Best Defense

Misremembering war (II): American as apple pie—but also an ancient pastime

Our memory of the ancient world is normally reduced to scraps of evidence and guesswork.



By Paul Edgar
Best Defense guest editor and columnist

Our memory of the ancient world is normally reduced to scraps of evidence and guesswork. When I refer to the ancient world, I mean the really ancient world – before the Persian and Greek periods. Before Greeks, Persians, and even before Babylonians, the Assyrians dominated the Middle East. Compared to Persia and Greece, we don’t know much about Assyria.

The Assyrian invasion of Judah, however, is unique. We know a lot. Both belligerents left written records of the war, fought around 700 BCE. Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, commissioned art to commemorate the campaign. He also left a siege ramp that you can still climb today and buckets of archeological evidence. We even have a reference to the campaign from a disinterested third party, Herodotus. With all of this information, surely we can ‘triangulate the data’ to discover what happened and why.

Sennacherib planned to sack Jerusalem. On the way, he leveled more than forty cities, killing and exiling tens of thousands of Jews. While Sennacherib was in the city of Lachish, wrapping up his siege there and preparing for the final assault on Jerusalem, he sent envoys ahead. His envoys tried a bit of public diplomacy, the first attempt on record. The Assyrian envoys bypassed the Jewish leaders and issued an ultimatum directly to Jerusalem’s residents, addressing the Jerusalemites in their own dialect. The Jews turned down the offer, prayed hard, and prepared for the worst.

Jerusalem is only 30 miles from Lachish, an easy three-day march for an army. An elite unit could walk the distance in less than 12 hours. But Sennacherib and his army never quite made it to Jerusalem from Lachish. His war did not end as he had planned, in the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem. Just as Sennacherib prepared the coup de grâce against Judah, he was derailed by a fuzzy combination of disease, a bribe, worn equipment, and an Egyptian threat. The end of his campaign is the point where the records, ancient national memory, are suddenly distorted. At the moment that matters most of all, the tactical and strategic decision, nothing corroborates.

Sennacherib’s official history is inscribed on a stone pillar, the Ancient Near East’s equivalent of a presidential library. It conveniently skips over details about how the campaign against Judah ended. Sennacherib declared victory despite the fact that he did not achieve his objective. He reports that he kept the king of Judah trapped ‘like a bird in a cage’ and that he extorted a tribute. That seems a little anticlimactic following the unmitigated destruction of more than 40 cities.

Judah’s official records, of course, also proclaim decisive victory, at least in one text. A separate record says that Judah bribed Sennacherib to leave. A third says that an Egyptian army threatened Sennacherib, prompting him to withdraw. Herodotus corroborates the account of the Egyptian threat and adds that Assyrian equipment was worn out, perhaps chewed up by rodents.

What really happened and who really won? More importantly, why did it end this way? Did Assyria finally hit a materiel and moral wall, as every campaign eventually does? Did Judah really believe it had won decisively when only one town survived? It is interesting that the most humiliating part of the war for both sides is also the part remembered least well.

Jeremi Suri, a scholar noted for connecting history with policy, observed, “The death of soldiers in battle inspires especially strong incentives for self-justification.” There is a feral, self-interested ferocity involved in remembering war, even as it is happening. Consciously and subconsciously, we too often distort it. Remembering war poorly is an ancient pastime.

Remembering war poorly is also an American pastime. I mentioned in the introduction to this series that General John Galvin was one of the first authors who gave me a vocabulary to describe the phenomenon that poor memory and poor security policy are connected. Galvin noted that the American memory of the Battle of Lexington Green drifted steadily as time passed.

Originally a brutal British slaughter, by the late 19th century many Americans thought that the Minute Men had fought intensely at Lexington Green. It was remembered as a real battle, not as the rout that actually occurred. Galvin proposed a correction to that notion in his book, The First Fight: Myths & Realities of the American Revolution. In his introduction, he suggests why remembering war well is important.

“Lexington…provides us a microcosm of the drift to war – with all the tension, the misinterpretations, the fears and the posturings, the courageous and the foolish acts that augur the clash of arms. The distortion of this historical event has kept us from some vital insights concerning the way that wars begin.”

Wars, including the American Revolution, often start with a drift, barely perceptible until it is too late to do things differently or better. Galvin’s own experience in Vietnam was preceded by a long drift. Perhaps we would have responded better to Vietnam had we recognized a few of the patterns that Galvin saw.

Here is a closing thought from Henry Kissinger which summarizes the importance of remembering well: “A state achieves identify through the consciousness of a common history. This is the only ‘experience’ nations have, their only possibility of learning for themselves. History is the memory of states.” Kissinger’s description of the role of national memory is accurate. But the memory of states is also prone to error and terrible misapplication. We’ve doing it for years.

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.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1
A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola