Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Connection Between the Present and the Past

The May 14-15 issue of The Wall Street Journal contained a book review written by Alexander Rose. Mr. Rose reviewed Enduring Battle: American Soldiers in Three Wars, 1776-1945 by Christopher H. Hamner and Barbarians and Brothers: Anglo-American Warfare, 1500-1865 by Wayne E. Lee. In his favorable review of the books Rose wrote “Since military historiography often reflects current events, historians have begun to broaden the traditional master narrative of American military affairs. In light of the bitter experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, Civil War scholars are spending less time on the big battles in the East and more on the extraordinarily violent guerrilla fighting in the West. There is, as well, a deeper interest—the reasons for which are obvious—in the 19th-century Army’s efforts at Indian pacification and its ‘nation-building’ operations on the frontier.”

I can’t say that I’ve noticed much movement away from the study of the eastern campaigns, but I have noticed an upswing in recent scholarship relating to guerrilla warfare in the western and trans-Mississippi theaters. Current events can have an impact on the topics that historians choose, and perhaps the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a greater interest in guerrilla warfare. As a test, I pulled from my bookshelf my copy of Daniel E. Sutherland’s A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role Of Guerrillas In The American Civil War to see if his interest in the topic related at all to our recent conflicts. Dr. Sutherland did not explain how he became interested in his topic but he did write in the preface:

“Finally, a word about historical comparisons. Despite the world’s current—and understandable—interest in what has come to be known as asymmetrical or compound warfare, I have resisted using the nineteenth century to probe the twenty-first century. All guerrilla wars bear similarities, but time, geography, and circumstances cannot disguise their frequent differences. Insights and lessons may doubtless be drawn from the 1860s, but any systematic comparison to the present must necessarily diminish the message I want to convey” (p. xii-xiii).

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