Preserving History and The Long Peace
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Preserving History and The Long Peace


The thought surfaces every year on Pearl Harbor Day: generational change is a remorseless thing with unforeseeable effects. The Pearl Harbor generation is swiftly departing the pattern, as aviators say. A couple of decades back, when the Naval Diplomat was a Naval War College student (hard to believe, I know), I noticed a curious phenomenon. This was back when the History Channel was mockingly known as the Hitler Channel. World War II documentaries were that prevalent among its programming. But if you watched any show of recent vintage, the firsthand interviews all came from soldiers, airmen, marines, and sailors who were very junior during the conflict. Nary an admiral or general among them.

That seemed odd. It narrowed viewers’ perspective on events of world-historical scope to sea stories and other personal accounts. Mind you, the common touch lent by, say, the memories retold by a seaman recruit who survived the sinking of the Arizona was invaluable. It made these events real. Heck, I benefited a lot from knowing my granddads, both U.S. Navy enlisted men and World War II vets. One had an aircraft carrier (USS Block Island, namesake of an offshore island here in my adopted home state) torpedoed out from under him by a German U-boat, gave his life preserver to a wounded shipmate, and treaded water for hours until rescued. Such everyday heroism is the stuff of family and national lore.

But the question lingers. Any words about strategy or politics in History Channel programs come secondhand, usually from historians. Why the dearth of commentary from higher-ups who were there? The reason’s blindingly obvious once you think about it. Generals, admirals, and senior noncommissioned officers hold senior ranks. It takes a long time to rise to such exalted positions. Ergo, World War II leaders were much older than the junior guys featured on TV. They had mostly gone to their reward by the 1990s. That’s where oral-history efforts such as the one run by the University of Tennessee’s Center for the Study of War & Society come in. Not only do such endeavors conserve the past in the words of those who made it. They also help keep it from passing entirely into legend.

Keeping history from becoming myth is important. Generational change shapes posterity in unpredictable ways. Thucydides, for instance, points out that the heroic generation of Greeks — the cohort of Spartans and Athenians that fought, bled, and won against Persia, surmounting seemingly insurmountable odds — had passed from the scene by the time Athens and Sparta squared off against each other in 431 B.C. He ascribes the rashness of the protagonists’ actions in part to their coveting their own share of renown. They thirsted to live up to their forebears’ example. You have to think quite a bit of romance had found its way into tales of Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea over the intervening decades. Indeed, Thucydides cites the more fanciful aspects of Herodotus’ history of those events as one reason for writing an unsparing, bleakly unsentimental account of the Peloponnesian War. He was a skeptic youth bent on glory.

I’ve never been a fan of the school of thought among historians that claims to discern measurable rhythms in military history. The basic idea is that it takes a certain amount of time, and the passing of X number of generations, for a society to forget what major war is like. Time takes the edge off the horror. Once forgetfulness takes hold the likelihood of war increases. A new conflagration breaks out, and the cycle starts anew. Having been raised by mathematicians, I generally recoil from the notion that you can put numbers on complex, squishy human phenomena like war and peace. (Shhhh, don’t tell my International Relations overlords, who are forever trying to quantify the unquantifiable; I might lose my IR club membership.)

Despite the false precision scholars claim for their theory, though, the idea does make intuitive sense in general terms. One wonders whether modern technology — which furnishes the means to record and preserve history to a degree unthinkable to our ancestors — will prolong the cycle of history, change it into something else, or interrupt it entirely. Something to consider.

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
December 12, 2013 at 00:03

Strauss-Howe’s Generational Dynamics Theory is always worth a look IMO. It’s a point of reference for me. but there are many others.

Myself, my father, grandfathers, great-grandfathers and back, all served in the military. I know we go as far back as the Civil War, perhaps farther.

Alas, none of my children have served. So maybe there is something to Generational Dynamics.

Oro Invictus
December 11, 2013 at 07:36

The argument that loss of primary experience in a society of warfare due to generational changes is one I find rather specious (as I do with the more esoteric argument that societies cannot change as a whole until the “old generations” die out). Generational gaps between wars can just as easily be explained by resource considerations (e.g. if a significant amount of a nation-state’s healthy and martially-serviceable population is rendered “unsuitable” by a war, it will likely be one or more generations until these ranks can be properly replenished), while it also does not explain wars initiated by the same groups within sub-generational intervals (e.g. the Corinthian War and Boeotian War, the English-Scottish War and the Hundred-Years War, the French-Indian War and the American Revolution, etc.).

At the same time, I would argue that primary experience does not necessarily prevent mythologizing of history, as even those who fought in wars may become indoctrinated such that their recollection of events will become far removed from reality. I mean, look at the PRC and the Korean War; the vast numbers of veterans the PRC possessed (and still has) didn’t prevent the PRC from portraying that conflict as one in which the PRC inflicted a massive defeat on US-SK-UN forces (read: fought to a stalemate and achieved approximately the same number and scope of operational objectives, suffering far more casualties relative to these others) almost entirely by themselves (read: with massive amounts of NK and Soviet support), doing so with far inferior equipment (read: a larger absolute amount of advanced equipment provided by the Soviets than what US-SK-UN possessed). Now the particularly hawkish within the PRC are using this particular mythology to defend initiating a conflict with the US under the basis that “We beat them once when we only had really bad equipment, now that our equipment is a lot better it should be even easier!”.

It’s a bit like one of those old sketches on RCAFarce in which some caricature of a politician was espousing the view Canada should invade the US, because Canada defeated the US when they invaded during the War of 1812. You know, except for the fact that the person espousing those views was just an actor who was meant to be laughed at; in the PRC, a fair number of those exhorting such things work in Zhongnanhai.

December 11, 2013 at 07:26

I have to concur with your thoughts about having the honor to meet people who have actually been there and done that. My Father was a young seaman on an APA and worked as a beachmaster at Saipan amougnst other actions during the Second World War. Growing up in the early ’60 we would have neighbor BBQ’s where the father would stand by the grill and discuss who was a better general, or who had better tanks as they sipped cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. From Burma to Berlin, it seemed every theater was cover by one or another. However, they never talked of fighting, fear or blood and it’s been my experience that those who saw the worst of war, didn’t. In telling this story to my one of my Sons, a recently minted jg, I realized at that time, these guys were all in their mid 30′s and the war was only 15 years earlier. Time flies when put into perspective, I also remember my Grandfather, who at 21, was refused entry into the army during the First World War due to the fact that his father had been killed in the Spanish American War and he was the only son of a War Widow. He would tell us as kids about Paris, bad food and the rainy, muddy trenches-never about the shelling or gas. His Father, my Great Grandfather, had rushed out to join the expeditions to help free Cuba. He had grown up in the shadow of my Great, Great Grandfather who won a CMH during the US Civil War. My Dad still has the Medal, a sabre and a 1861 Army Revolver. And to go a few further, his Grandfather was at Trenton, Princeton and Monmouth.
In my conversation with my Son, I realized that my Dad was able to talk with guys who had served in the Civil War and they, in turn may have been able to talk with men that had served in the Revolution-only three “degrees-Trenton to Afghanistan. It is all a blink of the eye.

December 11, 2013 at 07:30

Forgive me, I missed a sentence. My Grandfather, after being turned away by the recruiters in NJ, took the train to NYC and changed his middle initial on the recruitment papers and got in.

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