What Makes a War Great?
"The war I am about to describe is the most memorable of any that have ever been waged, I mean the war which the Carthaginians, under Hannibal's leadership, waged with Rome."
This week, I am teaching the Punic Wars in my Ancient History course. When reading Livy's History of Rome, something that always jumped out at me was the bold claim he makes in his preface to Book XXI, which begins his account of the Second Punic War (also known as Hannibal's War):
This, of course, got me thinking about what makes a war truly memorable and meaningful. Every year, I like to ask my students this question in some form or another. This year, I asked students to think of America's wars as a beauty pageant of sorts and to tell me which of America's wars would be the three finalists in this competition. While there may be some argument about which was was the most important, a consensus quickly emerged regarding the top three:
Like the Romans, we Americans have fought a lot of wars in our day. What makes these three so important? My ninth graders tended to think of the Revolutionary War as the most important, as it began the existence of the United States as a nation. Without the Revolutionary War, nothing else would have followed, so it is important as an antecedent to every war that followed (if we'd never been a nation in the first place, there would have been no Civil War). Students also see the Revolutionary War as being fought over a set of distinctly American values that are still important to them today. The Civil War was fought to decide whether the United States would be one nation or two and also brought about the end of the institution of slavery.
World War II established the United States as the world's leading superpower and changed our nation's role in the world (defender of freedom, world police, or whatever one would like to call it). Although neither stopping Nazism or the Holocaust was the primary motivation for U.S. involvement in World War II, it was a legacy of the war in which Americans can take pride. In this sense, the Civil War and World War II can be compared in that both wars began over geopolitical considerations and ended up accomplishing a humanitarian objective in the end.
At this point in the discussion, I realized that all three of these wars have had an important role in shaping American IDENTITY and have left a lasting LEGACY that made a difference in the life of the nation. The Revolution established who we are and the values we champion as a nation, while the Civil War settled the permanence of the Union and placed us on the long road to the ultimate realization of those values. After World War II, the United States emerged as a global champion of those values committed to opposing communism (and to facing up to inequalities and injustice at home).
"What about World War I?" I asked, pretending to be curious as to why it didn't make the list. After an initial silence, I asked, "Who was the bad guy? And by that, I man what person was the bad guy?" One student answered, "Some guy in a pointy hat." Another student was quite honest:
"I can't really tell you what World War I was about,
This is the point where I realized how important it is that a great war (pun intended) have a STORY behind it. While World War I saw the debut of some amazing military technologies, it doesn't have a back story that's relevant to most Americans - we essentially got involved in a European War and regretted it to the point where we hesitated to get involved in the next European War where our timely involvement was much more necessary for the future of humanity. The circumstances of World War I did not place America into any kind of existential CRISIS where the life or death of nation would be at stake.
So, as a result of my conversation with my students today, I've concluded that there are four things that make a war meaningful and memorable:
While every American war offers some of these elements to some degree, no American wars offer them as completely as the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II. And then, of course, there are the Romans, who even two hundred years after Hannibal's War - and fighting dozens of wars in the interval - continued to count this war as their most memorable. This was a war with a STORY about one of the most feared generals of all time who placed the Romans at a CRISIS point where their very survival and independence were at stake. The LEGACY of this war was Rome's undisputed status as the superpower of the Western Mediterranean and shaped the Roman IDENTITY by making its way into their literature (the story of Dido and Aeneas in Virgil's Aeneid) and even into their sayings (Romans used the phrase, "Hannibal ad portas [is at the gates]" to communicate urgency).
The LEGACY of the Second Punic War was important not just for the Romans, but remains important for all of civilization. Just think of how different this world would be if not for the impact of the Romans. This is why I place such great emphasis on this conflict in my classroom, as I believe that this war was truly a turning point for the world as we know it... and in addition to that, it's one heck of a STORY!
I find your reference to slavery and the Civil War interesting. The standard for teaching is that the goal of the war was to end/preserve slavery. And while one of the end results, thankfully, was the elimination of that institution, it was not the central purpose. Of course, that issue was interwoven into much of what spawned the war, but I have often been frustrated at the presentation of the war as the South desiring slavery so bad that they went to war, and that the North so opposed slavery that they went to war to eradicate it. There is some truth in the assessment of the South; slavery was involved in various issues that caused their dissent with the North. But the federal government never went to war with the desire to get rid of slavery, and no Union soldier died for the sake of emancipation. I'm pleased to see that you didn't just repeat the distorted approach that less informed people are passing on to students.
10/29/2015 09:43:10 pm
I didn't realize anyone commented on this post but am glad to see upon reading this that someone else out there truly understands the complexity of the Civil War. I plan to do a series on the American Civil War sometime in the next year, which I think you will appreciate.
5/31/2015 12:56:36 am
Russia vs Turkey : The Geopolitics of the South & the Turk Stream Pipelines
12/8/2015 03:13:44 pm
I really enjoyed your breakdown of why the wars chosen as definitive for America were chosen. I couldn't really put my finger on why WWI doesn't really "stick," but you have captured it perfectly with your 4 points. I will be "borrowing" that idea! :o)
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