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Letter From Military History - July 2013

By Michael W. Robbins 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: May 01, 2013 
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How fundamental is military history? Today it is generally considered a specialized discipline—like diplomatic history or industrial history or the history of science—within the broader genre known simply as history. Certainly it has its own chronicle of major events, stretching back to those described by Herodotus in the 5th century BC; its own gallery of greats, heroes and villains; its own legends, lore, images and symbols; and its own ideals and ideas.

But there is more: One can make a case that military history contains within its canon (pardon the pun) the earliest known expressions of two fundamental characteristics of human civilization: first, organization, and second, the influence of ideas upon human behavior.

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Organization is essential to military activity, down to the most rudimentary division of labor, rank and coordinated action. Indeed, the roots of human organization may well have sprung from the impulse to engage in protomilitary activity. Archaeologist Charles Stanish of the University of California, Los Angeles (see Interview, March 2012), has argued that in many early cultures, military organization may well have preceded other forms of human organization, including the political organization that led to the earliest states. Today the most obvious characteristic of a military organization is precisely that it is highly organized, highly structured in ways that govern much of the behavior of its participants. But in its earliest forms, military actions and their rewards may well have given birth to the very notion of organizing human behavior.

Implicit in the notion that military actions gave rise to organized human behavior is a second, quite fundamental element of civilization: the influence of ideas upon behavior. Whether the idea of cooperative hunting and gathering, cooperative religious activity, cooperative military endeavors or cooperative trade with other groups preceded the actions themselves is something of a chicken-and-egg question. But there is little doubt that once the actions were under way and producing rewards, the ideas shaping those behaviors were at once powerful incentives, governing principles and stabilizing influences upon behavior. Thus, military history is not just a chronicle of organized violence; it is also a history of the development of human organizations and the effects of ideas on human behavior—perhaps even ideas about rules of war.

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