Letter From Military History – November 2007

All Warfare Is Local

When the late Massachusetts Congressman and Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill famously and shrewdly observed, “All politics is local,” he meant that for all the big-picture action at the national level, what counts most is turnout at the community level. That is where democracy really works, as participating voters resolve their differences in win-or-lose contests.

It is perhaps a mark of the long-suspected link between politics and the military that O’Neill’s dictum applies equally to warfare, to battles—and to military history. One can discuss the subject at the highest level of generality and abstraction, even to the point of summarizing a major battle in a single short sentence: “At Waterloo, Napoleon lost.” It is possible, similarly, to compress the strategic consequences of a whole war into a single statement: “The Franco-Prussian War redrew the map of modern Europe.”

But wise historians seem to know in their bones that to understand what a war, a campaign, a battle, an action, even a skirmish was really about, one must move well down the stairway of generalization to ground level, where individuals pull levers or pull triggers. That is where the real action is. That is where things actually get decided, sometimes one soldier, one decision, one mistake, one weapon, one shot, one casualty at a time.

At this level of individual conflict, of individual action, history is well nigh inexhaustible, which is one good reason we can keep retelling the stories of Ghost Mountain or Kings Mountain or Mance Ravine or No-Name Ridge. And because we all respond to human drama and love a good story, it is the place where history becomes most satisfying and most meaningful.

Examples of compelling local military history—call it the platoon level—are legion, but some current works demonstrate anew just how engaging and illuminating it can be: When David Halberstam delivers a line like, “At one point, Stewart told his superior that he was standing in the blood of his radio operator who had just been shot, and held the handset out the window so they could hear the deafening sounds of battle,” you know you are reading military history at the local level. And you know that you are in the company of a historian who, like Shakespeare himself, can conjure the whole human cavalcade with a few precisely penned lines.

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