Memorial Day: Why We Must Study War

As citizens of a free country it is necessary that we acknowledge the sacrifices of the men and women in uniform that died to defend it. Civil society only survives in a world of violence and tyranny if there are rough men ready to do violence on our behalf.

Andrew Jackson, after winning the Battle of New Orleans, reminded us of the necessity of the soldier when he said our sacred liberties would be in trouble indeed if we only employ “lawyers” to defend the Constitution.

Days of memorial for those that sacrificed and died in service to their country are common in American history, stemming back to the Revolution. But the modern practice of celebrating Memorial Day as a national holiday was established after the Civil War as a way for Americans to pay tribute to their Union and Confederate dead. Some of these earliest commemorations were held at Arlington National Cemetery, which this year turns 150 years old.

However, as we look back and remember those that have died defending us we must note the famous line by philosopher George Santayana: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Modern Americans are being failed by an education system that no longer teaches about war and neglects its study to a dangerous degree.

Instruction regarding war, especially those fought by the United States, is vital for every educated citizen and not just the tiny number who now serve in the armed forces. It is important to not just respectfully mourn those lost in battle on this Memorial Day, but to understand why they fought and sacrificed.

There was a time in American history when almost every student would learn about the intricacies of American wars from a young age. In famous historian George Bancroft’s History of the United States of America, the standard history textbook in the 19th century, the battles of the American Revolution played almost more of a role than the ideas.

Bancroft focused on the sacrifice, toil, and hardship that George Washington’s troops faced and highlighted the necessity for this service to the new republic. This encouraged young Americans to join the ranks when their country called in the Civil War; they were inculcated with a belief that they owed a great debt to the previous generation for the great Constitution that protected their liberties and a duty to defend it for those that would come after. Without their sacrifices, and the service of generations of Americans, our grand experiment in liberty and government of, for, and by the people would have faded long ago.

Unfortunately, for modern American students, the “mystic chords of memory” connecting them with past defenders of liberty and the Constitution are being lost. How many today are taught about the suffering at Valley Forge, the heroism at Gettysburg’s Little Round Top, or the world-changing Invasion of Normandy that set a continent free?

Worse, students are left with a serious lack of insight into human nature and will be unprepared when war finally comes.

Thomas K. Lindsay, director at the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, recently wrote about the frightening lack of military history education at American universities. “If the seeds of war are planted in human nature, the study of human nature, the humanities, needs to take account of it. For this reason, American history courses had always -- up until recently -- offered military-history courses,” he continued. “No more: Observers have noted an alarming decline in military-history courses in university history departments nationally.”

This lack of military history teaching is bad at the primary and secondary levels of education, but even worse at the university level where any focus on war itself is intentionally diminished. In an article by military historian Victor Davis Hanson he explains the results of a 2004 survey of the top 25 U.S. history departments:

When war does show up on university syllabi, it’s often about the race, class, and gender of combatants and wartime civilians. So a class on the Civil War will focus on the Underground Railroad and Reconstruction, not on Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. One on World War II might emphasize Japanese internment, Rosie the Riveter, and the horror of Hiroshima, not Guadalcanal and Midway.

Great works on war like Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, and Carl Von Clausewitz’s On War are now utterly neglected.

The burying of military history in modern academia may be a result of the generally anti-war views on college campuses, or a result of it not fitting in with the overall ideological agenda, but regardless of the specific excuse, it is a great disservice to those who want to be educated about the consequences of human nature. Citizens must have insight in how to avoid unnecessary wars and win necessary ones. Hanson had it right when he said: “A wartime public illiterate about the conflicts of the past can easily find itself paralyzed in the acrimony of the present. Without standards of historical comparison, it will prove ill equipped to make informed judgments.”

So, this Memorial Day it is important for Americans to re-learn the lessons of war, especially as the conflict in Ukraine continues to heat up and great powers like Russia and China become increasingly belligerent. We serve the honored dead by becoming informed about our nation’s great and small conflicts, and serve ourselves by cultivating a stronger understanding of human nature and the horrors of war, which will be priceless when, inevitably, the next battle comes.


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