I was bantering online with an old friend and fellow historian and I hit him with my best shot: history is un-American. If you think like an historian, and especially if you think America and its future actions should be informed, or possibly even constrained, by history, you are clearly un-American. History is more or less bunk, Henry Ford famously said, and Americans can safely ignore it. We are like gods, creating our own futures out of nothing, imposing our will on everything around us.
This attitude, this hubris, explains much about the U.S. military’s woeful record since 1945. The French lost in Indochina? No matter. Americans will prevail in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia because we’re not the French. The Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan? No matter. Americans will prevail there because we’re not the Russians. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his minority Sunni government will unleash chaos that strengthens Shia forces in Iraq, aligning that country more closely with Iran? No matter. America will bring order and the blessings of democracy to Iraq at the point of gun or a Hellfire missile.
Karl Rove, a major player in the Bush/Cheney administration, summed up this hubris in this now-infamous passage:
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
That man did not want for confidence.
Related to the idea of history being un-American is the business- and management-oriented nature of the officer corps in the U.S. military. To be promoted to field-grade (major or lieutenant commander), you almost have to have a master’s degree or be close to finishing one. But rarely do officers choose to pursue a master’s in history or any other subject related to the humanities. The master’s of choice is in business administration or some type of management.
By pursuing MBAs and management degrees, officers show their practical nature. They also set themselves up well for future careers once they retire or separate from the military. After all, who needs to know history, even military history? The U.S. military will simply act, creating its own realities, which feckless historians will then passively study as America’s real actors get on with the job of remaking the world in America’s image.
We live in the United States of Amnesia, Gore Vidal quipped, and history is part of that amnesia. Who remembers that America was at war in Afghanistan as late as 2021? It’s on to new “great power” struggles with China and Russia. Look forward, not backward, Barack Obama said when he became president, meaning there was no need to hold the Bush/Cheney administration responsible for anything, including torture and other war crimes. “We tortured some folks” — time to move on!
An expression I learned in the U.S. military is “analysis paralysis,” as in don’t overthink the problem. Act! But if America’s military record since World War II proves one thing, it’s that ignoring history because it’s “bunk” or less practical than another business or management course is a very unwise idea.
Acting should be informed by thinking. Dare I say, historically-informed thinking. Even for America’s wannabe gods.
There’s more to military history than decisive battles, great captains, and sexy weapons
We sure could use honest and critical teaching about military history and war in America.
I don’t mean celebratory BS. I don’t mean potted histories of the American Revolution and its freedom fighters, the Civil War and its freeing of the slaves, World War II and America’s greatest generation and so on. I mean history that highlights the importance of war together with its bloody awfulness.
Two books (and book titles) come to mind: “War is a force that gives us meaning,” by Chris Hedges, and “A country made by war,” by Geoffrey Perret. Hedges is right to argue that war often provides meaning to our lives: meaning that we often don’t scrutinize closely enough, if at all. And Perret is right to argue that America was (and is), in very important ways, made by war, brutally so in fact.
Why study war? Shouldn’t we affirm that we ain’t gonna study war no more? Well, as Leon Trotsky is rumored to have said: You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. Among other reasons, students of history should study war as a way of demystifying it, of reducing its allure, of debunking its alleged glories. War is always a bad choice, though there may be times when war is the least bad in a series of bad choices. (U.S. involvement in World War II was, I believe, less bad than alternatives like pursuing isolationism.)
How are we to make sense and reach sound decisions about war if we refuse to study and understand it? A colleague sent along an interesting article (from 2016) that argues there’s not enough military history being taught in U.S. colleges and universities, especially at elite private schools. Here’s the link: https://aeon.co/ideas/the-us-military-is-everywhere-except-history-books
Visit your local bookstore and you’ll probably see lots of military history — it’s very popular in America! — but critical military history within college settings is much less common. This is so for a few reasons, I think:
1. Many professors don’t like the “stench” of military history. When I was at Oxford in the early 1990s, I had a professor who basically apologized for spending so much time talking about mercenary-captains and war in early modern Europe. Yet war and controlling it was a key reason for the growth of strong, centralized nation-states in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.
2. Many professors simply have no exposure to the military — they’re ignorant of it, almost proudly so. Having taught college myself for fifteen years, including survey subjects like world history, I know the difficulty of teaching topics and subjects where your knowledge is shallow or dodgy. Far easier to stand on firm ground and teach what you know and ignore what you don’t know — or don’t like. But the easier road isn’t always the best one.
3. Critical military history suggests lack of patriotism. I taught college as a civilian professor for nine years, and I was once told to “watch my back” because I wrote articles that were critical of the U.S. military’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I’m a retired Air Force officer!
So, with history professors often preferring to ignore or elide military subjects, military history is left to buffs and enthusiasts who focus on great captains, exciting battles, and famous weapons (often featured in glossy coffee-table books) like Tiger tanks and Spitfire fighters. Such books often sell well and make for exciting reads. What they don’t do is to make us think critically about the costs of war and how disastrous wars often prove.
A subject I taught at the USAF Academy was technology and warfare, and one of my concerns was (and remains) America’s blind faith in technology and the enormous sums of money dedicated to the same. The Pentagon will spend untold billions on the latest deadly gadgets (actually, as much as $1.7 trillion alone on the F-35 jet fighterthroughout its lifespan) but academia won’t spend millions to think and teach more critically about war.
As an aside, weapons alone don’t make an effective military. It’s not the gladius sword that made Rome dominant but the citizen-soldier wielding it, empowered by republican ideals, iron discipline, and a proven system of leadership by example.
When the principled citizen-soldier ideal died in Rome, a warrior ideal consistent with a hegemonic empire replaced it. There’s much for Americans to learn here, as its own military today identifies as warriors and finds itself in the service of a global empire.
There’s more to military history than drums and trumpets — or bullets and bombs. For better or for worse, and usually for worse, we as a people are made and defined by war. We would all do well to study and understand it better.
(If you’d like to comment, please visit Bracing Views on Substack.)
When I taught the core course in military history at the U.S. Air Force Academy, it focused on “major” wars. A review of my syllabus from 20 years ago confirms that we spent most of our time teaching military cadets about the American Revolutionary War, the U.S. Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea and the Cold War, and Vietnam. There were special lessons that focused on airpower history and strategic thinkers like Clausewitz and Jomini, but the main focus was on “conventional” wars. I was OK with this, since mastering the course material was my main challenge, not challenging subjects within the course.
An astute student of U.S. military history would quickly note what’s missing. Genocidal wars against Native Americans were rarely mentioned. There were no specific lessons devoted to the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the Filipino Insurrection, or any of America’s frequent regime-change wars in Latin America. American imperialism wasn’t specifically addressed. Critiques of American imperialism by critics like Mark Twain and General Smedley Butler were rarely (if ever) heard.
What that means is this: America’s young officers go out into the world with little knowledge of America’s military interventions beyond the victories (more or less) in World Wars I and II, stalemate in Korea, and a misbegotten war in Vietnam that America could (and perhaps should) have won with better tactics and/or less civilian interference, or so they are often taught. Small wonder that disasters like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and others occur and persist, though I wouldn’t put the blame for these simply on a lack of critical teaching about America’s various for-profit cock-ups and screw-ups.
This was on my mind as I read Kevin Tillman’s recent article at TomDispatch.com. As Tillman notes, America’s regime-change wars and propensity for foreign coups came home to our own country on January 6th with the storming of the Capitol. That such an action so deeply shocked Americans is a sign of our collective amnesia when it comes to remembering the totality of our military history.
Here’s an except from his article, which I encourage you to read in its entirety at TomDispatch:
Kevin Tillman, Capitol Blowback
Just about everyone was shocked by what happened at the Capitol building on January 6th. But as a former soldier in America’s forever wars, horrifying as the scenes were, I also found what happened strangely familiar, almost inevitable. I thought that, if only we had taken our country’s imperial history seriously, none of us would have found that day either shocking or unprecedented.
Honestly, it could only seem that way if you imagined our domestic politics as completely separate from our foreign policy. But if we’re to learn anything from that maladroit attempt at a government-toppling coup, it should be that they are anything but separate. The question isn’t whether then-President Donald Trump incited the assault on the Capitol — of course he did. It is rather: Since when have we cared if an American president lies to incite an illegal insurrection? In all honesty, our commanders-in-chief have been doing so abroad for generations with complete impunity. It was only a matter of time before the moral rot finally made its way home.
Back in 2007, I actually met Nancy Pelosi whom those insurrectionists were going after — “Tell Pelosi we’re coming for that b**ch. Tell f***ing Pelosi we’re coming for her!” — in that very Capitol building. That day, my family was testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform concerning the U.S. government’s disinformation campaign about how, three years earlier, my brother Pat Tillman had died in Afghanistan (as a result of “friendly,” not enemy, fire). We would testify alongside former soldier Jessica Lynch who had suffered a similar disinformation fate in the wake of a tragic ambush of her convoy in Nasiriyah, Iraq, where soldiers died and she was taken prisoner. After the hearing, we discussed the case with Pelosi, who then took us on a brief personal tour of the halls of the building. Given the circumstances, it was a thoughtful gesture and a humbling experience.
So, it was personally quite unsettling to watch that rabid mob of insurrectionists storm our Capitol, some actively seeking to kill the woman who had walked our family through those same halls, wearing her signature green business suit. To see people desecrating that building over grievances rooted in demonstrable and absurd untruths manufactured by President Trump was both grotesque and shameful.
And yet, however surreal, disappointing, disqualifying, even treasonous that assault and the 57-43 Senate acquittal of the president would be, what took place should, in another sense, not have been a shock to anyone. The idea that January 6th was something new for this country and so a unique affront to the American idea of democracy, not to speak of common decency, was simply wrong. After all, ever since 1945, this country has regularly intervened in elections all over the globe and done far worse as well. What’s disorienting, I suppose, is that this time we did it to ourselves.
Around the Globe, Generation after Generation
My own limited experience with American interventionism involves the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. After the September 11th attacks, I enlisted in the U.S. Army with Pat. We would be assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment and our unit would in March 2003 be sent into Iraq, one of so many tools in the Bush administration’s war of aggression there. We would help remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by force. It was hardly the mission I had in mind when I signed up, but I was naive when it came to foreign policy. Being part of illegal invasions, however, leaves lasting impressions.
That particular intervention in Iraq began with a barrage of administration lies about Saddam’s supposed supply of weapons of mass destruction, his reputed links to al-Qaeda, and the idea that we were liberating the Iraqi people. Some of us actually were assigned to run around Baghdad, “east, west, south, and north somewhat,” looking for those nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The whole invasion would prove catastrophic, of course, resulting in the destruction of Iraqi society, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers, even as that country’s leadership was removed and its military disbanded (mission accomplished!). Of course, neither President George W. Bush, nor the rest of the top officials of his administration were held responsible for what happened.
So, when I watched the January 6th insurrection unfold, my mind was immediately drawn to the period leading up to the Iraq war — except this time, the drumbeat of lies had to do with massive voter fraud, voting irregularities, “dead voters,” rigged software, and other fabrications. Obviously, the two events were drastically different in scale, complexity, and destructiveness. Still, they seemed to share common fundamental threads.
Examples of American interference in the governance of foreign countries via coups, regime change, and other ploys are commonplaces of our modern history. Among the best known would be the replacing of a number of democratically elected leaders like Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh with the Shah (1953), Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz with Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas (1954), Chilean President Salvador Allende with General Augusto Pinochet (1973), or Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in a U.S.-backed coup (2009). In other words, we’re not talking about a few one-off mistakes or a couple of dumb wars.
In truth, there has been an endless supply of such U.S. interventions around the globe: invasions, military coups, soft coups, economic sanctions, secretly funding candidates of Washington’s choice, the fueling of existing conflicts, you name it and it’s probably happened.
Take for example our neighbors in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. I honestly don’t know if there is a single nation in Latin America that hasn’t fallen victim to a U.S. intervention of some sort: Argentina (1976), Bolivia (1971), Brazil (1964), Cuba (1961), El Salvador (the 1980s), Grenada (1983), Haiti (2004), Honduras (1980 and 2009), Panama (1989), Paraguay (1962), Peru (1968), Suriname (the 1980s), Uruguay (1973), Venezuela (the present moment). Maybe Costa Rica was spared?
The Middle East of the early 21st century is looking more and more like the Thirty Years’ War of the early 17th century that tore apart the Germanic states of the Holy Roman Empire. Religious sectarianism? In the 17th century, Catholics and Protestants killed each other with gusto. Disunity? Yes, within and among the various Germanic states of the Holy Roman Empire. Great power intervention that made matters far worse? Yes, Protestant Sweden and Catholic France intervened in a big way, among a host of other lesser powers. Privatized, for-profit militaries that threw more fuel on the fire? Yes, Albrecht von Wallenstein, the greatest mercenary captain of the age, created his own empire until he was assassinated in 1634.
The war finally ended when it burnt itself out, and when European leaders realized the more they intervened, the more they risked the infection spreading to their own kingdoms. Thus came the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but not before roughly eight million people, most of them civilians, died in and of the war.
When will conflicts in the Middle East finally burn themselves out? In 2048? When the oil is finally gone? (Sadly, water may replace oil as a major source of conflict.)
And when will great powers like the United States realize the more they intervene, the more the infection spreads elsewhere? Indeed, the more it comes home to endanger the United States?
Speaking of 30 years, when did the war for the greater Middle East truly begin? With the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s? The creation of Israel in 1948? The end of World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1918? Biblical times?
The Thirty Years’ War worked to delay German unification until 1871, after which Germany, late to European power politics, decided to rattle its saber for a bigger seat at the table. World War I was the result.
What will be the long-term effects of constant warfare in the Middle East? Impossible to see, perhaps, but the short-term ones are before our eyes: more instability ahead, more innocents dead, more hatred spread.
The death on July 29 of retired Army general and professor Douglas Kinnard at the age of 91 reminded me of the vital quality of integrity and truth-telling, especially in life-and-death military settings. A fast-rising general who became critical of America’s path in Indochina in the late 1960s, Kinnard retired from the military and wrote The War Managers (1977), a probing and fascinating survey of what he and his fellow general officers thought about the Vietnam War and America’s efforts to win it.
The general officers who answered Kinnard’s survey in The War Managers give the lie to the so-called Rambo myth, the idea that the American military could and should have won the Vietnam War, but were prevented from doing so by meddling civilians, mendacious media, and malicious hippie war resisters.
The survey results bear this out. For example, Kinnard notes that “almost 70 percent of the Army generals who managed the war were uncertain of its objectives.” (25) One general wrote that “Objectives lost meaning and were modified to justify events.” Another wrote that “The U.S. was committed to a military solution, without a firm military objective–the policy was attrition–killing VC–this offered no solution–it was senseless.”
Along with unclear or swiftly changing objectives, the Army employed large units and massive firepower that tore up the land and produced millions of casualties. This “search and destroy” approach of General William Westmoreland was termed “not sound” by one-third of the generals surveyed, with a further quarter saying it was “sound when first implemented–not later.”
Kinnard himself had direct experience with the Army’s reliance on costly and counterproductive firepower, specifically harassment and interdiction (H and I) by artillery. In a note on page 47, he writes:
“In May 1969 I returned to Vietnam as Commanding General of II Field Force Artillery. On my second day in the country I asked to have the intelligence targets plotted on my map. Afterward, I asked to see the person who selected the targets, together with the data on which he based his selections. A 1st Lieutenant appeared with a coordinate square; inspecting a map, he selected, at random, points in the areas where nighttime firing was authorized, and then measured off the coordinates for firing. This had been the method of choosing intelligence targets in that zone for the preceding several months.”
In other words, U.S. forces were firing blindly into the jungle.
Most seriously of all, a ticket-punching culture in which officers rotated in and out of command every six months,* together with pressure from the top to inflate “body count” of the enemy, led to severe erosion of integrity in the U.S. Army. Nearly two-thirds of the generals admitted that enemy body count was “often inflated,” with the following comments made by individual generals:
“The immensity of the false reporting is a blot on the honor of the Army.”
“I shudder to think how many of our soldiers were killed on a body-counting mission–what a waste.”
“I had one Division Commander whose reports I never believed or trusted.”
“Many commanders resorted to false reports to prevent their own relief.” (All quotes on page 75)
Along with inflated and dishonest body counts that compromised integrity was the failure to admit that Vietnamization was fatally flawed. As Kinnard put it, “How could an army or a government so grossly corrupt [as those of South Vietnam], even in a country where corruption is expected, summon the enthusiastic support of its soldiers or its people? There was no way to do so, as successive American advisers [to South Vietnam] discovered.” (84)
Several generals noted that the heavy-handed, can-do-right-now, approach of the American military to Vietnamization was fundamentally at odds with Vietnamese culture. Two quotations illustrate this point:
“We erroneously tried to impose the American system on a people who didn’t want it, couldn’t handle it and may lose because they tried it.” (Written before the fall of Saigon in April 1975.)
“In this, as in all our foreign wars, we never really established rapport [with the Vietnamese]. This was largely due to our overinflated hypnosis with the myth that the American way–in economics, politics, sociology, manners, morals, military equipment, methodology, organization, tactics, etc.–is automatically and unchallengeably the best (really the only) way to do things. This failure may well be the area of greatest weakness for the future of American arms.” (92)
As President Obama and his advisers meet today to discuss Syria, they should keep that lesson in mind, as well as Kinnard’s reminder that clear objectives are vital to the success of any military operation. Even better, they should all be required to read (and re-read) Kinnard’s book, and to reflect on his wisdom.
Let’s leave the last word to Kinnard. Before committing American forces to combat in the future, Kinnard wrote that “The situation itself must be one in which American interests are clearly at stake in a way that can be made understandable to the public … An important corollary is the need for truthfulness in dealing with the public. From the president all the way to the field units, the practice of letting the facts speak for themselves is the best hope. In the Vietnam War there was too much tricky optimism from LBJ [President Johnson] on down. Furthermore, there was too much concealing of the implications of half-announced decisions.” (166-67)
Unclear objectives, compromised integrity, indiscriminate firepower, cultural blindness, “tricky” optimism, concealing the realities of the war from the American people: all of these reasons, and more, contributed to the disaster of Vietnam. The sad truth is that we still haven’t fully learned the lessons of Kinnard’s honest, no-holds-barred, after action report that is “The War Managers.”
*With respect to ticket-punching and command rotation, Kinnard recalled that “Those of us who had our own command positions in Vietnam were required to attend changes of command ceremonies for others almost weekly. In time, this became about as interesting as attending the baptism of an infant of distant friends.” (111)