Learning No Lessons About War

America appears to be on the brink of another war. This time the conflict is likely to involve Syria and/or Iraq (which U.S. troops just left in 2011). If we jump into one or both of these wars, that will bring the number of significant military operations since American independence from Great Britain to about 200, according to my count.

Not all, of course, were officially “wars.” There also have been many “proactive” interventions, regime-change undertakings, covert-action schemes and search-and-destroy missions. In addition, the United States has provided weapons, training and funding for a variety of non-American military and quasi-military forces throughout the world, including five new African countries in recent months.

History and contemporary events show that we Americans are a warring people. So we should ask: what have we learned about ourselves, our adversaries and the process in which we have engaged? The short answer appears to be “very little.”

As both a historian and a former policy planner for the U.S. government, I will very briefly here illustrate what I mean by “very little.” (I will expand on this thesis in an upcoming book to be called A Warring People.)

I begin with us, the American people. There is overwhelming historical evidence that war is popular with us. Politicians from our earliest days as a republic, indeed even before when we were British colonies, could nearly always count on gaining popularity by demonstrating valor. Few successful politicians were pacifists.

Read more