Remembering War (XIII): Reader responses, and a series summary
First, everyone plays a role in remembering war well or poorly, active military and veterans included.
By Paul Edgar
Editor of Best Defense series of Remembering War
Given the scope of the topic, our twelve articles to date are nowhere near exhaustive. But they provide a point of departure from which I can make a few suggestions and then connect my suggestions with a couple of the dialogues that developed amongst readers.
First, everyone plays a role in remembering war well or poorly, active military and veterans included. Seeing the elephant does not make it easy to describe. The distance of the civilian and the proximity of the service member present their own unique problems.
Second, the few instances we’ve reviewed in which individuals and organizations have translated the memory of war into improved performance involved failure, the humility to admit failure (or at least less-than-ideal performance), and willingness to try new solutions rooted in both imagination and experience. Equally notable, they involved sustained personal relationships and, for lack of a better term, coaching.
Third, remembering war well is an individual and collective process rather than an endstate. For various reasons, what makes perfect sense at one moment might make less sense later, or at least be less important. Understanding and appreciating each phase or layer of memory is necessary if we are to see war in its full relief.
If those are a few of the considerations involved in remembering war well, what are the social and institutional mechanisms that help us navigate them successfully? Some are in place. I’ve no doubt that in 2025 a Ranger platoon will be more lethal than my Ranger platoon from 1995. The right relationships and institutions are established. But beyond the tactical level, I’m less sure the right mechanisms operate well or consistently. At the highest levels, I’m not sure they exist at all.
The reader dialogues prompted by Steele Brand’s article on republican virtue and imperial ends and Ian Hopper’s article describing his simulation of actual old wars rather than imaginary future wars relate to my suggestions in a few ways. Steele wrote a great article and, I’ll confess, I made a couple of editorial decisions that did not accurately reflect Steele’s own thoughts. I did not intentionally misrepresent him, but wound up doing so at a couple of points. Nonetheless, it was the combination of his superb theme and one of my less-than-perfect edits that provoked reader dialogue.
The proposition that captured reader attention was whether the United States has been acting ‘imperially’ since the 20th century. Almost every commenter admitted that there has been something like an ‘imperial-ish’ turn in U.S. foreign and military affairs. t the same time, readers clarified that this turn has not been anything like Old World imperialism and is not, fundamentally, imperialism at all. Both points are correct. Kriegsakadamie put it most succinctly: “Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t.” But note that there is enough evidence to construct an argument that centralizes either of the two characteristics of our history.
Further, while the motivations behind the global disposition of U.S. forces may not be imperial in the classical sense, we still find ourselves in the same awkward position as Old World and classical empires. How our administrations and our voters remember the trajectory of the last 100 years will substantially influence how we maintain or advance our disposition in the next 100 years, correlating to the quantity of resources and blood committed to the effort.
The number of contingent moments we can imagine before us may well correspond to the number of contingent moments we see behind us. If we understand the roles of necessity, contingency, and agency in the 20th century, we are more likely to imagine a similar array of forces and options in the 21st century. That is why I think Ian Hopper’s approach to war simulations borders on brilliant.
Recalling the roles of necessity, contingency, and agency in our past is vital and can temper our expectations and objectives for the future. Here is an anecdotal example: When I served with the Coalition Provisional Authority, we frequently compared our work to the reconstruction of Germany after World War II. We even made impressive charts demonstrating that we were years ahead of our 20th century predecessors and briefed those charts to the NSC deputies and principles. In retrospect, it is easy to see that our understanding of post-World War II reconstruction was too linear and helped flatten our view of and approach to our own work.
Reader responses to Ian’s description of his simulation amounted to another spirited, if abbreviated, simulation of the war in the Pacific. The dialogue raised dozens of reasonable, historically minded questions about what was inevitable, what was contingent, what was chaotic, and what was a product of stubborn agency. As Singh.s noted:
It seems many historians… forget how a few different decisions in the summer/fall of ’41 could have resulted in the Fall of Moscow or how one bomber sortie at Midway essentially hamstrung Japanese offensive capability for the next three years.
The dialogue about Ian’s simulation gave history a useful texture, which is exactly what Ian was trying to do. It seems that appreciating the texture of military and political history may be one aspect of remembering war well.
Tom Ricks has graciously invited me to continue this series on a less-regular basis as I collect new material and identify more contributors. In the meantime, I will conclude by posing a few questions about senior leadership and our society as a whole. It seems that remembering war well is possible in some instances. But is it possible for our society, as a whole, to remember war, in all of its texture and relief, in a manner that is productive? In a manner that not only enables us to fight more effectively, but that also enables us to anticipate and select wars more prudently? And to approach war explicitly as a national endeavor rather than an activity exclusive to senior political leaders and the military? If you have an answer that deserves more space than the comments section, send it to me at email@example.com
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 4th Battalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry, from 2011-2013. He has lived and worked extensively in Europe, Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, and Israel.
Photo credit: Sgt. Mark Fayloga/U.S. Marine Corps/Flickr