant has passed away.  However, these should be read with a knowledge that their author may have been either trying to play up their part in events, or the opposite, in order to reassure loved ones back home.  Family oral history can also be a catalyst for the study of war. F

For example, the author’s mother’s comment that The war had spoilt her childhood was ironically one of the catalysts for their gaining an interest in studying it, intrigued as they were to discover just why it was that their parent felt this way.  Living, as they did in an otherwise quiet fishing town, which overnight became a military base brimming with American soldiers in the build-up to the D-Day invasion of Normandy, one might think that it would be the other extreme.  This is an example of what Black & Macraild describe in their book, ‘Studying History’, as ‘history from below’ ; that is, history that is above all about the working class and its progenitors. As Howard says, there is ‘the need to study the history of war, in able to understand why our society is what it is, as well as what it might become. This view is backed up by Historian John Terraine, in his essay in the same publication, when he says that modern military history ‘is not distinct from social history; it is part of it – (sic) a very important part.’

War and its effects on society is also studied by governments or military establishments, who commission official histories of recent wars; a top down approach if you will.  These studies are made for various reasons beyond that of, as Howard puts it, ‘ creating order out of chaos’. However, official histories can have a hidden agenda, and thus lead to history becoming myth. This in turn can lead to it being abused.  As Canadian historian Margaret Macmillan states in her book, ‘The Uses and Abuses of History’, ‘History provides much of the fuel for nationalism.  It creates the collective memories that help to bring the nation into being’. Macmillan makes much of this in her discussions on how wars have brought together fledgling nations,  in particular the role that the battle of Vimy Ridge played in shaping her own nation.  She discusses how this is in turn used by Canada’s (then) president to justify the country’s involvement in Afghanistan. Macmillan also  discusses in her book, that studies of war by governments are also used as claims for land occupied by other countries throughout history.  According to Macmillan, war and conquest used to be standard ways with which to change national boundaries. Macmillan cites examples including that of when Germany insisted on claiming Alsace and Lorraine from France following the Franco Prussian War of 1870-71.  They discuss the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, where due to the defeat of the Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the disintegration of the Russian Empire, and the state of flux in the Middle East, large swathes of territory were up for grabs by nations.  Inspired by Woodrow Wilson’s talk of ‘self determination’, many claims were made, but  Macmillan argues that not all of these were justified. Still today, Macmillan points out that regions of Europe and the Middle East use history, generated by the study of war to make claims for territory from their neighbours.

This statement is supported by Taylor, when he stated that the First World War had destroyed old empires, whilst bring new states into existence.

In wars such as those fought in the twentieth century, that have involved entire populations, rather than the more limited conflicts of earlier times, these official histories were written as way of explaining why the people’s sacrifice had not been in vain, and to create a common, shared memory.  These official histories of war can form the establishment of policies for future intervention or appeasement, based on historical outcomes.  As Black & Macraild discuss in their book ‘Studying History’, the Munich Agreement (1938) is often cited as a reason for action to be taken rather than appeasement, whereas Britain’s involvement in Suez, and America’s in Vietnam are often used to discourage interventions. Macmillan reiterates this when she states that Robert McNamara spent much of his life ‘trying to come to terms with what went wrong with the American War in Vietnam’; a war in which he played such a pivotal part.  A similar lack of understanding of a region`s history and of its  wars, Macmillan states was identified in the 2008 report by the (UK) Ministry of Defence, which was ‘severely critical of the way in which British Soldiers were prepared to serve in Iraq’. The report, Macmillan states ‘failed to anticipate the differences between Iraq, the Balkans and Northern Ireland, where British forces had gained much of its recent experience’.

An example of using official histories of war to improve tactics, was when part of the British official history of the First World War, by Sir James Edmonds, itself a somewhat controversial set of volumes, was studied by a committee to discover what lessons could be learned, so as to ensure that they were incorporated into the latest military manuals.  According to Macmillan, the French conflict in Algeria (1954-62) is now being studied by the United States military to try to learn lessons that can be adapted to their operations in Iraq. Regarding official war studies by governments, as  Gray  said,  Winston  Churchill wrote, and was in turn influenced by history, whereas Anthony Eden was determined not to follow  the ‘The Appeasers’, by which he would have meant those who gave in to Hitler prior to the Munich Agreement, in his approach to Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser during the Suez Crisis (1956).

The Munich Agreement, as Black & Macraild concur, is used as a warning against inaction as frequently as ‘Suez’ or ‘Vietnam’ are used to discourage intervention.  However, due to their very nature of having been written by historians, official histories can be flawed or biased,  and herein lies a danger for the historian.  As Howard wrote in his essay ‘the use and abuse of military history’, regarding the regimental historian, they must ‘consciously or subconsciously sustain the view that their regiment has been flawlessly brave and efficient, especially during its recent past’. This approach may bolster the morale of individual soldiers in the field, as discussed by Howard, and which he calls ‘nursery history’, but it is not beneficial to the Service in the long term.  A much truer ‘warts and all’ approach to the study of war needs to be taken by the military in order to prepare for the next conflict.  As a Serviceman himself, Gray pointed out that, ‘there is a duty beholden to most servicemen to have some knowledge of military history’.  This is why military training colleges the world over teach the study of war as part of their training packages.

The author himself was examined on the service’s history during their Royal Air Force [RAF] training, and years later they delivered battlefield tours around Fort Eben Emael, Belgium  as part of British Army officers’ study of the advance on the low countries, during May 1940.  The reason for this kind of study, as Gray quotes Howard writing in his essay, is  that, ‘the study  of past conflicts  is one  way in which the  inexperienced practitioner can prepare themselves for the acid test’ (of war). For example,  David Chandler wrote in his essay, that he hoped the planner of the South Atlantic Campaign of 1982 were at least aware of ‘the salient points that could be culled from the experience of other amphibious landings such as Suez, Normandy, Sicily and Gallipoli.’ The author would add the landing at Anzio (1944) to Chandler’s list.

The study of war also helps society remember and pay its respects to its fallen.  As Michael Gambone wrote in his essay ‘Veterans’, ‘the dead finally escaped the need to confront death; it was the living and especially the wounded who had to confront it.’  This poignant quote corroborating what Beverly Southgate described as ‘society’s obligation to the dead’. As discussed in their book, ‘What is History For?’, Southgate states that there lies a duty for society to remember them, and as Southgate argues, we are horrified to realise that people can simply disappear without a trace and, as a society, we  cannot face the thought that all the suffering was for nothing and that it must be seen to have (had) some point.  Southgate continues that it is not the dead who demand they be remembered, but society’s ‘moral imperative’ to remember them; although society has issues deciding just who of the fallen to commemorate.

As veterans of World War One became ever fewer, Macmillan questioned just how countries that were keen to hold state funerals for their last veteran would actually choose them?  She pondered as to what would happen following a state funeral were another veteran to be discovered? But remember them we do; with war memorials playing their part, many of which have become the basis for local history studies, or have been erected following such studies.  For example, the author themselves was instrumental in the erection and dedication of a memorial to the American servicemen stationed in their hometown during World War Two,  that was the result of research into the town`s wartime history.  Another memorial by way of example, is located at the University of Birmingham itself, which remembers  former students that lost their lives during the First World War; this memorial being dedicated in 1922, when some of these men’s lecturers would still have been employed at the University.

 There are 172 names on this memorial, of the 175 men who died.  Further studies of the war may discover why these three men’s names are not listed.  Perhaps they are but a few of the millions of  people who lost their lives in wars across the world, and who`s bodies have as yet not been discovered.  Here can be seen an example of why war should be studied; in this instance, that of society meeting its obligations to the dead in order to locate the missing. By way of illustrating the magnitude of this issue, an article published on the German news website Spiegel Online stated that of the three million German soldiers that died on the Eastern Front during World War Two, ‘the fate of hundreds of thousands remains unknown.’ The  2012 dated  website states that since the end of the Cold War, 716,000 German war dead have been found and reburied. Studying the war on the Eastern Front in order to achieve their aim, the (German) Association for the Recovery of the Fallen in Eastern Europe (VBGO) says on their website, ‘We are not looking for soldiers of the Wehrmacht, the US Army, soldiers of the Red Army or of the Polish Army; not for infantry soldiers, sailors or airmen; not for good or bad. We are looking for people. Fallen soldiers are also victims. Victims of a gruesome war, which they did not cause and had not wanted.’

This  brings us to another reason to study war; that of investigation leading to punishment for war crimes.  As Sean Mc Glynn stated in his essay, ‘What constitutes a war crime has  meant different things to different people in different cultures in different times.’ The fact remains however, that the study of war has often led to both the discovery of these crimes, and the prosecution of the perpetrators. The most widely known war crime trials being those held at Nuremburg following the Second World War, and more recently the trial in the Hague of Slobodan Milošević,  for his part in the massacre at Srebrenica during the Bosnian War. According to Macmillan,  following  the  Second World  War, France had a painful time coming to terms with the issues arising from its collaboration with the Nazis in the area of the country ruled by the Vichy government. This uncomfortable truth and the war crimes perpetrated under the regime, including the deportation of Jews, lay awkwardly with the popular myth of French resistance after the war. Macmillan states that studies of this aspect of the war, from mainly non-French historians,  eventually uncovered the extent to which France had aided in the Holocaust.  Across the world, in China the study of war unearthed the war crimes perpetrated by the Japanese.  One such war crime became known as the ‘Rape of Nanking’,  and was gruesomely portrayed in the 2011 movie, ‘The Flowers of War’.

Herein lies another reason to study war; for its entertainment value alone.  As Gray so eloquently points out in his essay, ‘Why study military history’, there are numerous television channels and specialist book clubs  dedicated to the history of war. Along with this, war walks and re-enactments remain popular. The author was himself once a tour guide at Fort Eben Emael, Belgium, routinely explaining the battle and its significance to multi-national groups of tourists as well as official army tours.  The cinema also plays its part in bringing the history of war to the masses, although movies are often criticised for being historically inaccurate.  As stated by James Chapman in his essay, the cinema has both influenced attitudes to war and also been shaped by it.

An early example of the cinema being used as a medium through which to enable the masses to study war through entertainment was, according to Chapman, the release of the movie ‘The Battle of the Somme’, in 1916. Compiled from actual footage, and according to Chapman, seen by hundreds of thousands of people, this movie was produced to help explain the war to the general public.  Chapman compares this to the 1998 Steven Spielberg movie, ‘Saving Private Ryan’, which whilst being a fictional story, was critically received by veterans and historians alike due to its portrayal of the Omaha beach landing at the beginning of the movie. This scene set new standards for realism in the movie genre.  The advent of home entertainment has made the studying of war a popular pastime, both through the Internet and DVDs, along with monthly publications such as ‘Britain at War’ being produced.  This all makes the study of war for entertainment a popular and rewarding pastime.  As David Chandler writes, ‘the study of military history is not solely for the academic elite – (sic) its study is also an ideal source of pleasure for the layman with a genuine interest in the passionate dramas of the past.’

So; in conclusion, for the purpose of this essay, the author has deemed the term military history and the study of war as being one and the same, as they are so closely associated.  It was also discussed that war can be studied for official purposes by  governments for several reasons, with Margaret Macmillan being cited when she discussed the claims made by various nations for expanding their borders,  which were based on studies of historical wars of conquest; an example quoted being the claims made at the Paris Peace Conference.   

It was also discussed how governments use studies of war in order to formulate policies and strategies for action should similar events take place in the future.  In this respect,  the simple word ‘Munich’ has almost become synonymous with appeasement, whilst ‘Suez’ and ‘Vietnam’ have become bywords to governments of the perils  associated with intervention.  Indeed, Robert McNamara spent much of his later life trying to come to terms with what went wrong with the American War in Vietnam, whilst during the Suez Crisis, then British Prime Minister Anthony Eden was determined not to follow Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler.   Official studies of recent wars are also carried out by the military, in order to ensure that lessons are learned.

This essay commented upon the official British history of the First World War, mainly written by and edited by Sir James Edmonds, which was studied by a committee, to ensure that lessons learned were incorporated into the latest military manuals.  David Chandler’s essay  was quoted as hoping that the planners for the invasion of the Falklands (1982) had at least a working knowledge of previous amphibious operations, whilst the author added  the landing at Anzio to Chandler’s list. It would be expected that planners would have, as studies of war form part of any serviceman’s training, particularly at staff level.  It was discussed that official war histories also play their part in explaining to the public that their sacrifices were not in vain, this being particularly important after the wars in the twentieth century, when whole populations suffered privations.  Society needs to fulfil their obligation to their dead, a grieving process often marked by memorials that help to form a common, shared memory. Forming part of this obligation can be the gruesome task of locating and repatriating the fallen, or the identification of war crimes and their perpetrators. 

This essay discussed the way in which the study of war shattered the myth of French resistance to the Nazis, and unearthed the countries complicity in the Holocaust.  War can also be studied as a way to identify one’s own family or local history, a process often initiated by the finding of a relative’s letters or war diaries. And; finally, the study of war can be undertaken for purely entertainment reasons, and to this effect many book clubs and movies exist on the topic, with re-enactments and war walks being popular pastimes.  As Chandler states in his essay, ‘Military History’, can be all things to all men.

Ade Pitman, MA Military History