History and the Supposed Inevitability of War

by Mindy Clegg

Qasem Soleimani in 2019

This past week has been a roller coaster in American foreign policy, as we quite nearly ended up in a hot war with Iran. A curious phenomenon reared its ugly head during the fallout of the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s top generals—comparisons to the start of the First World War’s precipitating event, the shooting of the Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian empire Franz Ferdinand.1 As we all seriously contemplated another war, some leaned into the notion of its inevitability. Many would have you believe a Third World War was history merely asserting itself once again.2 Supporters of a war with Iran (and other wars) might tell you that war is a glorious thing, that our young will cut their teeth on violence and blood, coming out the other side battle hardened, ready to tackle the “real” world with both hands. At the very least, we’ll defeat our enemies and ensure our continued dominance of the world, which we deserve. They might also proclaim that war is the only racket in town that will get our economy jumping again, exciting innovation through shattered bodies. I could not agree less with these assessments, and history most certainly backs me up here. First, with a few exceptions, there is no inevitable path to conflict—history shows us there are always choices. Second, young people are often shattered by participation in war, as our homeless population still replete with veterans of various wars attest. Last, many things can jumpstart innovation. I argue that making parallels to events of the past in order to draw conclusions about the inevitability of particular outcomes (the ones that benefit the fewest and hurt the most, like a war) is to misread or even blatantly misuse history and what it actually tells us about humanity.

Since the assassination some are making parallels to the Great War, but that’s nothing new since the beginning of the War on Terror©. Since 9/11 and America’s disproportionate response, certain events got associated with the aforementioned ex-Archduke in Sarajevo.3 As a historian, I find those parallels defeatist and weak, not to mention intellectually lazy. People love to say (with the wisdom of a sage) that history repeats itself, but people who do more than read the NYT Bestsellers list of history books know better. Those of us who read the raw stuff, spend time in archives, sift through the stacks connecting dots, ruminating on the meaning, context, causality, and this source or that one, can tell you that in reality time runs in one direction (or at least we perceive it in that manner—I’ll leave pinning down the actual nature of time up to my colleagues in astrophysics). You might find a rhyme or two in the long twisting story of humanity, but it’s rarely more than that. If we make the same mistakes as our ancestors, that is down to us stubbornly refusing to learn the lessons of the past or us actively trying to imitate them. The War on Terror© provides our prime example in current events. In lived memory, the United States got itself mired in a war in Vietnam with no clear reason (other than ideological) that maimed, damaged, and alienated millions of American youth and illustrated definitely that overwhelming force does not a victory make. Yet here we sit again, our health care system filled with damaged soldiers, angry peasants coming to the side of our “ideological enemy”, horrific images making their way into our collective consciousness (despite attempts to hide them), our allies questioning our goals and morality, and so it goes. While some might look at that and point at the supposed inevitability of it all, we really should point the fingers where it truly belongs: those profiting off this war, one way or another, in much the way people profited off Vietnam. Choices led us to Vietnam, and choices lead us here today. Most frustratingly, we had plenty of data to lead us to make different (and better) choices. Historians of the Cold War, of Vietnam, or the US military, the antiwar movement, presidents, or congress in the 1960s (pick your historical angle from about a million) have done the hard work of putting this data in our hands, showing how human choice, stubbornness, and uncritical ideological thinking costs money, time, effort, votes, support, trust—and most importantly lives. It’s no secret by this point how we ended up in such a bloody and destructive war that ruined millions of lives and continues to have repercussions today. Yet we still have pundits proclaim that this moment is that Archduke moment (depending on the political orientation, in a tone of hushed reverence or muted horror). They believe that if we don’t defend ourselves against the threat posed by Iran, all hope is lost. People keep calling out these supposed “Archduke” moments, mostly because they believe in history repeating—war is inevitable and makes the world go round, goes the wisdom. May Antonio Gramsci preserve us from such manufactured consent.4

My counterargument to the “history repeats” crowd is that history is not a set of predetermined outcomes (which strangely in some fevered imaginations only seem to lead to destruction, which, my friends is not the same as a universe trending towards chaos at all). They do not repeat ad nauseam until we’re all sucked up into heaven or sent to the bad place. If an Angel and a Demon can make friends over 6000 years and avert Armageddon, friends, so can we mere mortals. That said, no paths of peace are obvious or clear in our current geopolitical situation. Historically, however, we have gone from living in very small communities where we knew everyone to villages to larger cities to city-states to kingdoms and finally to empires encompassing millions of our fellow human beings. The shifts from hunter-gatherers dependent on each other and our direct environment to a more complex mode of production with higher levels of specialization necessary to make something like the Persian, Chinese, or Roman empires function required a remarkable shift in our thinking. We today exist within these large-scale entities known as nation-states, often filled with highly diverse populations (as were ancient empires) and we do so without the sort of conflict that might have marked early hunter-gatherer societies coming into contact with different communities. Further, going from being part of the environment to dominating it the way that we have took no small amount of cooperation, even as the building of hierarchical systems depended on exploitation and violence. After all, something worth obtaining needed to exist in order to use violence to come to dominate it (if that makes sense). But with regards to history, it’s true we can’t change what did happen. We can make better choices going forward, which is I’d argue the major reason to study history in the first place. I’m not the only one to see that we have choices here. Over at the Slacktivist blog, Fred Clark recently reposted a letter from then Representative Abraham Lincoln during the Mexican American War in the 1840s. Lincoln understood war for what it was—a choice.5 War is a choice almost always. We can look to the past and work to make better choices.

Many who advocate for war do so in part because they see it as a glorious exercise in shaping manhood. Unformed boys are beaten into battle-tested men. We hear this often when war crimes are discussed, that the over the top brutal behavior some soldiers engage in while deployed is just the natural order. But at the end of the day, these trying actions that our young men either witness or engage in are all part of bringing them into manhood, preferably a stoic, silent manhood that supports and defends the nation and the people, but asks for nothing in return. The experience of war, especially modern war, isn’t so glorious, however and really never was. It’s as likely to warp people as it is to make them into an “ideal man.” Currently, our largest group of veterans are from the Vietnam war (in part because our World War II generation is dying out, RIP Grandpa and Pop Pop).6 The stereotype of the alienated and unstable Vietnam vet has become something of a joke, but the problems faced by these men and women are real. Many vets from that war suffer from ill health and serious mental illnesses due to their experiences, enough to be more than notable. Some scars are more visible than others, too, and psychological issues were underreported in this generation. For everyone vet who received treatment for their mental health at some point in their post-Vietnam life, many avoided treatment, as perhaps it was seen as “unmanly” to do so. While the homeless vets suffering from PTSD are obvious, many hid their traumas and took it out on themselves or on their loved ones. As recent studies have shown, the sort of trauma experienced in a theater of war (among other places) can very much alter us on a genetic level, meaning that trauma can be carried down even when abuse is not part of the picture. Studies of the children of Holocaust survivors and descendants of enslaved people have shown this to be the case.7 In other words, trauma suffered in situations such as war have more than just direct impacts on the individuals, but can spiral out for generations. Yet, the notion of war offering the chance to cover young men with glory persists.

In our post-Cold War world, many today view war as a means of jump-starting technological developments and the economy. It is true that some things that made our lives easier came out of war time. The American Civil War saw the development of new canning technologies (which had existed since the time of the Napoleonic wars) and new embalming techniques. War (both cold and hot) helped make this very device I’m using to communicate with you.8 The space race emerged out of Soviet and American conflict, and was aided by former Nazis (on both sides). Wireless technologies got a jump start in use from the Great War. These are a few examples. The Cold War, though, saw the continuation of the unprecedented interconnections between the US government, private industry, and academic research institutions. Part of the impetus for student protests on campus during the 1960s was university involvement with the government and defense contractors as Vietnam heated up.

The connections between wartime and some innovations can be real. However, war as technological incubator has become synonymous with inventions, when there are plenty of examples of innovation happening in other ways. Many of our key technologies that we depend or use daily did not come out of wartime, even if war played a role in the evolution of those technologies. Cars are a case in point, as the earliest example might have been made by a Jesuit Priest as a toy for the Emperor of China.9 Likewise, some of the earliest examples of man thinking about flight came from the imagination of Leonardo da Vinci, although kites date back to early Chinese history. Both paper and gunpowder were in use in China for centuries before they made their way west. Although a formidable weapon of war, its development came from Chinese alchemists looking for a way to extend life rather than an attempt to kill or maim. Paper was key to Chinese statecraft and effective rule. They made the first paper money, for example.10 We could find plenty of more modern examples, too, such as advances in understanding electricity, with research undertaken by various enlightenment era philosophers in Europe and the American colonies/early Republic. Technological development, then, tends to be a complicated process that takes place over often centuries, building on ideas from others, that is never really fully completed. War indeed can play a role in shaping those technologies, but it’s not the end all and be all of development. If we really wish to create a new era of innovation, a much better means of doing so would be to provide all children, regardless of race, gender, or economic class a well-rounded education, safe communities, and time to think and wonder.

The events of the past week or so have thrown a new wrinkle into the tensions in the Middle East, as well as the ongoing saga around the impeachment of President Trump. History professor Heather Cox Richardson, who has been writing daily accounts of impeachment, connected those dots in the past few days.11 The president is receiving pushback that earlier presidents should have gotten on these issues (meaning George W. Bush and Barack Obama), and that is largely due to distrust of Trump from the leadership of the Democratic party. This is likely comparable to the pressure coming from the left in the late 1960s during the Vietnam War. By the time of the Tet Offensive (which was an unmitigated disaster for the American and South Vietnamese forces), the media began to look more critically at the Vietnam War and US involvement there. In both cases, considerable damage had been done already. We can’t change the past. But we can use it to understand possible consequences to actions that our government plans to take on the world stage and to hold them accountable for those choices. We know that a war with the North Vietnamese led to the exact thing we hoped to avoid—communist governments in South East Asia (and in one case a genocide in Cambodia). We know that the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq have had similar consequences in their respective regions (we could mention Libya here as well). The War on Terror© had similar outcomes, acting as recruitment tools for organizations employing asymmetrical warfare against the United States. They don’t have us for our freedoms, though, they oppose our empire. Although we can’t know exactly what consequences a war with Iran would have exactly, we know that invading a country to force them to behave as we’d like tends to end poorly, especially for the invaded country. Perhaps it’s time to look at new strategies that do not involve invasions and drone bombings, or other kinds of force. If America is the last empire, maybe we start the process of dismantling that empire and working through diplomacy, trade, and cultural exchange instead. We currently are in the midst of one of the largest crises to face humanity—man-made climate change—and business as usually just won’t do it if we’re expecting to have a habitable planet for our children and grandchildren.

 Footnotes

1 One example is at the Dan Carlin Reddit forum, “Is This an Archduke Ferdinand Moment,” Reddit, Jan. 3, 2020, (accessed Jan. 11, 2020),
Dan Carlin reddit forum. A search for “Archduke moment on google brings up many similar comparisons with other events.

2Some supporters are discussed here, Max Boot, “A War With Iran would be the Mother of All Quagmires,” Washington Post, May 20, 2019, (accessed Jan. 11, 2020),Washington Post, while Fox News seems to be divided on the issue of an actual war with a ground war with Iran while continuing to advocate a hardline, Rosie Gray and Miriam Elder, “Fox News Hosts Were Against a Ground War with Iran. Trump Listened,” Buzzfeed News, Jan. 8, 2020, (accessed Jan. 11, 2020), Buzzfeed News.

3 Right wing pundit Glenn Beck often invokes it as a warning from history type argument, usually involving Muslims and Marxists, Zachery Pleat, “Beck Uncovers the Seventh ‘Archduke Ferdinand Moment’ in Four years,” Media Matters for America, Feb. 2, 2011, (accessed Jan. 11, 2020), Media Matters.

4 Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist who wrote about the creation of common sense by the ruling class via cultural production. Some of his work can be read at Marxist.org/a>

5Fred Clark, “Slacktivist,” Patheos, January 9, 2020, (accessed Jan. 10, 2020, Slacktivist.

6 The VA has done comprehensive studies on this population of Veterans since the 1980s, “VA Research on Vietnam Veterans,” US Department of Veteran Affairs, (accessed Jan, 10, 2020), Department of Veterans Affairs.

7 For Holocaust survivors, see Helen Thomson, “Study of Holocaust Survivors Finds Trauma Passed on to Children’s Genes,” The Guardian, Aug. 21, 2013, (accessed Jan. 10, 2020), The Guardian. Similar studies have been conducted with regards to the descendants of enslaved peoples, see Lincoln Anthony Blade, “Trauma from Slavery Can Actually Be Passed Down Through Your Genes,” Teen Vogue, May 31, 2016, (accessed Jan. 10, 2020), Teen Vogue (Yes, that link is indeed to Teen Vogue….).

8 he internet came out of a joint project between academia, private industry, and the Defense Department, see Paul Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997, especially the chapter on SAGE and the Vietnam War.

9 Archived at the Web Archive, “A Brief Note on Ferdinand Verbiest,” Curious Expeditions, July 2, 2007, (accessed January 11, 2020),From the Web Archive.

10 Karen Carr, “History of Gunpowder: Gunpowder in Ancient China,” Quatr.us, June 7, 2017, (accessed Jan. 11, 2020), Quatr.us For paper, you can see, History of the Chinese Invention – the Invention of Paper,” Computersmiths, (accessed Jan 11, 2020), Computersmiths.

11 Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from An American, (accessed Jan. 11, 2020), Letters From An American.

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