Why Study War?

by John J. Miller on May 4, 2010

in Blog Posts

  • Sumo

In today’s NRO podcast, my second question for Victor Davis Hanson is “why study war?” This is also the title of the first chapter of his new book, The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. Here’s a short excerpt about Abraham Lincoln from the chapter:

It would be reassuring to think that the righteousness of a cause, or the bravery of an army, or the nobility of a sacrifice would ensure public support for a war. At times, these reasons have and should. But military history shows that once a conflict begins, the perception of winning becomes far more important to the public. Citizens turn abruptly on any leader deemed capable of losing. “Public sentiment is everything,” wrote Abraham Lincoln. “With public sentiment nothing can fail. Without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”

Lincoln knew that lesson well. Gettysburg and Vicksburg were brilliant Union victories that by summer 1863 had restored Lincoln’s previously shaky credibility and strengthened his abolitionist aims. But a year later, after the losses at Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Petersburg, and Cold Harbor–Cold Harbor alone claimed seven thousand Union casualties in a few hours–the public reviled him and might well have been willing to live with a slaveholding Confederate nation next door. Neither Lincoln nor his policies had changed, but the Confederate ability to kill large numbers of Union soldiers had. And had General Sherman not taken Atlanta in spectacular fashion on September 2, 1864 (“Atlanta is ours, and fairly won”), President Lincoln–for all his rhetorical skills, his moral authority, and his strategic insight–would have lost the November election to General George McClellan and his copperhead supporters.

Next week’s podcast: Robert Alter on the King James Bible.

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