Friday, September 07, 2007

Readin, Writin, and Fightin: I Wanna Study War Some More!

Victor Davis Hanson argues that what we are missing from contemporary education is more of an emphasis on military history and the study of war. Young people no longer can talk about great battles in history, such as Marathon, Gettysburg, Normandy, and Tet, and and they don't how much of our world is the result of what occured in those killing fields. Instead, Hanson thinks, students are taught that war and violence are bad things to be avoided at all costs and there is nothing worse than organizing a military and building weapons to fight. He points out that the study of military history at our universities is disappearing and there are less and less professors who study war professionally.

Obviously, Hanson thinks this trend away from war studies is bad for us. Part of his argument is that this trend is being pushed by academics who are out of touch with popular tastes. People love war stories and movies like Saving Private Ryan and 300 and they attend military air shows all over the country. The academy ought to be attentive to these impulses.

War studies can teach the public military virutes, such as honor, sacrifice, and patriotism, Hanson says, but it also gives us historical standards by which to judge war. We are able to judge the scale of wars (the American casualties in Iraq compare nothing to Vietnam!), we learn that war is not the worst thing that can happen to a society (Hanson points out that flu in 1918 killed more people in the U.S. than WWI), and we learn that war is not always the result of a breakdown of communication, but, in fact, is sometimes a struggle against evil. Hanson writes:

"Bin Laden attacked on September 11 not because there was a dearth of American diplomats willing to dialogue with him in the Hindu Kush. Instead, he recognized that a series of Islamic terrorist assaults against U.S. interests over two decades had met with no meaningful reprisals, and concluded that decadent Westerners would never fight, whatever the provocation—or that, if we did, we would withdraw as we had from Mogadishu."

A very casual glance at the OSU Library Catalog gave me the following numbers: there are 27,961 items under a key word search for "war". For "peace", there are 5, 972 items. Its true that our history department does not emphasize military history, but we do have a strong ROTC program with military science as a minor. Anyone wanting to study war at OSU seems to have ample tools with which to begin.

In his effort to re-establish war as a field of academic study, Hanson neglects some sage advice, not from figures usually associated with the "peace racket" (I'll write more about that later), but from classical American philosophy.

I think of William James's classic essay, "The Moral Equivalent of War" where he tells pacifists that it is unwise to ignore folks (such as Hanson) who advocate for war. Instead, James says we need to listen to what they think the benefits are and then realize that those virtures and forms of wisdom can be acquired from other practices and ways of life. We need to find the "moral equivalent" of war as pacifists and it is possible.

Josiah Royce, in his work The Philosophy of Loyalty, published just a couple of years after James's essay, portrays the ways to construct a life that embodies the virtues of honor and sacrifice but without engaging in violence or other ways that will destroy the ability of others to have their own loyalties. You can get a good discussion of Royce here. (Royce was no pacificist--he strongly supported the US involvement in WWI).

Jane Addams also wrote along these lines too, at just about the same time. In her 1907 book, Newer ideals of Peace, she argues for finding civilian alternatives to war service that will inspire people to feel patriotism and a sense of collective purpose in working together for the welfare of society. She, of course, went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Check out the important chapter on this here

For all these thinkers, the insistence that we need to think about war some more for a better society is a grand failure of imagination.

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At 7:54 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is also instructive is how many of the virtues are suffocated by war and violence: love, compassion, empathy and other such filial ways we connect with other human beings.

At 9:50 AM , Blogger Dap said...

VDH seems to conflate two very different things: Studying war in an academic or university setting, and liking dramatic movies where war is a major component. The former can be very intellectual, and the latter often requires no intellect at all, but is designed to play with one's emotions.

And I'd argue that he's out of his gourd when it comes to thinking that young people don't know how much of the world has been shaped by war. That claim was more true of my college experience, but my K-12 social studies classes did nothing but cover war and how it had shaped the world.

At 12:51 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Anon: Another thing is that the virtues associated with war and military life are usually very male gender biased.

DAP: Hanson is doing his conservative move here, trying to draw a wedge between academia and "the public" by claiming that intellectuals don't like to talk about war but the public loves it. This seems in line with some views that universities need to be more "accountable" to their customers.

I think you're right about education. I remember hisotry classes when I was in school ( a long time ago!) and we did nothing but talk about big wars.

In the search I did on the OSU library, I found that most of the books listed under the "peace" search are actually about warfare. I've looked for books on nonviolence in the library and there's maybe half a shelf. So maybe OSU is a place that Hanson would really love to come and teach!

At 5:59 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whether VDH is guilty of thinking of higher-education as something which meets demand with supply is a moot question, in my opinion. The fact that so many people like war movies seems to me irrelevant, because war movies so rarely represent the realities of war. If more war movies were like "Platoon" maybe their popularity would diminish. And if it didn't, then I wouldn't have too much of a problem with courses covering events like My Lai or Nanking. Of course, that might serve as a peace studies course in disguise.


At 10:41 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Galen: Perhaps that's right about war movies. But nowadays a lot of warfare is being "digitized" in a way so that it becomes more like video games. Then we might have a problem because there might be more of an opportunity to desensitize people to what is involved.

One of my favorite war scenes is from "Saving Private Ryan"--a film I generally don't like. Its the opening 20 minutes of storming the beach. What it shows to me is that much of war is just dumb luck--very little heroism and glory and so on. Be at the wrong place at the wrong time and its over for you.


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