War, regardless of any feeling about it by a particular society at any particular time, has been woven into the fabric of society from seemingly time immemorial. This interconnected nature has also meant that war is inevitably political. This can be seen, for example, in the foundation of Rome in the story of Romulus and Remus. Variations of the death of Remus exist, but the two most common stories have him either dying at Romulus’s hands for making a mockery of his ramparts or in the midst of a fight between supporters of both sides’ right to rule the newly founded city. The tale may then also serve as an explanation for the attitudes and values of the society. In this case, the importance of Roman military to Roman civilization.Order now
It is from these tales or myths that one broaches the idea of history. History is a recollection of that past meant to make sense of and speak to the present. It can be both contemporaneous and rooted in an examination of bygone times. If the Clauswitzian idea of war as politics by other means is true and history is past politics, then it only follows that history is to find its early origins in war. Therefore, any history of war is also a testament of how people in a society viewed their politics at a particular point in time.
The earliest attempts at what one might call history would be in official propaganda of a king or other leader in battle. Homer’s Iliad, for example, tells the tale of the Trojan War even though the war itself often proves nothing more than a backdrop for the heroic deeds of characters like Achilles. There is, however, another issue at play here. Throughout the story of the death of Hector. Achilles is presented as the better of the two men. He is faster and stronger than Hector, but this does not seem to be enough to understand Achilles’s triumph. Achilles’s ascension to glory is possible due only to fate and the intervention of the gods. All the power of the universe seemingly lifts Achilles to glory, but this is seemingly only possible through the also casting Hector’s end as a tragic fall from grace. Achilles’s brilliance comes at the expense of shrouding Hector in darkness.
The events described by Homer’s epic probably did not happen as stated, but the importance of Homer’s work for the society it was created for was to be found in its meaning more so than its historical accuracy. Homer’s epic was directed at a Greek people who may have viewed conflicts between city-states as being existential encounters. City-states and cultures could be completely destroyed while remaining survivors would be lost to time through slavery and assimilation. Hence, the importance of heroic warriors and—perhaps even more so—the might and majesty of the gods who rose them to prominence and were the true protectors of the polis.
Similar treatment is found in the account of David and Goliath from 1 Samuel. The actual war between the armies of the Israelites and the Philistines becomes backdrop for the singular conflict of the demure David and the haughty Goliath. These two men’s conflict is the way in which the conflict between the Israelites and Philistines is to be understood. The stress on the difference of size and battle preparedness may speak to an understanding of the relative might of each army and the seemingly implausible victory of Israel over its stronger opponents. Of course, the nature of David as the Israelite God’s chosen one in this conflict goes without saying.
There is, however, a crucial political statement to be made in the story: a rationale for the eventual takeover of the Israelite state by the Davidic line. This may be seen most clearly in the ill-fitting nature of Saul’s armor on the young David. David chooses to take it off to face Goliath as he is. If the key to understanding these passages is to look less for facts than for meaning, then the issue of the armor points to an understanding that the Davidic line is not a usurper in the traditional sense nor simply another line a series of more or less replaceable dynasties that ultimately hold power so long as they hold the crown. David and his line are, rather, claiming authority as the true inheritors and enforcers of God’s blessing and will. It serves to both legitimate the David claim and push back against counter-claims that may seek to undermine it.
This use of tales of warfare and heroics as ways to promote official propaganda and imbue the people with a sense of destiny and reason is the purpose of meaningful storytelling. This focus on meaning rather than fact could be understood as a focus on mythos. Mythos was generally irrational and could be understood through some formulation of the phrase, “God wills it.” The advance of science, mathematics, and the arts in Greece, however, would see mythos come into conflict with logos or reason over which form is the best at explanation. It is at the fault line of these two views that one often referred to as “the father of history” fittingly emerges: Herodotus.
Herodotus was part of one of the first generations born in what is commonly referred to as the Greek Classical Age. Science, the arts, mathematics, and philosophy were all in periods of great development. This blossoming led Greeks to explore new ways of understanding the world. Logos was becoming ascendant just as the Greeks were—from a Eurocentric point-of-view—taking their place at the center of the world stage. Herodotus, because he sat on this fault line of understanding, exhibits traits of both these mode of explanation. The Invasion of Persia is often understood through the actions of great men, but—as Arther Ferrill shows—he also employs the use of logic and reason to his explanations.
The criticism that may be most often heard of Herodotus is his astronomical estimates of Persian strength. This estimate can be understood, however, if viewed as a manifestation of mythos in the work. The size of the Persian forces are an allusion to the size of Xerxes hubris.i There is, however, much to be of his understanding of strategy and tactics that may well serve to point to his acknowledgment of the Greek rational tradition that was emerging. His work, unlike those that were to follow, was still steeped in the epic tradition and so much of that analytical work is done through the mouths of the characters in the story itself. This differs greatly from that of his most notable Greek successor, Thucydides.
Where Herodotus sat upon the divide between the mythos and logos, Thucydides found himself deep within the realm of the rational. There is little to be gained from his description of The Battle of Mantinea in terms of meaning, but it is full of information on the actual breakdown of the battle itself. This eschews the mythic convention of having the battle be represented by the collision of two heroic warriors as seen in Homer and instead invites the reader to focus on the tactics and strategies of the armies at war. Whereas Herodotus may be seen as representative of the Greeks wrestling with these new understandings of strategy and tactics, Thucydides may well represent the feeling of a growing mastery over it.
It is important to note that Herodotus wrote of events that happened in the pasts while Thucydides focused more on immediate events. This points to another major difference between the two and helps in understanding new ways that the history of warfare came to be understood. Thucydides, more so than Herodotus, may well be a manual on how to conduct war and more generally politics.
This development in military history has led to a long history of efforts to create military manuals based on the strategies and tactics of previous leaders and allows us to see analogues in various times and places. The focus on more immediate states of things, for example, may help us understand Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. He is writing during a period of constant warfare and other political intrigue known as The Warring States Period of Chinese history. Machiavelli, meanwhile, offers both instruction on war and on statecraft through his works, The Art of War and The Prince.
Here a further distinction can still be made between these types of works. While some focus on rather clear examples, others stem from the logician’s mind focused on war. It may be possible to separate these two types of works along the traditional lines of empiricism and rationalism. Many of these manuals lean heavily on the rational almost to the point of becoming esoteric. Fuller’s Laws of Threes are theoretical concepts that are to be understood and applied in actual combat even if there seems to be little empirical evidence offered to prove his theory. Douhet’s The Command of the Air, however, offers clear examples of how air superiority can be gained and used to win wars based on empirical data gathered from the advent of the age of aviation and World War I.
Douhet’s work also points to the emergence of a forward focus in military history and the study of warfare. Previous works had focused on past conflicts to show how wars could be won and lost, but these new works that emerged in the twentieth century used current understandings to help better understand possible future outcomes. The future is history before it is in the past and so understanding the possibilities of outcomes in thermonuclear wars that could only be imagined—like the study of past wars—could be used to drive present policy decisions.
Military history may well be both the first and the most forward looking of all forms of historical knowledge. From seeking out origins in mythic past to projecting possibilities into an equal mythic future, military history has and will continue to shape the political and social worlds so long as humankind has need of it. The advent of logos has further presented to opportunity to develop a mastery over the instrument of war by explicating the apparent reasons for victory beyond the veil of “God wills it.” This conflict between mythos and logos has created a variety of literature that travels within these poles that continue to challenge one another in ways that create continued value for all. Perhaps, the lesson of the emergence and development of the historiography of war is that the constant struggle between mythos and logos are the prerequisite to the accumulation of sophos. The wisdom necessary to truly give war over to the past.