I am making my way through Jeremy Black’s Rethinking Military History (2004). Now that I can own a copy that costs less $89, I am ready to rethink.
In it, Black sees a problem among American leaders in that if they do study history, they rarely venture further back than World War II.
Indeed, despite efforts to teach military history to officers, the historical memory of the American military establishment and of policy makers in the American government extends no further back in time than World War Two. Faith in technology is so strong and pervasive that earlier history is seen as irrelevant and there is a lack of interest in earlier historical parallels.1
By sticking to wars such as World War II, it becomes easy to rely on the dominance of technology, as the predominate narrative focuses on comparisons between tanks, planes, and ships, as well as the evolution of assault rifles, rockets, and of course, the atomic bomb. Hence, American leaders become shocked when governments and armies crumble in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan under our military might, yet wars continue for a decade.
There are plenty of historical parallels to lengthy wars. For starters, the Philippine-American War (1899-1913) gave us a taste of fighting an insurgency, something our military has gained significant experience doing over the past 10 years. I cannot recall how many times I have heard commentators refer to Afghanistan (2001-?) as our longest war, which would be true if we pretend as if we did not have American troops fighting in the Philippines for 14 years.
In the medieval period, English King Edward I’s (r. 1272-1307) wars against the Welsh and the Scottish offer more parallels.2 He was able to subdue the Welsh through a series of campaigns, battles, and extensive castle building.
However, he could subdue the Scottish, even after overwhelming victories at the battles of Dunbar (1296) and Falkirk (1298), and several conquests in the highlands. At Dunbar, the English destroyed the Scottish army and captured their king. At Falkirk, the English again destroyed the Scottish army and sent its new leaders in permanent hiding. Yet, the Scottish continued to resist for more than a decade, eventually winning their independence from England.
History raises more questions than it answers. In this instance, the following come to mind.
- Why was Edward able to subdue the Welsh and not the Scottish?
- Why was America able to handily remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, but spend another decade of war there?
- Why was American able to handily conquer Iraq and capture Saddam, but still spend nearly a decade there?
Leaders should spend time pondering these questions.