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Letter From Military History - November 2014

By Stephen Harding 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: August 28, 2014 
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War Beyond Words

The study of the causes, conduct and consequences of war is undoubtedly both valuable and necessary, given that human beings seem incapable of refraining from periodically slaughtering each other.

Understanding how we come to the point of taking up arms is obviously a priority if we are to have any hope of preventing future conflicts. Knowing how economic, social and political forces interact to create the environment in which conflict thrives is certainly vital, as is the need to understand the ways in which ethnicity, religion, culture, nationalism and even tribal identity increase—or, occasionally, decrease—the likelihood of military action.

In the same manner, studying the conduct of past conflicts can be extremely useful, especially if one particular region is the site of successive yet independent struggles over time. The ways in which a region's geography or climate affected the armies that traversed the terrain in the past, for example, is often an accurate indicator of how current or future belligerents will move across the same land—rivers, deserts, oceans and mountain ranges tend to remain long after armies and nations have vanished. And, of course, evaluating the strategy and tactics of those who have previously contended over a particular patch of earth, sea or sky can provide important clues not only about why a past conflict turned out as it did, but also ways in which future commanders might better their chances of victory.

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Then there is the value of studying the outcomes of wars, and the effect they had on nations, peoples or, for that matter, the planet. Did the conflict defeat a great evil, right a tragic injustice, or preserve a culture or civilization, or did it merely sow the seeds of future conflict?

Yes, the study of military history is undoubtedly valuable in a number of ways, but there is always an inherent danger. If our investigation of war becomes too detached, too academic, too focused on the big issues and the grand strategy, we can all too easily lose sight of the one underlying reality of armed conflict: War is about killing people and destroying things; it is about the application of extreme violence to issues that proved too thorny for diplomacy. Whether we are speaking of vast armies contending over a continent or a lone combatant armed with a Molotov cocktail stalking an armored vehicle in a bombed-out city, we are in the end speaking of death and destruction.

If nothing else, the study of military history should teach us the true, terrible and complete meaning of the word attrition.

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