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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’.

Mortar unit of the US 2nd Brigade Combat team, Iraq, 2007.  © Alamy/The GuardianLeon 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. 

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