Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Reading about War is Fundamental!

LTC Bob Bateman is a frequent contributor to Eric Alterman's Altercation, and former West Point instructor who recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, where he frequently corresponded with Altercation readers. He has proven to be an insightful and thought provoking correspondent, and today he offered a fascinating insight about our countries relationship with the military:

Tom Ricks, the journalist, and Andrew Bacevich, the soldier-turned-academic, know war. They have studied it, researched it, and in their cases, seen it as well. There are also a limited number of qualified commentators out there as well, but the number, sadly, is entirely too small for our Republic, especially when we are at War. We need more people, educated in the history/theory/practice of war, participating in our democracy, for without the depth of knowledge, we do not have a breadth of opinions, and again, in a democracy this is not good. Given that we are a nation which increasingly relies upon 3 percent to protect the other 97 percent, we will have less and less personal understanding and experience, which is OK. But we need to replace that with something.

What I like about this observation is that he doesn't condemn anybody for being a puke civilain who should just shut the Fsck up. But he does put his finger on something here. More Bateman:
Note, in all of that I did not say that you should like war, or that you should condone war, or even that you should agree with the idea of war in any way shape or form. But just as an environmentalist must study economics and the science of, say, the logging or oil industry to be an effective environmentalist, so too must a citizen study those things which affect their nation most directly. For four years now, the thing which has affected us most directly has been, well, war. Even our presidential elections, to some degree, hinged upon events in a war long past and even more on perceptions of who would be more astute in their application of force within war. (No, I am not endorsing one side or the other, I am merely noting how reputations on some topics affect larger events.)

In fact, we have a lot of "fans" of military operations and history, but that fandom is largely devoid of a depth of understanding based in historical context, which is what Bateman seems to be suggesting here:
Bacevich, in his title, makes assumptions about his readers. I think we should stop making those assumptions. I have realized that almost nobody has actually read Clausewitz, and even fewer have read the thought-pieces which resulted in the idiotic theory of “Shock and Awe.” But you need to read a lot of history, and at least some military theory, to really understand how damned stupid the idea of Shock and Awe really was, and how it has been tried (under different names) over and over again since the late 1920s, and it never works! Perhaps, just perhaps, if some people in the right places had read more military history, well, things might have turned out different.

Shock and Awe was a phrase that fit in perfectly with today's news dissmenation model, yet it described a military doctrine(if that is the correct word) that apparently is held in low regard by military professionals. I haven't read Clausewitz, he is waiting in the vast reservoir of audio books I have downloaded from Audbile for consumption after I get through all three volumes of Shelby Footes excellent Civil War books. Bateman suggests a few reading lists for anyone interested in descending into the depths of military history.

While I generally agree with Bateman here that our republic would benefit from a citizenry more familair with the history of human conflict, I have a few concerns about this idea. I can read Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz, and Julius Casers accounts of his campaign in Gaul and dozens of other books and treatises on the subject. None of this will transform me into Alexander the Great. It probably will not even turn me into Sgt Pepper.

What I suspect it will do is give me a better persepctive on the complexity and consequences of war on societies in the long term, and make me a bit more sceptical about promises of quick victories, easy withdrawals, military nation building and other canards. I like to think I am already, but more knowledge couln't hurt and I will enjoy the journey immensely. But I can easily see how one could digest this information and start placing a little too much confidence in their skills as an armchair general. Just because I watch a lot of Basketball doesn't mean that Phil Jackson hasn't forgotten more about the game than I will ever know. Just because I read books about the Pelponnesian War doesn't mean I can diagnose every conflict that might arise by making absurd historical analogies to that dreadful mess in Ancient Greece. (Yes, I am staring at you Dan Simmons)

One of the things I believe is truly worthwhile in Batemans suggestion is that it might help deconstruct the proposition that you need to be a blooded veteran to hold a valid opinion on any military issue. A little less reverance for the "experts" that are trotted out on major news outlets where they generally operate less as valid observers offering insights to viewers and more as cheerleaders gleefully passing on the latest propoganda. "Shock and Awe" was pimped in large measure by the majority of "military analysts" on the networks. We need to trust our opinions and insights as much as we do the "experts". Batemans suggestion is a good way in my view to ground those insights in substantive ideas and history.

Or, we could just all play Starcraft. Whatever is easier.

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