“The object in war is to attain a better peace – even if only from your own point of view.”Basil Liddell Hart
The phrase “a better peace” is well worn on the sleeves of strategic scholars. The second part of Basil Liddell Hart’s quote is just as important. It gets at the heart of the narratives told in war and peace. Part of knowing “your own point of view” is understanding historical memory—of the stories you tell yourself about the past, as well as, the stories told by your adversaries.
I was no stranger to Liddell Hart before my tenure at the Army War College, but most of my thinking about the British sage of strategy came through the indirect approach of World War historiography. As a former junior officer in the Great War and as a prominent military intellectual in his lifetime, Liddell Hart attracted debate and controversy with members of his generation, many of whom were fellow veterans. His papers contain a vast correspondence with key figures of that era and are an extremely valuable repository on not only military and strategic affairs, but also about society and culture in mid-century Britain.
Liddell Hart and his generation knew not only the painful sting of war; they also knew what it was like to live in a society deeply in mourning and forming a culture of remembrance to understand the trauma of the Great War. More than a hundred years on, it is still hard to comprehend the depths of suffering brought by that war and its terrible ramifications on world history.
When Liddell Hart wrote about the idea of a better peace, he was writing within the context of the catastrophic failure of peacemaking in his lifetime. He was also writing with the pragmatic insight that wars often continue long after the peace in the memories of the societies that wage them. After all, he became a soldier-turned-author who used his writings to shape public understanding about war.
Soldiers, Memory, and History
Since Thucydides soldiers have put down swords and taken up the pen to shape the legacy of the wars that they have fought. In doing so, they also shape the history and future of wars as they are understood by the public. This was the subject of my elective at the Army War College, The Long Shadow: How Wars are Remembered and Why it Matters. Our seminar looked at five conflicts—the Civil War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War, and the Global War on Terrorism—and examined how each war generation understood their experiences, and then how societies in turn have remembered each conflict.
The overall point of the course was to get strategic leaders to focus on the intersection between history, experience, and memory, and to understand that the way societies remember their wars shapes that society’s views toward war, peace, the military, veterans’ affairs, etc. In short, the memory of the last war acts as a prism, reflecting memory toward the next war (and often wars after that). The war generation of each conflict takes an active and formative part in framing the memory of their wars.
As the term “collective memory” implies, there is a version of past events that a certain group wants to remember in a certain way. Tied to the concept of collective memory is the selective forgetting of facts and events that do not fit the interpretation that a group wants to remember. As David Lowenthal writes in The Past is a Foreign Country, “Memories must continually be discarded and conflated; only forgetting enables us to classify and bring chaos into order.”
History is messy and chaotic; memory narratives often makes sense of the chaos, “even if only from your own point of view.” Stories about the past have deep emotional connections to identity and have a polemical purpose in the present: to commemorate, to instruct, to warn, to justify, etc.
In my course we dissected the stories told about war beginning with soldier experiences and continuing through the social and political process of understanding the legacy of wars. As a “pure civilian” academic who has spent my entire career at a leafy liberal arts college, I know nothing personally about the experience of war; but as a scholar of war stories, I know a bit about how people write about war. So, part of this class was to get Army War College students to read and think about how soldiers in the past interpreted their own experiences—memorialized them in print and in granite—and to examine how those experiences helped to frame the public’s understanding of wars.
As each war generation interprets its experiences, it seeds the next generation’s perceptions of war.
Again and again my students drew parallels between their own experience and the readings and asked hard questions from history. The work was difficult but rewarding and my students understood that the ramifications of violence are vast, conflicted, contentious, and lasting through the generations. As each war generation interprets its experiences, it seeds the next generation’s perceptions of war. For students who have served through two decades of American wars, these themes were compelling.
The “Carlisle Experience” causes officers to reflect on their careers as they look forward to the next step. It is a brief, albeit busy, intellectual moment of breathing space in busy careers. Reading and reflecting upon how other soldiers have made sense of their experiences adds an element of context for that service. In a seminar setting students can enrich not only perspective on their career looking backwards, but also the shape of the career (and life) ahead to come.
Their generation will shape the public narrative of the Global War on Terror and the future of civil military relations in a society trying to make sense of those conflicts. At its most fundamental level, a better peace for our nation’s veterans means finding ways of telling the stories of our recent and future wars to preserve them and to warn those in the future of the costs of the failures of peace.
Historical Memory as a Strategic Concept
Historical memory is not only about soldiers’ stories, but it is also how whole societies remember significant historical events and the power those events have on the present. I didn’t appreciate enough that memory is a strategic concept until I got to the war college and started using the word “strategic” in every other sentence. Within the War College curriculum, historical mindedness and strategic empathy are essential arrows in the quiver of the future strategic leader. Cutting across both is the idea of memory because it bridges the past and present and helps us understand not only our own history as it relates to current events, but also gives us a lens to understanding our potential adversaries’ worldview within a broader context.
Historical memory functions by invoking the past to present an argument in the present. That understanding of the past can be based on reality or it can be imagined. Whether it is the Athenian speechmakers in Thucydides or modern-day leaders at a press briefing, the past is often politicized, even if based on historical reality. Stefan Berger writes in History and Identity, “Historians of memory have recognized that memories of the past have an important impact on the diverse ways in which the past becomes both meaning and powerful in the present and in which it is capable of shaping the future.” It is memory’s power in the present and its ability to influence the future that makes it relevant for strategic leaders.
War as it happens and war as it is remembered by societies can be very different. As such, our understanding of a nation’s history means little if that understanding diverges. Often interpretations of the past are state-sponsored and created for political purposes; sometimes they are deeply cultural and concern matters of identity important to a particular society. Understanding how history is interpreted and used by a society as it looks towards the future is just as important as understanding history itself.
Part of historical mindedness is knowing how to read narratives and the distinctions between history and memory. When we look to the concept of a better peace, we should be asking hard questions about the narratives we construct ourselves to justify our wars, but also, those used by our adversaries. If we take seriously that a better peace is possible, then understanding how nation’s see war as part of their story – as part of their national identity – gives us a strategic starting point for understanding what that peace might look like both from both points of view.
Ian Isherwood is Associate Professor of War & Memory Studies at Gettysburg College and is a summer 2023 Fellow-in-Residence at the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford University. In academic year 2023, he was the Harold K. Johnson Chair at the U.S. Army War College. All views expressed are his own and not affiliated with any institution.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: The author with members of Seminar 6 in front of old Root Hall, Carlisle Barracks, PA.
Photo Credit: Ian Isherwood