Best Defense

War, as best as we can remember it: an introduction to a new Best Defense series

I invite you to read and respond to a new series of articles, War, as best as we can remember it.

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By Paul Edgar
Best Defense guest editor

I invite you to read and respond to a new series of articles, War, as best as we can remember it. The first premise of the series is that our memory of war influences our decisions about war. The second premise is that we can remember better, and therefore make better decisions and policies. Over the next three months, each Friday we will publish articles by veterans and scholars that illuminate aspects of one or both premises.

The series begins in earnest this Friday, when I will argue that our inclination to remember war poorly is an ancient pastime. Next, General John Galvin describes his struggle to elicit lessons from Korean War veterans in order to improve training. Colonel (Ret.) Paul Yingling will challenge our inclination to simplify events into tidy narratives. Major John Rodriguez will connect his experience in the Korengal Valley to lessons of the past and classical theory, hoping to constructively influence in the future. Former Specialist Andrya Silberman reports on a routine firefight that nobody understood fully, not even those who participated. Wrapping up these personal accounts, Colonel Keith Nightingale reminds us that remembering well is a human activity, requiring personal contact.

After the personal accounts, we will present a series of historically minded case studies written by scholars and veterans whom I will introduce later.

Remembering war well is difficult for many reasons. Three big reasons are physiological, psychological, and magnitude. Physiologically, our neurological systems work differently under severe stress, interrupting the way our brains normally record and recall things. Psychologically, we are inclined to interpret events through extremes of meaningfulness and meaninglessness. The first is the absurd, the second is a resignation to the absurd. Neither helps. As for magnitude, the number of events occurring each moment, even in a ‘slow’ war, is mind numbing. The best armies and historians cannot capture or synthesize it all. Consider a two hour firefight that is reduced to something like: At 1630 2/A/3-509 reported TIC with uk AIF. TIC complete 1830. NSTR. Awfully short and one-sided.

If remembering war well is difficult, the consequences of remembering poorly are ruinous. “The distortion of [the Battle of Lexington Green] has kept us from some vital insights concerning the way that wars begin,” wrote General John Galvin, former Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, in his introduction to The Minute Men: The First Fight – Myths and Realities of the American Revolution. Galvin was the second author to show me the connection between memory and policy. The first, naturally, was Paul Fussell in his seminal The Great War and Modern Memory. Looking at different events through different lenses, both authors concluded that distorted remembrance often anticipates unnecessary tragedy.

Neither author was interested in criticism for criticism’s sake. But that is especially true about Galvin, who passed away on September 25th of this year. In today’s parlance, Galvin was an operator. When, occasionally, he took up the critic’s pen it was because he sought progress. He believed that remembering war well could lead to better decisions and policies.

So in the tradition of Galvin and Fussell, I hope you enjoy and engage with the material we present on Fridays. To be clear, we are not attempting to ‘solve’ the problem. Rather, we aim to clarify it and discover a few ways to move forward.

Paul Edgar is a Ph.D. student in Middle East Languages and Cultures at the University of Texas and a Clements Center Graduate Fellow. Recently retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, he commanded 4thBattalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry from 2011-2013. He also has worked extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, and Israel.

Photo credit: U.S. Army

Correction, Nov. 17, 2015: In War, as best as we can remember it, Gen. John Galvin describes his struggle to elicit lessons from Korean War veterans, rather than World War II veterans as a previous version of this post incorrectly stated. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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