Peace Time: March 18, 2001


Don't Look Back; The military and the media don't like each other very much. This is actually nothing new. While conventional wisdom blames the Vietnam war for the breakdown in relations between the troops and the press, the animosity goes right back to the first war covered by the newly developed mass media. This was the 1861-65 American Civil War. The generals quickly became irritated when they were second guessed and criticized by editors and reporters. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. But there's another nasty relationship between the press and the military. Neither has much use for the past. And both embrace change for the sake of change. This is one of the generally unrecognized, and unexpected, problems to come out of the 20th century. 

That century has seen the greatest, and most rapid, development of technology in the history of mankind. This has been recognized as the cause of much anxiety, what has come to be known as future shock. But there has been a more insidious effect on the use of history. People have, in the course of the 20th century, come to feel that history no longer matters. While history is not as relevant as it once was, when thing changed slowly over centuries, there are still universal lessons to be learned from history. The late 20th century military is particularly prone to ignoring useful lessons from the past. This became painfully obvious in the 1970s when the US army decided to study history again and discovered how much useful stuff they had been ignoring. This was part of the post-Vietnam war reforms. The younger troops thought it was great, because it turned out there were a lot useful things to be learned from the past few generations. Many still valuable lessons were found in World War II experience. As military historians dug through the past looking for useful stuff, they found excellent material as far back as the 19th century. It turns out that the Spanish American war (particularly the campaigns in the Philippines) had valuable lessons. The Vietnam war would have turned out differently if we had paid attention to the guerilla war lessons we learned in the Philippines and in the decades before World War II. Even World War I had still useful lessons on battlefield leadership and how to handle innovation. 

However, this feast of historical lessons soon fell out of favor. The allure of the new and innovative still implied that the past was useless. This is unfortunate, as both the media and the military can learn from the past. For example, at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, the pundits were asked what Saddam's chances were of surviving. Most thought he was toast. But at least one pundit with a knowledge of history pointed out that no Middle Eastern leader in modern times had lost his job because he suffered a major military defeat. Moreover, this same historian pointed out that, based on past practice, Saddam would dig in his heels and outwait the onerous terms of the ceasefire agreement and UN embargoes. Pretty insightful, you might say, but it was simply based on the lessons of history. During the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia, most of the pundits proclaimed that Serbia could not stand up to the might of NATO air forces. One of the few historians on the air observed that Yugoslavia's military policy for the last half century was to deal with major air attacks. Yugoslavia felt it might have to fight either NATO or the Soviet led Warsaw Pact. In either case they would be operating against massive air forces, and trained accordingly. This was no secret. Anyone who had studied Balkan history recently, and paid attention to military matters, would pick up on this. As it turned out, the NATO air attacks were ineffective against the Serbian military. Only attacks on Serb civilians and convincing Russia to withdraw support brought the Serbs around. And it was mainly the Russian angle that had the greatest effect, plus backing away from guaranteeing Kosovo independence, caused the Serbs to pull out. But the media and the military, at least the US Air Force, still cling to the air power angle. Thus we have an example of ignoring history even as it is being made.

There's another reason the media's disdain for history. Like the financial markets, the electronic news crowd thrives on volatility, not repeatability. Action is what sells. Whether or not a lot of the news was in error is irrelevant. Although the people who make the most money in the financial markets are those who have mastered repeatability (ie, when past trading patterns or events that are repeating themselves), it's easier to just trade into the volatility. So financial markets, like electronic news providers and high level military strategists, go for posturing and shock value. When a war comes, however, you can quickly tell who is posturing and who has been paying attention to the fundamentals. 


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