Today, John Leo, Editor of MindingTheCampus.com,
hosts Victor Davis Hanson to discuss his most recent article from the summer issue of City Journal, "Why Study War?". Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a City Journal Contributing Editor.
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Leo: Welcome Dr. Hanson, your article "Why Study War?,"
strongly criticizes the academy for its increasing neglect of military
history. How do you explain this neglect?
Hanson: Mostly for three reasons. First, since the campus revolt
against Vietnam, academia has associated war exclusively with amorality,
forgetting, for example, that chattel slavery, Nazism, fascism, and
Stalinism were ended by arms or military deterrence.
Second, multiculturalismno culture can be any worse than the West--has
redefined the history of Western arms as exclusively in the service
of racism, colonialism, and imperialism that in turn were unique to
And lastly, the advent of postmodernism, and indeed 'theory' in general,
into the arts and sciences meant a general disdain for, and absence
of mastery of, names, dates, personalities, facts themselves--the stuff
of military historyin favor of seeing all of the past as a morality
tale to be deconstructed on the basis of preconceived (and often anti-empirical)
gender, class, and racial oppression.
The result is that we have self-acclaimed sophisticated graduate students
and professors that know very little about what actually transpired
in the past, but who fret a great deal over whether anyone can know
anything about what they don't know.
Leo: Is opposition to military history related to the strength
of anti-military opinion on campus since the Vietnam war? Or is it more
often a feeling that studying war somehow dignifies human mayhem?
Hanson: Both, but there is still this crazy notion that anyone
who studies war does so not to understand and thus often mitigate its
effects, but rather out of a sort of repressed or even overt desire
for bloodlettingas if a oncologist likes tumors or a virologist is
de facto an advocate for AIDs. Almost all military history, even if
written in the most banal sense of antiquarianism, ultimately seeks
to record the tragedy of taking human life, and speculate on the ways
in which wars could have either been prevented or conducted with the
greatest rapidity and avoidance of loss of life.
Leo: At a time when almost everything prized in the popular
culture ends up on a college curriculum, how is it that the enormous
upsurge of books, movies and cable shows about war is occurring at the
same time that the study of war is fading on campus?
Hanson: War by nature involves the ultimate sacrifice of soldiers,
usually of a rare segment of the general population willing to die for
an idea, an order, a good or bad cause, to inflict havoc or save humanity.
And there is a sort of gut-level fascination why humans would do such
In addition, there is a general societal fear, rightly so, that war
de facto has the ability to destroy society as we know it--whether the
Roman 'peace' at the end of the 3rd Punic War or the carnage of WWII
Poland, Japan, and Russia--and thus should be examined if for prophylactic
reasons alone. War, you see, is the ultimate expression, for good or
evil, of action and the collision of material forces--in contrast to
the steady devolution in the academia to discourse and theorizing. Pickett's
Charge or Normandy Beach will win anytime over the 'Transvestism in
the Medieval Cloister' or 'The Poetics of Manhood in the Renaissance
Puppetry." Finally, there are millions of Americans in the general
public who served in the military or are the children, siblings, and
parents of those who did, but perhaps far less of such a percentage
among the cohort that now runs the academy.
Leo: You argue that a college class today on World War II "might
emphasize Japanese internment, Rosie the Riveter and the horror of Hiroshima,
not Guadacanal and Midway." How can we overcome the obsession with
race, class and gender in studying military history?
Hanson: I'm afraid an entire generation must pass first. Those
who came of age in the university in the 1960s and 1970snow department
chairmen, deans, senior theses advisors, scholarly associations' presidents,
etc wanted this revolution of easy arm-chair therapeutic moralizing
and self-appointed censure of perceive contemporary sins, got it, turned
off the students, forfeited hard-won standards, and lost their public
readershipand now must suffer the consequences of irrelevancy for
a generation. It is not an accident that a David McCullough or John
Keegan or Martin Gilbert now writes outside the campus. Vibrant military
history has gone on-despite or perhaps even because- of the failure
of the academia.
Leo: How can we convince academics and students that it's important
to study how wars began, how they were won and lost, and how they shaped
Hanson: I think a lot of genres has stepped up to fill the vacuum.
Televisionsuch as the History or Discovery Channelsmirabile dictu
has helped. Dozens of magazines now discuss individual wars. Our politicians
should likewise relate military history, both the science of writing
it and the facts and lessons of studying it.
Hollywoodwhether Saving Private Ryan or the 300is doing better
here than in its other genres, and being rewarded accordingly with an
audience. Our military has regained public stature and soldiers enjoy
a far higher reputation than politicians, journalists, and professors.
War is an innate human phenomenon; it won't disappear or be legislated
out of existencenor will the fascination with it. So we can either
fail miserably to ignore it, or wish or dictate it goneor study it
to prevent it, in the frightening centuries to come, from ending us