Peter’s off today (we spent all morning down in Tacoma getting the oil changed then the afternoon painting at the new place) and he’s hogging the computer. So I’m using the laptop. All my links are over there, and it’s too annoying checking them all here, but typing’s easy, so I wanted to quote some bits I thought were especially interesting from this book I’ve had, The Face of Battle, by John Keegan (he’s been writing for the Telegraph on war matters lately, some of which I’ve linked to). Since I think it’s interesting, I’m sure some of you will too, but also I have to return it to the library and I wouldn’t mind having a few of these lying around in my archives (ah, the ol’ external memory drive we call “ninme”).
In a chapter in the beginning called The History of Military History:
For whether or not an individual historian accepts the Christian ethic which supplies that tradition with its dynamic, the Christian revulsion from war hedges about any humane intellectual approach to the subject with formidable difficulties. War, in Christian theology, is a sinful activity, unless carried on within a framework of rules which few commanders are in practice able to obey; in particular those which demand that he shall have a just aim and a reasonable expectation of victory. Any objective study quickly reveals, however, that most wars are begun for reasons which have nothing to do with justice, have results quite different from those proclaimed as their objects, if indeed they have any clear-cut result at all, and visit during their course a great deal of casual suffering on the innocent. Western historians, whether monastic chroniclers or Gibbonian sceptics, had always therefore tended to depict war as a calamity, a scourge, or a foolishness, unless it could be represented as a crusade (always a Just War in Christian terms) or be used to exemplify the life and exploits of great men. Great national triumphs, like Waterloo, always found their epic-writers; but serious historians, though compelled to write about war, were generally unanimous in deprecating the necessity. The intellectual movements of the nineteenth century heightened scholarly uncertainties about the ethics and role of warfare. On the one hand, the school of Ranke advanced a view of history which looked for much deeper and more complicated explanations of historical change than surface events like military victory or defeat could supply. On the other, the economic school, which Marx was about to capture out-right, argued that it was in the dynamic relationship between capital and labour that the explanation of human conduct lay, and to this armies and their doings were an irrelevance. Parallel to these ideas, and not inconsistent with either, lay that of Progress itself, one of the most potent that the nineteenth century was to produce, so powerful that, though terribly wounded, it is still with us today. A belief in Progress was indeed already promising to supplant a belief in God. And the phenomenon of war offers, if anything, greater offence to the former than the latter. For Christians have always accepted that Man, whether individually or en masse, can and will behave badly, cruelly, and violently. The vision of the future which the idea of Progress holds out, however, demands much greater optimism about human nature. How, in these intellectual and moral circumstances, were scholars to justify to themselves or their readers any discussion of war which did not condemn it outright as an aberration on the face of human history?
Creasy supplied the formula. War had a purpose; it had made the nineteenth century. Moreover, the study of war is also a study of human free will:
[very long quote]
The delicate hypocrisy of Creasy’s formula provided every historian who wished to write about battles with the excuse he needed. Battles are important. They decide things. They improve things. Exactly what, and how, are questions that the individual historian is left free by Creasy’s nihil obstat, his grant of moral approval, to judge for himself. It is a dispensation which whole squads of modern military historians have seized on to justify an endless, repetitive examination of battles which by no stretch of the imagination can be said to have done anything but make the world worse; to justify their ascription to strategic ally piffling, pointless bloodbaths of the cachet “decisive” on the grounds that they must have decided something, even if what exactly that might have been escapes elucidation; to wallow in battles for battles’ sake; and to evade any really inquisitive discussion of what battles might be like by recourse to the easy argument that one must stick to the point, which is decision, results, winning or losing.
And then, towards the end of the book, in the chapter The Inhuman Face of War:
Battle is always an abnormality. But in violent and technically primitive societies, the facts of battle come as less of a shock to those who first face them, and leave presumably less of a scar, than they do in ordered, technically developed states. This is not to say that a medieval soldier would adapt better to life on a modern battlefield than would a contemporary. To say that would be nonsense — if only because the noise level, for which nothing in his experience would have prepared him, would of itself probably suffice to disorientate and disarm him. But it is to say that, reared in a rural world where… he would not have found in a battle of his own day, not at least until the killing began, and unless in the remarkable display of colour and dress in which the chroniclers took such pleasure, anything greatly to shock or surprise him. There was, in short, considerable congruence between the civil and military facts of medieval life and a minimum — admittedly a very substantial minimum — of divergence between them on the battlefield.
Today, in the late twentieth century, there exists also a considerable congruence between the technology of civilian and military life. Armoured vehicles have their counterparts in agricultural and earth-moving machinery, trucks are trucks, whether bringing detergent to the supermarket or taking troops to the front, wireless keeps on au courant from minute to minute whether in the bath or a slit trench, civil aircraft are as noisy as military, the quality, though not the volume, of battlefield noise is made familiar by the showing of war films — and this is to mention only artefacts, or their side-effects, with which the general population has an everyday acquaintance. Men and women employed in continuous-process industries are made indirectly familiar with many more modern battlefield phenomena: they are to a considerable degree inured to very high constant noise levels and to emissions of intense light, they work in proximity to dangerous machinery and chemicals, including poison gases, and they are involved in high-speed automatic processes — stamping, turning, reaming, cutting, moulding, the pouring of molten metals and plastics — which require perfectly timed human cooperation and imitate in many respects the actions of modern weapons systems, such as automated artillery pieces, self-loading tank guns, machine-guns, flame throwers, rocket dischargers, and the like.
Modern industry, moreover, teaches its work people — though the same lessons are learnt by almost all citizens, first in school and later as the administrés of the states’ bureaucracy — habits of order, obedience and uniform behaviour which the embryo armies of the sixteenth century could not expect to find in any of their doltish recruits, though they rightly recognized their possession to be essential to the new warfare and devoted a lengthy and brutal effort to their inculcation. If to this pre-conditioning for battle we add the undoubted power which nationalist and ideological feeling exerts in opposition to the human instincts for self-preservation, we ought to conclude that twentieth-century man is potentially a better soldier than he of any other age.
Yet that seems to me an improbable conclusion. In the first place, the climate of family, school and cultural life, for all the respect we accord to the military virtues (without so naming them), has in the aftermath of two world wars become suffused with a deep antipathy to violence and to conflict. The abolition of capital punishment in almost all Western countries is but the most striking example of this distaste; with it belongs the gradual elimination of corporal punishment from education, the right to conscientious objection now conceded even by those states, like France, which have always castigated it as unsocial, the pursuit of economic and political cooperation between nations at the expense of a partial surrender of sovereignty and a spreading belief in the attainability of a social millennium without passage through the fires of class warfare. It is important, of course, not to make too much of this climate. Moods are contrapuntal, so that the quietism of the drop-out is matched by the insurrectionary beliefs of the parlour revolutionary. Moods are also fickle, and the very absurdity of much of the propaganda of scoial pacifism is calculated to hurry forward a turn of the tide. We ought, therefore, to be prepared for a dialectical swing away from fraternalism back towards the doctrines of self-reliance and self-defense coûte que coûte (of which the Israelis and the Palestinians are each purveying a highly exportable version). Yet were such a swing to complete its travel, I very much doubt whether the thereby changed outlook of Western youth would fit them for service on the battlefield of the future. For, despite the congruence of civilian and military technology which is such an arresting feature of the modern world, where motor cars mimic missiles and machine tools machine-guns in a realization of a Futurist fantasy, the divergence between the facts of everyday and of battlefield existence is not only greater than ever before but is widening year by year.
Update: Forgot a passage, a couple pages later, same chapter:
These intentional inhumanities [of modern developments in weaponry: claymore mines, anti-tank guns, napalm, etc] seem worthy of notice because the societies which sanction them are dedicated, in their treatment of human beings away from the battlefield, to standards of consideration, compassion even, higher than those adopted by any others of which we have knowledge. The modern Western state accepts the responsibility not merely to protect the individual’s life and property, traditionally the legal minima, but to educate and heal him, support him in old age and when unemployed, and increasingly to guarantee his prosperity. Might the modern conscript not well think, at first acquaintance with the weapons the state foists on him, that its humanitarian code is evidence either of a nauseating hypocrisy or of a psychotic inability to connect actions with their results?
End of update.
Then, in the last chapter, The Abolition of Battle, a line:
But the NATO powers cannot count, as can all parties to the Palestinian problem, on having their wars stopped by outside intervention whenever a defeat looms.
Plus ça change, eh? And then, a few paragraphs later, at the end of the book:
The young have already made their decision. They are increasingly unwilling to serve as conscript in armies they see as ornamental. The militant young have taken that decision a stage further: they will fight for the causes which they profess not through the mechanisms of the state and its armed power but, where necessary, against them, by clandestine and guerrilla methods. It remains for armies to admit that the battles of the future will be fought in never-never land. While the great armoured hosts face each other across the boundary between east and west, no soldier on either side will concede that he does not believe in the function for which he plans and trains. As long as states put weapons in their hands, they will show each other the iron face of war. But the suspicion grows that battle has already abolished itself.
Now, this is long enough already, so I won’t say anything more, but there are a few threads running through those passages which should make one’s brain spin and logic centers whirl to life. And considering that this book was published in 1976, well all the more so.
To make up for all the long quoting, a plug for him and his book (and hey, I get a couple cents too!):
John Keegan was for many years Senior Lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He is the author of many books on military history, including The Book of War, The Mask of Command, The Price of Admiralty, The First World War, The Second World War [actually, there’s a bunch of books called “The Second World War” by him, but I think that’s the one they mean], and A History of Warfare. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.