Time Well Wasted: An Introduction

[Note:  Among the many completed and unpublished manuscripts I have in my collection of writings in a collection of essays from my Norwich University experience.  The following entry is the short essay I wrote to introduce that series of essays, a collection titled Time Well Wasted.]

Note: This manuscript is no longer unpublished: http://www.amazon.com/Time-Well-Wasted-Collection-Essays-ebook/dp/B00LJLQRDS/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1404881076&sr=8-3&keywords=nathan+albright

I thought it would be wise, before placing a motley volume of essays like this one before a candid public, to at least provide some sort of explanation about what a reader will find here, and why I took the effort of compiling this volume. Additionally, I thought it useful to provide some sort of conceptual background to the issues that these essays discuss and which sort of reading audience may find these essays most profitable. In light of these concerns, I wished to provide in an introduction the best explanation and justification possible for the existence of this book you are now reading.

This volume is a collection of the essays I wrote while a student in the Master’s of Arts in Military History program at Norwich University. These essays are not the work of a confident or well-practiced historian, but rather the sort of craft that this author undertook in the process of becoming a historian, and show how a historian hones his craft as a student, while still in the cocoon of schooling before entering the world a beautiful butterfly. As the process by which someone becomes able to handle texts and historical issues with confidence is somewhat mysterious to the majority of people, I thought it worthwhile to compile my works as a student so that others may see how I sharpened my pen (or keyboard, as the case was) on these issues to develop the skill in handling sources or entering fearlessly into historical controversies that one needs to be a competent historian.

These essays are a motley crew for several reasons. For one, these essays were not written, for the most part, at leisure, with a long amount of time for study and crafting (except the last, and I hope, best of the series, my essay “The Puzzle of Chile’s Military Prussianization”). Rather, the vast majority of essays in this collection were written in moments or hours snatched from other activities in the midst of a full-time graduate load as a history student while simultaneously working full time as a civil engineer reviewing modular building plans. The title of this particular volume comes as an answer of sorts to my former supervisor, who found it positively mystifying that an engineer should be willing to devote years and many hours to working on a degree that, to him, lacked any kind of practical purpose whatsoever. What interest could a structural engineer have in something like military history? It is in response to this view of the study and practice of history that is my ironic and sarcastic reference in the title. It will not be the last example of sarcasm in these pages.

There is another way, though, in which these works are somewhat motley, and that is their mixture of topics I had to write about whether I cared about the subject or not and those subjects I chose for myself. Naturally, I feel much more proud of those essays whose topic I choose for myself. Nonetheless, the fact that so many of these essays had assigned topics does not make them without value. They do provide a glimpse of my views on matters, like the American Way of War, the whole Western Way of War controversy, and air power, as well as the Vietnam War, that I would probably have never written without being required to do so. That said, they provide a service to the reader of answering some of the questions that a historically-minded audience would be interested in hearing about or discussing, despite my own comparative disinterest in these subjects in the research I conduct according to my own personal choice. My own interests are far more obscure in nature, for the most part, than those essay topics which were chosen by my professors.

It should be remembered that none of these essays are the first or the last words in any of the controversies or fields that they are engaged in. While some of this work is the sign of a strikingly broad set of interests (including the use of Noh dramas as a source of the military history of Japan during the Gempei War between the Taira and Minomoto clans in the 1180’s), other work is far more conventional in nature. All of the essays are liberally sprinkled with footnotes (there are over 500 in all), and all participate in various historical conversations about issues of military and cultural history that I hope will be of interest to readers.

Quite a few of the essays in this volume deal with a subject that I am loath to talk about, but since I had to in the course of my study, I think it important to provide fair warning here in the introduction. Many of these essays answer and critique the Western Way of War as promoted by one “historian” named Victor Davis Hanson, whose work Carnage And Culture was the bane of my existence for many months. In a way, I feel a bit sad that this work is so problematic, given my own great sympathies with the wit and political wisdom of Mr. Hanson himself. I find his political articles very engaging to read, and undoubtedly I would enjoy his conversation in a dinner party. Nonetheless, I find his historical work, if it can be called that, about the Western Way of War very troubling for a variety of reasons.

Chief among those reasons is very arbitrary definitions of what can be considered as “Western” civilizations. For example, neither Russia nor the Byzantine Empire, nor Carthage and the Hellenistic Empires of the late classical period are considered as Western. Hanson’s conception of what is the West includes a certain egalitarian political structure which, while very congenial to this author (who happens to be a ferocious defender of freedom and a hostile and implacable foe of tyranny and rigid hierarchy wherever I may find it), happens to be a very limited and often fragile phenomenon in the West, to say nothing of the rest of the world. There is nothing in Western culture apart from its Judeo-Christian standard of morality, which insist in the rule of law, namely God’s law, and the political implications of that view of the rule of law over all leaders and led in a society, that would make Western society particularly free in comparison to the rest of the world.

This freedom is itself very fragile, as freedom requires a righteous society that is at the same time free of that self-righteous tendency that leads it to become blind to those faults from which it must be purified and redeemed. This combination of moral rectitude and egalitarianism is exceedingly rare, and the battles discussed in the book Carnage and Culture generally happen to be those moments before a given civilization becomes intoxicated with its own power and glory and lose its moral grounding and its recognition of a common identity among its people.

Other areas of the work are no less arbitrary, whether they be the focus on infantry warfare (which is itself often a function of how egalitarian the society the army comes from is, rather than on other military considerations). As infantry is less mobile than cavalry, an infantry-dominated battle will often be less decisive because of the inability to pursue and destroy a defeated army unless the battle occurs in a place where one of the armies is trapped without hope of escape, as happened at Cannae. Likewise, the focus on egalitarian societies itself neglects the decisive and socially prestigious nature of the cavalry arm (or elephant arm) in long parts of Western warfare, whether it be relating to the Byzantine Empire or to the American South or to the Middle Ages in Western Europe or to the Hellenistic successor states of Alexander the Great. Likewise, limiting the West to avoid including Russia and the Byzantine Empire prevents the book from answering key questions such as how an egalitarian nation with an infantry basis of one’s army can deal with the issue of battle against highly mobile steppe opponents (who were often highly egalitarian as well, to the point of being anarchic hordes with little stability of succession). This book does not meet the high standards of a Lynn or a Black in terms of its culturally nuanced conception of warfare being a complex problem without a clearly dominant form of warfare in all theaters and against all opponents. All ways of war require a balancing of strengths and weaknesses according to the cultural values of a society, political and social structure, and economic and logistical capabilities.

Having dwelt at length with that unpleasant business, I would like to point out that the only reason I bring up this subject at all is because several of these essays (such as “The West Versus The Rest,” “Not-so-Western Ways of War,” “Riddles Wrapped In Enigmas Surrounded By Paradoxes: Conceptions of the Western Way of War,” “The Russian Way of War,” and “Any Way To Win: Examining the Chinese/Non-Western Way of War”) deal with this issue at some length, and it is necessary to provide some context for the views expressed in those essays, as well as the greater argument those essays are part of. The other unpleasant business that I feel must be dealt with is the fact that two of the other essays deal with aspects of warfare that I have little personal interest in myself, though as a result of having to research them, I became more familiar with their place in the larger historical debate. These essays, “Fire From The Skies: The Use of Air Forces in World War II” and “How We Lost The Vietnam War: A Short Version,” are not essays I would have written for myself largely because as a historian I have generally tried to avoid writing too much about contemporary history, largely because the political baggage is too extensive. Nonetheless, I did enjoy reading and learning about the various (often mistaken) views of air power theorists whose unfair and hasty dismissal of the courage of civilians was found wanting during World War II, something I could cheer on. As far as the Vietnam War is concerned, the very short version of why the United States lost that war is because we fought in it in the first place and then made a complete hash of it by a total failure to have any sort of grand strategy and connection between military means and political (or geopolitical) ends, resulting in the wasting of far too much precious American blood and treasure and making a mockery of real valor on the part of common soldiers who were blamed for what was almost entirely the fault of others in higher places. The whole business of our presence in Vietnam is reprehensible and without excuse.

Concerning the rest of my essays, it was by and large my effort to shine light on forgotten aspects, or to speak about the fascinating (to me) interaction of political and military concerns in a wide variety of situations. In fact, looking through those essays I chose myself, their unifying theme was often the complex and fascinating interaction between war and politics. This concern with “war and society” was a broad concern, including an essay on the political factors that led to the start of the U.S. Civil War (“The Long Road To War: Comparing The Views of Dr. Freehling and Dr. Jaffa”), an examination of an often-neglected but exemplary figure in American military history whose grasp of the interaction between war and politics was superb (“Winfield Scott: Forgotten Master of Military Strategy”), an examination of the political scene of the Southern Sung Empire and its deliberate rejection of successful military leaders because of their political hostility to militarism (“Survivors of the Catastrophe: The Southern Song “), the relationship between religion, politics, nostalgia, and the portrayal of Japan’s Gempei War (“Ghosts of the Taira: The Relationship Between The Wars of The Gempei and the Warrior Ghost Noh Dramas”), and the political and geopolitical factors that led the nation of Chile to replace their successful indigenous military system with that of Bismark’s Germany (“The Puzzle of Chile’s Military Prussianization”). All of these essays share a concern with the intersection between war and political culture that is one of my major interests as a historian. I hope they do justice to my own worldview.

These works, while often hurried and shorter than they would be had there been no strict word limit or time limitations on my writing, are hopefully of value to the reader for a few reasons. For one, I thought it worthwhile to show the exercises by which I became familiar with the historiography of a wide variety of topics, and how I wrestled with the larger arguments in which my essays form a very small part. I hope that if others understand the sort of craft and work it takes to develop competence as a historian, they might be able to judge historians more fairly and develop some of that competence in weighing evidence and sources for themselves, which would make us all better off as readers and students of any subject. Likewise, it is my hope that these essays will form part of a greater conversation on the relationship between militaries and societies that reflects our own concerns and cultural mindsets, and allows us to think and engage in the momentous issues of war and peace that dramatically shape our lives and civilizations. If I can have a small role in informing that conversation about the relevance of military history to a free and peaceable society, it will have been time well spent, rather than time well wasted.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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