Jeremy Black on the History of War
Five Books Interview
What got you interested in military history?
Originally I did my work, and I still do a lot of my work, on the history of international relations and specifically British foreign policy. But I moved into military history because I started teaching general European history and felt that the standard accounts offered of military history within it were weak and inadequate. I was also troubled by the extent to which military history and war itself tend to be underplayed. Although people, including myself, don’t like war, it is a terrible mistake to assume that it doesn’t often have a highly significant role in history. And this attempt to almost align it out, which I think one can see in the changing preferences in history courses, was in my view deeply mistaken.
What kinds of things do you think it can teach people?
I think first of all it can teach people unpredictability and discontinuity, which is tremendously important. Whatever one’s political persuasion, one of the great problems with history is that people of the left, right and centre believe in inevitability, which is generally of their own values. And one of the interesting things about war is that when two powers go to war, generally both sides think they can win and invariably at least one of them is wrong. In fact generally both of them are wrong because neither of them get out of the war what they want.
Granted, he is not talking about policing actions like the U.S. invasion of Panama or Grenada.To that extent war and military history represent the revenge of the contingent on the determinist. They represent the revenge of the short term on the long term and I think that is very important because the way we think about it is often overly dependent on some kind of inevitability.
In modern history, there has been a tendency of smaller, but skilled, opponents to under estimate the difficulty of overcoming numbers. You could argue that the United States experience in Afghanistan and Iraq are cases in point here. Although the U.S. forces have a huge advantage in both firepower and mobility, it is awfully hard to defeat an entire country of people if they are willing to stay the course.
On the flip side, popular fiction has many small bands of fighters fending off much larger military forces. That is not usually the way it happens. If only a small band is willing to fight, they get shot up sooner or latter and that is the end of it.