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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Castrioti

Why are we fascinated by military history?

“There has never been a good war or a bad peace.” Benjamin Franklin

Dead soldier from the Civil War photo by Mathew Brady

There are those who would argue that the study of war is nothing if not the study of human failure. War is, after all, a form of legalized slaughter. Particularly in times of peace, it seems bewildering that any two peoples could not come together and resolve their differences without resorting to mass violence. Yet, we easily forget how intractable humanity can become in their beliefs, in their hatreds, and in their devotion to their own perceived superiority.

Obviously, those tasked with defending (or in some cases expanding) a nation’s borders are wise to study war in order to learn from the successes and failures of military history. In 1991, General Norman Schwarzkopf handily defeated the Iraqi army by making strategic use of a pincer tactic Hannibal Barca had employed to destroy a Roman army over two thousand years before. On the other hand, Adolf Hitler and his generals should have heeded Napoleon’s experience with the Russian winter and the United States and her NATO allies should have recalled that Afghanistan is not called the “Graveyard of Empires” for no reason.

Historians for their part, and equally obviously, must study war as it is their duty to document our

past. Whether good, evil, or something in between makes no difference to the historian. Everything must be taken down for posterity’s sake and for reasons similar to those of military leaders: avoiding the mistakes of history. Sadly, few ever learn from the lessons of history because every generation believes “we are different than all those that came before us”.

Which leaves you and I; those of us who are neither professional historians nor soldiers. Why are we so fascinated by war? Offhand one could say that it is a morbid fascination akin to fixating on news reports of a natural disaster or whipping our head around as we pass a vehicular accident. In our psychology-saturated post-modern society, many will sneer at this perceived ghoulish pleasure in human suffering. Yet, for most people, it is not pleasure at all; it is a sense of “that could have been me or a loved one” and “how would I act if that were to happen to me?”. In other words, it is a sense of relief in the former and a sense of hope in the latter.

Moreover, we are utterly fascinated by human bravery and ingenuity. That men could stand in disciplined formation while musket rounds and cannon balls smashed through their ranks boggles comprehension today. The incredible levels of planning and coordination required to accomplish the D-Day landings are likewise astonishing. We can lament that these ingenious projects led to death and destruction, but we cannot help but be captivated by what human beings can accomplish for good or ill.

Lastly, for those of us who have served in the military, there are feelings of nostalgia. Regardless of whether we experienced combat, we cannot help but sympathize with the soldiers and sailors of any age. We know the comradery they felt, we know the pride they felt, and some know too well the terror they felt.


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