Books

Lessons From the Battlefield: Literature and War

TIMEDecember 12, 2021

The signature catchphrase of comedian Rodney Dangerfield was “I don’t get no respect.” Military historians in our universities might justifiably lay claim to that same line.

The academic world has long regarded military historians as outliers. In 2008, for example, U.S. News and World Report writer Justin Ewers wrote a column titled “Why Don’t More Colleges Teach Military History?” He reports: “For years, military historians have been accused by their colleagues of being, by turns, right wing, morally suspect, or, as Lynn puts it, ‘just plain dumb.’” Lynn was John Lynn, a professor of history at the University of Illinois, who had written a 1997 essay titled “The Embattled Future of Academic Military History,” an earlier jeremiad against the demise of military history in academia. As Ewers points out, other subjects—gender, class, race—attracted more professors of history than did war and diplomacy.

But here’s a strange contradiction in that decline. Ewers writes what many readers know: “Publishers have been lining bookstore shelves with new battle tomes, which consumers are lapping up.”

This interest by readers in warfare is longstanding, as may be seen in the social sciences section of my moderately sized public library, which contains more than 400 books about the military and war. The history section offers an even greater selection of such books, ranging from accounts of Alexander the Great to our conflicts in the Middle East.

‘Only the Dead Have Seen the End of War’

Though the tag “Only the dead have seen the end of war” is falsely attributed to Plato, the words ring true. In the last 70 or so years, for example, the United States has fought major wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East, as well as participating in smaller conflicts in places like Grenada, Lebanon, and Panama.

Such wars often have enormous consequences. At the end of his book “A History of Warfare,” preeminent military historian John Keegan (1934–2012) notes: “The written history of the world is a history of warfare, because the states within which we live came into existence largely through conquest, civil strife or struggles for independence.”

If we accept Keegan’s thesis as true—such is certainly the case with the United States, which came into being through our own struggle for independence—it should be apparent that all of us might do well to familiarize ourselves with the history of warfare. To study world-changing battles like Salamis, Hastings, Gettysburg, and Pearl Harbor, and to cautiously apply the lessons learned from those investigations to our present circumstances would, if nothing else, help our leaders and our citizens understand the consequences of taking up arms.

Nonfiction

Several of the historians who have contributed works to library shelves and bestseller lists have written brilliantly on battle and the arts of war. John Keegan, for example, put out more than 20 histories on warfare, including “The Face of Battle” in which he examines the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. This book stands out because of its blend of strategy and tactics with vivid details of the battles themselves. Keegan describes each battle—the terrain, the troops who fought there, the sway of combat—and then extends his observations to contemporary conflicts.

Like Keegan, Victor Davis Hanson, an American classicist and today a respected commentator about contemporary culture and politics, never faced an enemy on the battlefield. He has, however, written several books on warfare, including “Carnage and Culture,” which is regarded by critics and military experts as an important addition to the history and understanding of warfare.

Though some of Hanson’s observations in the book now seem dated—he seems to have underestimated the growing power of the Chinese Communist Party and its military machine—he does end his book with this profound statement: “We may well be all Westerners in the millennium to come, and that could be a very dangerous thing indeed,” meaning that Western nations and those who have adopted their practices of warfare, like Japan and China, may find themselves on a high-tech battlefield pitted against a foe in a horrific war.

Other historians, many of them not associated with universities, have given us riveting accounts of combat and of the costs of war both to individuals and to the nation as a whole. Stephen Ambrose, Rick Atkinson, and others have researched and written rich accounts of American GIs in World War II, with a focus on the heroism and suffering of individuals on the battlefields.

War Stories

We can also gain a feeling for combat by reading fiction.

In Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War,” the author puts himself into the minds of important figures at the Battle of Gettysburg, leaders like Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet and Union officers like John Buford and Joshua Chamberlain. From these men and others, we gain a sense of the thought processes of upper-echelon officers, the triumphs and defeats embedded in the decisions of those at the top, and the awful burdens borne by those whose decisions will truly affect the future of their cause and their governments.

Novelist Anton Myrer’s “Once an Eagle” gives us a close-up view of the horrors and costs of war. Here, protagonist Sam Damon enlists in the Army just before World War I, loses his best friend in that conflict, and emerges with the Medal of Honor. He remains in the peacetime Army and then becomes a general during World War II, leading his men in combat against the Japanese. Damon comes across as a man of honor and integrity, a figure to be emulated. Reading about him, most of us would only hope that our own military leaders would display his same virtues.

In “The Leader’s Bookshelf,” retired Adm. James Stavridis and writer R. Manning Ancell have compiled a list of 50 books, all with detailed descriptions, recommended by military personnel. “The Killer Angels” and “Once an Eagle” are Nos. 1 and 2 on this list.

Other novels, from Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” to Steven Pressfield’s “Gates of Fire,” his account of the Battle of Thermopylae, cast light on what it means to face an enemy on the field of battle and to be willing to sacrifice oneself for comrades and country.

By now, some readers may wonder: What’s the point? Why read military history and fiction? Why not leave such reading to armchair warriors or our military? How does this affect my own life?

Lessons From a Master

Winston Churchill provides some answers to these questions.

Great battles,” he once remarked, “change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new moods, in armies and in nations, to which all must conform.”

In another of Victor Davis Hanson’s books about war, “Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think,” Hanson cites this line from Churchill and then proceeds to show how battles like Delium, Shiloh, and Okinawa haunt us even today. We may be unaware of those ghosts, but they are with us, apparitions of Western culture that refuse to disappear. To ignore them is a grievous mistake. As Hanson writes: “Battle is the raucous transformer of history because it accelerates in a matter of minutes the usually longer play of chance, skill, and fate.”

Churchill would have agreed with Hanson. Churchill participated in a cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman, witnessed combat in arenas ranging from Cuba and South Africa to World War I, and guided Britain to victory in World War II. He studied the wars of the past, wrote about them, and learned the lessons taught by the men who had fought them.

Like the historians and novelists cited here, Churchill understood war—its glory, its ugliness, and its necessity. He once stated:

“If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without blood shed; if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.”

During the Battle of Britain, when that tiny island nation fought the Nazis, Churchill and his fellow citizens faced that moment of “only a precarious chance of survival.”

‘Carnage and Culture’

The title of Hanson’s book “Carnage and Culture” serves as a succinct reminder of the connection between conflict and culture. Throughout history, we see that a people who cannot protect themselves from their opponents may find their culture either at risk or abolished. From ancient Rome to modern-day China, we see civilizations erased by enemies both foreign and domestic.

To remain ignorant of the costs, the sacrifices, the horrors, and the consequences of war is dangerous. Our universities should teach more military history. Our young people should be familiar with such ideas as to how the Revolutionary War brought our country into being, how and why World War II left us a superpower, and what caused our failures in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan.

“You may not be interested in war, but war is very much interested in you.” That chilling admonition, often mistakenly attributed to Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky, reminds us that in order to assess the decisions of leaders who want to send American soldiers into conflicts overseas, as they are wont to do, and to be prepared should an enemy ever launch an attack on our country, we need to understand the rudiments of warfare.

Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.