Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | November 11, 2013

A Couple of More Voices on Veteran’s Day

From his academic perch in Canada, Steve Saideman has some thoughts on Remembrance Day:

Of course, our first thoughts this time of year center on World War I. Armistice Day has become Remembrance Day here in Canada, Veteran’s Day in the U.S., and elsewhere. The poppies were “in bloom” in Edinburgh and Glasgow this weekend (I was at a conference speculating about the international security dynamics of Scotland’s referendum). Our memories of World War I are entirely constructed—the number of surviving veterans from that conflict is now zero. What we think of that conflict is what has been passed down via press reports, history books, and what our relatives have told us.

When we wonder in the future (or perhaps even now) what we accomplished in Afghanistan, we should remember that World War I produced decidedly mixed results as well. Yes, the conquest of France was prevented, Belgium became free again, and so on, but it was not the War to End all Wars after all. The roots of the Second World War are very much in the First World War and how badly it ended. Still, we mark World War I as a victory for the Allies and for Canada, given the impact Canada’s army made at Vimy and elsewhere.

The Second World War seemed so much more decisive, another victory with Germany defeated. Yet if we remember the war’s origins, the official start of the war was the invasion of Poland, which really did not become free until the end of the Cold War. While much was accomplished and much was sacrificed, the war did not produce a decisive victory of freedom over tyranny with the Iron Curtain descending in Europe shortly after the war.

The point of this quick review of history is that every war, even the big victories, produce mixed results. Even unconditional surrender does not produce completely desired results. We also tend to forget why the war began as goals evolve, justifications proliferate, and so on.

Something in that post prompted me to reference a passage from Max Hastings’ Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, which I finished this past weekend. Says Hastings (pp. 541-42):

The outcome of the Pacific conflict persuaded some Americans that they could win wars at relatively small human cost, by the application of their country’s boundless technological ingenuity and industrial resources. The lesson appeared to be that, if the U.S. possessed bases from which its warships and aircraft could strike at the land of an enemy, victories could be gained by the expenditure of mere treasure, and relatively little blood. Only in the course of succeeding decades did it become plain that Japan was a foe uniquely vulnerable to American naval and air power projection. Some modern U.S. historians assert that the pursuit of decisive victory is central to the American way of war. If true, this renders their country chronically vulnerable to disappointment. The 1950-53 Korean conflict proved only the first of many demonstrations that the comprehensive triumph achieved by the U.S. in the Second World War was a freak of history, representing no norm. Modern experience suggests that never again will overwhelming military, naval and air power suffice to fulfil American purposes abroad as effectively as it did in the Pacific war. Limited wars offer notable opportunities to belligerents of limited means.


  1. Good quotes. Hastings – “Some modern U.S. historians assert that the pursuit of decisive victory is central to the American way of war” – is taking a dig at Russell Weigley in particular, author of “The American Way of War.” Tho IIRC Weigley himself was skeptical that “the strategy of annihilation” could really be pursued, particularly after 1945.

  2. … So you liked the Hastings? His similar volume “Armageddon” on the conclusion of the war in Europe is also good, as is its predecessor “Overlord” on the Normandy campaign. Hastings cuts through a lot of bunk by simply accepting that German troops were better led and better fighters, on the average, than either British or American infantry – if the U.S. couldn’t think of anything better to do with you, you became a rifleman, and we ended up with the kind of infantry that suggests.

    • I did like Hastings. I think that I will have to check out some of his other volumes. I may start with his bio of Churchill.

    • That was pretty good – really just Churchill during WW2 of course. First book that I read on a Nook, a device I neither requested nor much appreciate, alas.

    • I can see uses for the Nook and other e-readers. But with military history in particular, I am constantly referencing maps, and I don’t have a good sense for how e-readers can or do accommodate that habit.

      I spoke with a friend last week who read all five of GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire books on Kindle, and consequently he had no concept of the maps that appear in the begging of those books in the paper format!

    • Yes, exactly. Endnotes are also awkward. They’re good for “beach reading” tho as you note, even some beach reading has maps.

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