“Si vis pacem, para bellum,” wrote the ancient Roman historian Vegetius, “If you desire peace, prepare for war.” He might just as easily have written, “He who desires peace should buy my book.”
History does not repeat itself, but Mankind is apt to parallel his past. Ignorant of the failures of the dead, he readily repeats their mistakes; but aware of past campaigns, he is better prepared to snatch victory.
Politics and warcraft are inseparable. The great Carl von Clausewitz understood that every action a soldier takes on the battlefield is necessarily political, and so it behooves generals to read political history and statesmen to read military history -- particularly when the world is as fraught with danger as it is today. A fundamental grasp on the enemy’s assessment of himself and his objectives is just as vital to strategy as understanding our own needs and limitations.
The Imperial German General Staff in autumn 1914 must rank among the most organized, fastidious organization in the history of warfare. They studied mobilization timetables, unit efficiency, and logistical flow with a shrewd eye for detail. The von Schlieffen Plan, conceived years before the start of World War I, was a masterstroke of efficiency and power designed to overcome the problems of trench warfare -- the inevitable result of a defensive and offensive arms race in late 19th century Europe. Perhaps the only detail the German General Staff neglected was British history. The British are a seabound people, historically aloof in continental squabbles, they reasoned. Why should they intervene in a fight with France?
This thinking reflected a widespread failure among German military planners to assess the British position from a British point of view. Rational calculation, in other words, blinded Berlin to the political reality London had operated within for centuries. British leaders -- wary of a seaborne threat from the nearby ports in France and the Low Countries -- considered any invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands a direct threat to their national security, for obvious reasons: Napoleon Bonaparte had contemplated such an invasion in the early 1800s.
The German high command snidely dismissed the British guarantee of Belgian independence as a mere “scrap of paper,” reasoning that London would not enter a slugfest with the superior German army over a bunch of Belgians. But British leaders saw Germany turn from vague threat to imminent invader the minute the Kaiser’s troops entered the Low Countries.
This is not to say a more careful Germany would have avoided war with Great Britain; the threat of German conquest of large parts of France would doubtlessly push the British to enter the war on the side of the French. But had the Germans dedicated more time to studying how Britons conceive of themselves and their position in Europe, it might have bought them time to stack the odds more in their favor than they were in 1914.
We must do the same. What do America’s enemies want from the United States, peace to manage their sphere as they see fit, or the global hegemony we seized from Great Britain in 1945 and from the Soviet Union in 1991? Iran and China are very different opponents in this sense. The former seems set on winning control of the Middle East in order to terrorize its denizens with totalitarian Shi’ite Islam, not in recreating the ancient Persian Empire.
The latter, however, appears set on bludgeoning its American-friendly rivals in East Asia (South Korea, Taiwan, Japan) into a foothold for global ambitions. The first is an opponent, the second is a rival. Both seek to right historic “wrongs” in order to pursue a new, ideological departure from their respectives histories.
It is the nature of old nations to sneer at young ones, regarding them either as ripe pickings -- such as Taiwan -- or as child-like brutes who can be easily manipulated: the United States. It will always be their undoing… if our young republic remembers to study their history.