War in History and Memory

Since the Iliad, war has inspired stories – mixing fact and fiction – which reveal as much, if not more, about the realities of conflict as academic studies. John E. Talbott examines writing about ‘the human condition at its most extreme’.

Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary and architect of the Soviet Red Army, supposedly said: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’ All of human history has scarcely seen a time when there was not a war going on somewhere. Still, in American universities, the study of war had few students during the 1960s and 1970s. The Vietnam War cast a cloud over all things martial. Academics were among the conflict’s most influential and prominent critics and many of their students followed them into academic careers. Critics of US policy in Vietnam were of no mind to study war. But time passed, passions cooled and veterans of the antiwar movement faded away. Interest in military history and the study of war was reawakened. War came off the list of unseemly subjects. 

What are we talking about when we talk about war? Here is Carl von Clausewitz’s cold-blooded definition: ‘War is ... an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.’ He wrote this in On War, the book his widow pieced together from manuscript fragments and published in 1832.


Clausewitz was a man of letters, but he was also a combat soldier. He first went to war in the Prussian army in 1793, aged 13. He gave the next 22 years of his life to fighting the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon and spent his last 16 years thinking and writing about them. He never lost sight of the essence of war: deadly violence. War is ultimately about killing and being killed. It represents the human condition at its most extreme. 

Clausewitz’s definition covers every kind of war. The Second World War, the biggest and bloodiest in history, deployed huge armies from many states. The 9/11 terrorists represented no state; there were barely enough of them to fill a substitutes’ bench in the Premier League. Yet both the soldiers of the Second World War and the Islamists of 9/11 acted according to Clausewitz’s definition.  

All conflicts have a quicksilver quality; each bears unique characteristics and they elude attempts to lump them easily together. Yet humans are inveterate classifiers. They want to know how one thing is like – and unlike – another. 

Campaigns rarely lasted more than a week in ancient Greece. Raiding parties conducted sporadic crop-destroying forays into rival territories. Pitched battles were brief. Two sides faced off in what resembled an armed rugby scrum. The men at the back of the scrum pushed against the men in front, brandishing their weapons as they went back and forth. Most combatants survived these brutal encounters to fight another day. 

The conduct of war changed little in the centuries after the Greeks. Relatively small numbers of men wielded edged weapons, joined by increasing numbers of war horses and draft animals. At Agincourt in October 1415 foot soldiers and knights on horseback occupied a boggy, tree-lined space less than a mile wide and a mile deep. In roughly three hours of fighting the English and Welsh archers prevailed over the French heavy cavalry.  

The invention of gunpowder meant no more Agincourts. Armour, pikes and even longbows became useless against muskets and cannon. Day-long encounters stretched into the months and years of early modern siege warfare. Besiegers settled in to oust the besieged from their walled fortifications. Slowly, firearms became lighter and deadlier, easier to carry and use. Mobility returned to the battlefield.

 The French Revolution totally changed the conduct of war. France in the 1780s was the richest, most populous state in Europe. It could put more young men under arms than any rival. It could potentially supply the wherewithal for military adventures abroad. Yet the men of the Old Regime had neither the will nor the means to do either. The revolutionaries did. They pushed aside the old constraints, amplifying the power and accelerating the speed of war. Wielding the forces that the revolution let slip, Napoleon smashed the old European order to pieces. 

Industrialism’s genius for creative destruction was readily turned to killing. Take the machine gun. It works the same way as a sewing machine. A sewing machine keeps sewing as long as you keep your foot on the pedal; a machine gun keeps firing until you release the trigger. A rush of such engines of destruction appeared throughout the last third of the 19th century and into the 20th. 

oventry the morning after the  Luftwaffe  air raid of November 14th, 1940.  © Bridgeman Images

Submarines, aircraft and machine guns conspired to make the First World War the first thoroughly industrialised conflict. Its conduct came as a terrible shock. Nearly everyone expected the Great Powers to hurl huge, rail-borne armies against each other, deciding the war through speed and mass. But the machine gun transformed the anticipated war of movement into a war of defence. To escape the gun’s murderous and unrelenting fire, combatants dug trenches. Elaborate, interconnected passageways soon zigzagged across the entire Western Front. 

The Second World War offered escape from the trenches, but exacted a greater loss of life and property. Between the wars the industrialisation of warfare grew at rapid speed. Aircraft and other weapons enabled belligerents to wreak destruction beyond a scale previously imagined. Civilians died in their tens of millions: in bombing raids over cities, submarine attacks at sea and on the ground in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the ghastliest arena of all, the ‘Bloodlands’ of Timothy Snyder’s recent study.

But the second round of this war of the world also resembled its predecessor, at least in parts. Belligerents in both wars fielded huge conscripted armies. Both wars reached deeply into the economy, society and politics of every participant, wrenching them in new directions. Total War harnessed the explosive force of xenophobic nationalism, provoking revolution. The first war weakened overseas empires; the second finished them off.

The era of war that opened with the French Revolution closed in 1945. Since then the United States has fought three long and costly wars against unequals: asymmetric warfare. US forces quickly dispatched Iraq’s conventional army. Mission accomplished, said President George W. Bush on board USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003. But a formidable insurgency ensued, throwing the Americans into disarray. The insurgents relied on stealth, surprise and agility. They excelled at hit-and-run attacks, drive-by shootings, ambushes, rigging booby traps and fashioning improvised explosive devices. In short, they resorted to the ancient tactics of guerrilla war. By such means they hoped to buy time, ward off defeat, keep the Americans off balance, sap their energies and exhaust their will to continue fighting.

The Americans invaded Iraq with little idea of how to conduct counterinsurgency warfare. They had never studied such campaigns. They had no doctrine or tactics for dealing with insurgencies. But they managed to elude another ‘quagmire’, as the US reporter David Halberstam had described Vietnam. On their own initiative, the soldiers on the ground devised a doctrine and tactics for fighting insurgencies. The US military had never undertaken such a searching assessment of itself in the midst of a war. Its ideas and practices came into play in the so-called ‘Surge’ of 2007. Counterinsurgency, proponents insist, is the war of the foreseeable future. Critics assert that it is a will o’ the wisp, pursued at the risk of neglecting conventional clashes. 

What kind of stories has the history of warfare produced? The oldest, most widely practised kind of military history is that of ‘lessons learned’ (or ‘mistakes made’). Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, written in the fifth century bc, offers an early example. A cashiered Athenian general, Thucydides, shows how Athens’ conduct of its long war with Sparta was one of error after error, culminating in the calamitous Sicilian expedition. 

Clausewitz is this school’s most influential practitioner. In 1806 Napoleon crushed the Prussian army in a battle near the city of Jena in eastern Germany. Shocked by the totality of their defeat, Clausewitz and his colleagues took stock of their army’s failings. Poorly organised, administered, supplied and led, the Prussians had what Abraham Lincoln later called ‘a case of the slows’. Sweeping reforms of the Prussian state and army sprang from the disaster. The reformers believed Prussia’s glorious military past, under figures such as Frederick the Great, could be used to inspire its future. They were practical men, like most professional soldiers. Their cast of mind informed On War, which is as much a practical guide to the reality of war as a book of theory. Practical men elsewhere took note. General staffs proliferated in the nations and empires of 19th-century Europe. The planning of war fell to them. They anchored their preparations for the future in studies of the past. 

Academic historians came late to the history of war, taking to heart Clausewitz’s aphorism that ‘war is a naked continuation of politics with other means’. They often did not bother to read another line the Prussian wrote, though they took a particular interest in the relationship between force and statecraft: the history of diplomacy. They asked why wars broke out, how they ended and what their consequences were. They asked what role wars played in The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, as the British historian A.J.P. Taylor’s 1954 study put it. They asked how wars shaped peacemaking. 

A vase from fifth-century Athens depicts a fight for the body of Patroclus Achilles' comrade in arms.  © Bridgemand Images.

TSUYOSHI HASEGAWA exemplifies this study of war as policy. His 2005 book, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, advances a new theory of how war in the Pacific came to an end, not because of the atomic bomb but owing to the Japanese leadership’s fears of an imminent Soviet invasion. Another notable exponent of war as policy is Frederik Logevall. In Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (1999), Logevall shows how Vietnam ensnared Lyndon Johnson. Miscalculating domestic politics and fearing personal humiliation, the president mired America in Vietnam. 

In 1976 the British military historian John Keegan asked a simple question: what is it like to take part in combat? His answer, published as The Face of Battle, reshaped the history of war. Keegan tells us what it was like to be at Agincourt in 1415, at Waterloo in 1815, at the Somme in 1916. The three battlefields were killing grounds. The battles presented scenes of howling chaos. They were terrifying. They stank. They generated unbearable noise. They sowed utter confusion. They induced panic. They killed in their thousands boys who were not yet men. They inflicted ghastly wounds, physical and mental. 

Keegan takes us where few historians had been, but he also looks beyond the battlefield, for soldiers arrived there from other lives. Keegan brings the history of society into the history of war by telling us about these other lives. He tells us what soldiers did before they went to war and we learn that nothing prepared them for the battleground. Keegan’s war-and-society approach has become so common it is hard to remember how original it was. The Face of Battle is the book that launched a thousand other titles. 

History tells war stories, but it has no monopoly on storytelling. Most war stories are not evidence-based, to borrow a term from science and medicine. But they still tell us a lot about war and about ourselves. One authority in this field is Tim O’Brien. His novel, The Things They Carried, can lay claim to being the definitive book on Vietnam. One chapter is called ‘How to Tell a True War Story’: 

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil … In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.

The Things They Carried draws on memory and invention and it is hard to tell the difference. Homer made up stuff in the Iliad and the Odyssey, the two oldest war stories in western literature. Long stretches of the Odyssey tell one tall tale after another. The one-eyed Cyclops lives in a cave and eats men for dinner. The bewitching goddess Circe turns men into pigs. The Sirens’ rapturous song lures sailors to their deaths. Entertaining, but preposterous; just what you would expect from Odysseus, wily man of twists and turns. But in the story of Odysseus, the returning war veteran, there is also much to believe and much to learn about the aftermath of war. In the midst of his arduous journey home Odysseus goes down to the kingdom of the dead to ask the prophet Tiresias what lies in store for him and his men. Tiresias replies that even if Odysseus escapes further trials:

You’ll come home late and come a broken man – all shipmates lost alone in a stranger’s ship – and you will find a world of pain at home. 

Homer’s listeners already know what trials the hero’s homecoming will bring. The master storyteller has made sure to forewarn them. 

Yet the Odyssey ends happily for Odysseus. He is reunited with his son, Telemachus, and Penelope, his devoted wife. But the Odyssey also tells of a soldier’s wife’s betrayal. Clytemnestra takes a lover, Aegisthus, while her husband Agamemnon is at war. When Agamemnon returns home, the lovers kill him. This story expresses an anxiety that runs from ancient Greece to the recent war in Afghanistan. ‘Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me’, the popular song of the Second World War implores. Soldiers have always feared their wives and sweethearts might be sitting there with someone else. Many have discovered they were right.

War and Peace is fiction, but it is a novel grounded in history. Tolstoy’s invented characters mingle with real people, from Napoleon down. Like Tim O’Brien, Tolstoy was an ex-soldier. War and Peace drew on his stupendous imagination, but it owed something to his experience. How else to explain his description of a moment before battle? 

The squadron in which Rostov served had just had time to mount its horses when it was halted facing the enemy, and there lay between them, separating them, that same terrible line of the known and of fear, like the line separating the living from the dead. All the men sensed that line, and the question of whether they would or would not cross that line, and how they would cross it, troubled them.

The list of soldier-novelists such as Tolstoy and O’Brien is long. We learn as much about war from their best stories as we learn from the best historians, sometimes more. To know about the trenches of the Great War one must read the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. In ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, Owen wrote:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

In war memoirs, the soldier’s tale is particular and, ‘because it is particular’, Samuel Hynes points out, ‘it is the human tale of war’. In such tales, he continues, we discover:

What it was really like to be there, where the actual killing was done … War is another world, where men feel and act differently and so, when they return to the other world of peace and ordinariness, they feel a need to tell their tales of the somewhere else where they have been … The stories that soldiers tell are small-scale, detailed, and confined – ‘very local, limited, incoherent’ as [the memoirist] Edmund Blunden put it – and necessarily so, for that is the way they see war. 

Hynes wrote his own war memoir of his experiences flying dive bombers in the Pacific. He learned to fly at the US Marine air station that, following the war, became the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Certain war stories elaborate the myths of war, in Hynes’ sense of ‘the simplified narrative that evolves from a war and gives it meaning: the Good War, the Bad War, the Necessary War’. Hollywood spread the myth of the Bad War in a string of movies about Vietnam veterans: The Deer HunterComing Home, Born on the Fourth of July and Taxi Driver

These films indict the government of the United States and tell of how the Vietnam War damaged the men who fought it. Unhinged by the conflict, they return home to be spat upon and left adrift. Travis Bickle, the protagonist of Taxi Driver, is a psychopath. Played by Robert De Niro, he is sympathetic, but a psychopath all the same. A former marine and a gun freak, Bickle comes close to assassinating a prominent female politician. He shoots some other people before achieving respite from his demons, if only temporarily. 

Films made during the Second World War were often exercises in propaganda. In his 1944 film of Henry V, Laurence Olivier exhorts his countrymen, none too subtly, to persevere in the fight against Nazi Germany. (Contrast it to the 1989 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, in which Kenneth Branagh plays a bloodied warrior-king, symbolic of the post-Vietnam era.) But with the conflict over, Hollywood dared to confront the traumas of war, at least at first. The Best Years of Our Lives appeared in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. Three combat veterans return to the same home town. One had been a banker, one a soda jerk (a server of soft drinks and ice cream), one a star athlete. They are changed men, who struggle with the changes they find at home. The banker drinks. The athlete is a double amputee, mortified by the hooks he wears for hands. The soda jerk, a successful, highly decorated veteran, finds himself reduced to his former station. The film tells their intertwined stories with great sympathy. It has no happy Hollywood ending. 

The myth of the Second World War as the Good War was constructed much later: long after Vietnam, in fact. In Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan and his TV series Band of Brothers, Hollywood made recompense for their myth of the Bad War, creating yet another myth, that of the ‘Greatest Generation’.  

Odysseus, the archetypal war veteran, comes home in disguise. He knows what happened to Agamemnon. But all combat veterans come home in disguise, strangers to the families they left behind. Sometimes they are strangers to themselves, altered in character, personality and behaviour. Many have sustained invisible wounds, which sometimes heal. In the summer of 2003 Captain Nathaniel Fick came home from Iraq, where he had commanded a marine reconnaissance platoon. The war followed him home in nightmares and apparitions. ‘I thought I was losing my mind’, Fick wrote. ‘The only way I knew I was still sane was that I thought I might be going crazy. Surely that awareness meant I was sane ... I was reduced to taking comfort in a tautology.’ Fick recovered. He went on to become the youthful founder of a cyber-security company. 

But some ‘mind wounds’ become chronic. Often they appear as if from nowhere, years after combat veterans return home. Frequently they go undiagnosed. They are an ancient malady. In Achilles, hero of the Iliad, the psychia- trist Jonathan Shay sees a combat-stress casualty. Mind wounds have gone by many names – Nostalgia, Soldiers’ Heart, Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue – and now, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Together with Traumatic Brain Injury, with which it has affinities, PTSD is the signature wound of Iraq and Afghanistan. Estimates of casualties vary considerably, but patients are overwhelming the military medical system. Mind wounds do not easily yield to treatment, which anyway, many veterans cannot get. Those who should seek treatment do not, despite the fact that many more American soldiers commit suicide than die from hostile fire, seeking escape from a world of pain.

Odysseus makes it home from Troy, but Achilles dies in battle. The Iliad refers to him as Peleus’ matchless son, the greatest of the Achaeans. The death of Achilles represents the starkest reality of war: being killed. Every soldier knows this. Those they leave behind know it, too. During the American Civil War, families had an expression for this awareness. They called the absent place at the dinner table the ‘Empty Chair’. The absentee was away for a time, they said, but they knew the chair might be empty forever. 

John E. Talbott is Research Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

War in History and Memory

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