James Holmes

Preserving History and The Long Peace

War and peace are too complex to attribute to generational change alone. Still, preserving history can’t hurt.

Preserving History and The Long Peace
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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.)

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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.