May 13, 2009
“Gooood morning, Vietnam!!” I say that as a veteran of that particular conflict and also as a big Robin Williams fan. It’s my privilege to welcome you to the latest in our long-running and dare I say successful series of weekends for secondary school teachers. This is our fourth visit to Cantigny over three years. Hence we extend very special thanks to Col. Herbert and the First Division Museum, as well as our sponsors, the McCormick Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, Mr. H.F. Lenfest, the Bradley Foundation, and the Stuart Family Foundation. Not least, thanks to you teachers, whom I liken to front line soldiers in our battle to educate America’s youth. I think you’ll agree it’s often a battle.
Our subject today is war, which calls to mind two recent episodes in my life; coincidences.
My wife asked me one morning a few weeks ago what I was going to be lecturing on that day down at the University of Pennsylvania. I replied “the Grand Alliance in World War II.” Whereupon my 17-year-old daughter piped up, “I love World War II!” Later that same day, a student at Penn, also female, said exactly the same thing.
In the case of my daughter, it came as news to me. You’d think that if she had a real interest in military history, she might have brought it to the attention of her professor father, a historian. I expect the reality is that she had been recently turned onto the subject in her AP U.S. history class. But the wording—“I love World War II”—was especially surprising. Now, I know how kids use hyperbole—“That teacher makes us memorize tons of stuff!” As if knowledge could somehow be weighed like a truckload of mulch. But how do you “love” the battle of Stalingrad or Omaha beach, or Auschwitz, or Hiroshima? Clearly my daughter, I assume, meant that she very much liked studying the war.
The fact is, war fascinates for reasons both morbid and sublime. It brings out the best and the worst in people. War is dramatic. Kids like that. It’s tragic. It’s strategic – there’s the game-playing fascination with studying wars. There are the contingency factors, the what if’s—how history could have turned out so differently if this or that had gone differently in a given war. I think students also can sense that every family is affected in one way or another by wars. Our task is to leverage that natural interest or fascination in order to communicate the title of this weekend: What Students Need to Know About America’s Wars.
Now for the second episode, an email I received just this week.
“Dear Dr. McDougall,
I’m writing an article for National Journal about which American wars have been worth fighting and which haven’t. For each major U.S. war, I plan to apply a few criteria. How important was the national interest at stake? To what extent did the war accomplish its purpose? At what cost, including unintended consequences, as the war fought? What would have happened if the war had not been fought?
Also, I’m wondering if the minor wars, from the Barbary Pirates to Bosnia and Kosovo, have been more successful by and large than our big wars.
Don’t worry, I’m not asking for a month of your time, but I’d very much like to give you a phone call to talk for a half an hour or so and hear your most provocative thoughts.”
The fact is that we’re in the midst of a war that has turned largely unpopular right now, perhaps you might even say two wars. One might even say a global, ongoing, protracted conflict. As a result, as so often has happened in the past—during Korea and Vietnam—a great debate has arisen among many Americans in several different media about the place of war in American history. Not just the current war that has gotten us angst-ridden, but now the tendency is to look back and say, “Has it always been this way? Have we been looking at the past with rose-colored glasses? Are there some trends and patterns in the American military or statecraft that give rise to botched wars or wars that were contingent and perhaps shouldn’t have been fought?” That’s the kind of debate we hear now—a debate about whether the U.S. is intrinsically militant or militaristic; whether, if that’s so, it’s a national virtue or a vice; and whether America’s wars have indeed been worth fighting. Engaging such debate honestly and knowledgeably is not easy, and much of the stuff you hear in debates through the media is either dishonest or ignorant.
So our purpose is to enable our students to engage these big questions about the place of war in American history honestly and knowledgeably, and our purpose in conferences like this is to help you help your students do it. To achieve that, we’ve assembled an all-star team of scholars, beginning with Williamson Murray….