As a student of history I’ve often studied war. Not because I’m a war-monger with a thirst for blood or conquest. I do it because, as Victor David Hanson writes “democratic citzenship requires knowledge of war—and now, in the age of weapons of mass annihilation, more than ever.” In a long but excellent article on why the study of war is important, Hanson alluded to a poem by Margaret Atwood that I’m inserting in full below. Hanson also writes:
Military history is as often the story of appeasement as of warmongering. The destructive military careers of Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler would all have ended early had any of their numerous enemies united when the odds favored them. Western air power stopped Slobodan Milošević’s reign of terror at little cost to NATO forces—but only after a near-decade of inaction and dialogue had made possible the slaughter of tens of thousands. Affluent Western societies have often proved reluctant to use force to prevent greater future violence. “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things,” observed the British philosopher John Stuart Mill. “The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.”
Indeed, by ignoring history, the modern age is free to interpret war as a failure of communication, of diplomacy, of talking—as if aggressors don’t know exactly what they’re doing. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, frustrated by the Bush administration’s intransigence in the War on Terror, flew to Syria, hoping to persuade President Assad to stop funding terror in the Middle East. She assumed that Assad’s belligerence resulted from our aloofness and arrogance rather than from his dictatorship’s interest in destroying democracy in Lebanon and Iraq, before such contagious freedom might in fact destroy him. For a therapeutically inclined generation raised on Oprah and Dr. Phil—and not on the letters of William Tecumseh Sherman and William Shirer’s Berlin Diary—problems between states, like those in our personal lives, should be argued about by equally civilized and peaceful rivals, and so solved without resorting to violence.
I would love to explain more fully or cite bits and pieces from Hanson’s article that I think important. Instead I’m going to merely invite you to read it for yourself, as well as Atwood’s poem. Lately there has been much discussion about classical studies spurred by some of the protestors at the Occupy Wall Street. While I’m appalled at the stunningly stupid comments coming from the students complaining that there aren’t any $200,000/year jobs waiting for them once they graduate with their humanities degrees, I’m equally dismayed at the ignorance coming from commentators such as Rush Limbaugh who went on a rant about Classical Studies this week. As I usually do, I agree with about half of what he’s saying because let’s face it: a huge part of the failure of our consumer-driven economy is the consumption of student dollars via loans to consume some pretty crappy classes taught by crappy professors in order to get a crappy degree. As I wrote on a friend’s Facebook post this week: Can we finally kill the education-leads-to-virtue conceit once and for all? The evidence has been around us for decades, but OWS (especially Oakland) should put that falsehood to bed.
I have long feared this type of rhetoric and wondered when it would arrive. Economies driven by endless consuming simply cannot last, and there is so much more to this life than consuming. What about contributing to the advancement of humanity? Where the OWS gang gets it wrong is that their degree is meant to get them to engage in critical thinking, not magically having a high paying job waiting for them the next day. Where is my place in this world? How can I contribute? What can I do to better my situation and of those around me? The classic liberal arts degree should never have been sold to them as the end all to beat all. If it was, a large part of the failure is on the part of the institutions of higher education…something I strongly suspect is the truth. When I got my degrees in History and in Political Science I knew that there were no jobs waiting for me based upon those two degrees alone. But the skills I took from them as far as being able to think, to debate, to write, and to discuss ideas…those were the skills that have served me well in the 21 years I’ve been a member of the post-graduate workforce.
I’m still a student of philosophy, history, and the human condition. I always will be. One should aspire to never cease to learn. It is the study of history that unites us to all of the thoughts and ideas and the consequences of them in order for us to move forward. That’s true progressivism. It’s bad enough that those students don’t understand that, but for Limbaugh and others to say that they should never have the opportunity in those studies is astounding. All of history’s demogogues, on the right and on the left, have feasted upon ignorant masses who are incapable of thinking and forming their own opinion. Sheep are more easily led to the slaughter.
And based upon all of the failures of our politicians, business leaders, heads of churches and in our collegiate sports-crazy realm, I would say we all could do with a heavy crash course in Ethics and the Humanities. As Atwood writes in her poem: The truth is seldom welcome.
The Loneliness of the Military Historian
by Margaret Atwood
Confess: it’s my profession
that alarms you.
This is why few people ask me to dinner,
though Lord knows I don’t go out of my way to be scary.
I wear dresses of sensible cut
and unalarming shades of beige,
I smell of lavender and go to the hairdresser’s:
no prophetess mane of mine,
complete with snakes, will frighten the youngsters.
If I roll my eyes and mutter,
if I clutch at my heart and scream in horror
like a third-rate actress chewing up a mad scene,
I do it in private and nobody sees
but the bathroom mirror.
In general I might agree with you:
women should not contemplate war,
should not weigh tactics impartially,
or evade the word enemy,
or view both sides and denounce nothing.
Women should march for peace,
or hand out white feathers to arouse bravery,
spit themselves on bayonets
to protect their babies,
whose skulls will be split anyway,
or, having been raped repeatedly,
hang themselves with their own hair.
These are the functions that inspire general comfort.
That, and the knitting of socks for the troops
and a sort of moral cheerleading.
Also: mourning the dead.
Sons, lovers, and so forth.
All the killed children.
Instead of this, I tell
what I hope will pass as truth.
A blunt thing, not lovely.
The truth is seldom welcome,
especially at dinner,
though I am good at what I do.
My trade is courage and atrocities.
I look at them and do not condemn.
I write things down the way they happened,
as near as can be remembered.
I don’t ask why, because it is mostly the same.
Wars happen because the ones who start them
think they can win.
In my dreams there is glamour.
The Vikings leave their fields
each year for a few months of killing and plunder,
much as the boys go hunting.
In real life they were farmers.
They come back loaded with splendour.
The Arabs ride against Crusaders
with scimitars that could sever
silk in the air.
A swift cut to the horse’s neck
and a hunk of armour crashes down
like a tower. Fire against metal.
A poet might say: romance against banality.
When awake, I know better.
Despite the propaganda, there are no monsters,
or none that can be finally buried.
Finish one off, and circumstances
and the radio create another.
Believe me: whole armies have prayed fervently
to God all night and meant it,
and been slaughtered anyway.
Brutality wins frequently,
and large outcomes have turned on the invention
of a mechanical device, viz. radar.
True, valour sometimes counts for something,
as at Thermopylae. Sometimes being right—
though ultimate virtue, by agreed tradition,
is decided by the winner.
Sometimes men throw themselves on grenades
and burst like paper bags of guts
to save their comrades.
I can admire that.
But rats and cholera have won many wars.
Those, and potatoes,
or the absence of them.
It’s no use pinning all those medals
across the chests of the dead.
Impressive, but I know too much.
Grand exploits merely depress me.
In the interests of research
I have walked on many battlefields
that once were liquid with pulped
men’s bodies and spangled with exploded
shells and splayed bone.
All of them have been green again
by the time I got there.
Each has inspired a few good quotes in its day.
Sad marble angels brood like hens
over the grassy nests where nothing hatches.
(The angels could just as well be described as vulgar
or pitiless, depending on camera angle.)
The word glory figures a lot on gateways.
Of course I pick a flower or two
from each, and press it in the hotel Bible
for a souvenir.
I’m just as human as you.
But it’s no use asking me for a final statement.
As I say, I deal in tactics.
for every year of peace there have been four hundred
years of war.
Margaret Atwood, “The Loneliness of the Military Historian” from Morning in the Burned House. Copyright © 1995 by Margaret Atwood. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.