Which historian - David M. Kennedy, or John Shy - best represents the American experience with war?
While reading Kennedy's - and Shy's - essay discussions, it's necessary to put their writings in the context of time. Kennedy penned his essay in 1975, and Shy wrote his in 1971. In terms of world events subsequent to both essays - in particular the advent of terrorism on a colossal and destructive scale, (9/11/01) - veritable light years of military and political change has emerged.
But notwithstanding the tumultuous global changes since the 1970s, the assigned essays are timeless in their intelligent analysis, very important in terms of their forthright accuracy of U.S. history and war, and hence, provide valuable reading for any and all students of the times. However, the essay by Kennedy, in this writer's opinion, best reflects the big picture view of America, its peoples, its geography, its politics, and its wars fought. While Shy's writing is also informative, Shy tends to approach the topics at hand from the point-of-view of theory, and he spends too much time examining the mentality of the military, rather than presenting a balanced historical position. More comparisons of the two essays are offered later in this paper.
David M. Kennedy
David M. Kennedy builds much of the foundation of his essay around how fortunate America has been over the years when it comes to wars, the limited destruction of its own homeland, and casualties associated with going to war. Kennedy builds his case by pointing out the geographic realities of America's place in the world, and, how the United States' relative physical isolation from much of the conflict it has engaged in over the years - with the Indian Wars and the Civil War as exceptions - has kept it safe from outside harm, for the most part. "The accident of geography," Kennedy writes, provided America with "free land"; he quotes Alexis de Tocqueville as saying, "fortune, which has conferred so many peculiar benefits upon" Americans, "placed them in the midst of a wilderness... [where] they have no neighbors." And that theme, as part of Kennedy's paper, has also meant that the U.S. has had no need for "constant military preparedness," in Kennedy's words.
Examples of how small our armies were compared to those in Europe are offered: in 1897, when the French Army of conscripts number more than half a million, and the German Army of conscripts numbered just less than half a million, Americans had an army of 27,000 volunteers. Until WWI, the U.S. Army was all-volunteer - and the stark comparison with Europe's standing armies makes Kennedy's point about geography isolating America from conflict.
Kennedy continues to develop the point of how little attention was given to the need for military might in the U.S., by pointing that between 1820 and 1900, average annual military expenditures in France, Germany, and Britain ranged between $3 to $6 per capita; in the U.S. that figure fluctuated between $.70 and a dollar. This may come as a surprise to students - and others not up to speed on American military history - in the year 2003, who perhaps always believed the myth that America has always been poised and ready for all wars by all comers, beefed up by a massive army of highly trained professionals.
And Kennedy goes on to shatter more myths, noting that by 1937, the per capita annual spending on military was $58 in Germany, $22 in France and $27 in England - contrasted with a relatively miniscule $7 per capita in America. His point made, he mentions that between 1815 and 1917, the U.S. fought no wars with any major foreign power.
Given that this nation has not had to defend it's own boundaries, for the most part anyway, Americans have developed an attitude, Kennedy asserts, of believing that when Uncle Sam goes to war, he totally wipes out the enemy with massive force - such as was the case particularly in WWII, symbolized by the massive landing at Normandy, France. The fierce and bloody D-Day landing was made graphically believable in Stephen Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," which even WWII veterans who survived the slaughter of that assault said was entirely realistic. And that attitude of annihilation was part of the reason, Kennedy believes, that the "search and destroy" missions in Vietnam, and the limited engagement policy in Korea led to frustration and humiliation not only for the U.S. military, but for the public back home, expecting a slam dunk only to be led along with soft lay-ups, to use a basketball metaphor.
And even when America was forced, or morally obliged, to go to battle on a massive scale - WWI as an example - the U.S. only lost a fraction (100,000) of the number that Europeans lost (10 million Europeans dead, 21 million wounded). Additionally, the U.S. lost not a single civilian in that conflict, nor did America lose any civilians in WWII; whereas of the 30 million dead in Europe following WWII, half were civilians; albeit the 400,000 American soldiers who were killed is no small amount.
And while the U.S. homeland remained free of the bloodstains that drenched Europe during both world wars, the American economy was booming, and real growth from the production of war-time hardware put everyone to work, and put money in bank accounts. The exact opposite was happening in Europe: economies were devastated by the war. Again, Kennedy's point about how blessed the U.S. has been is made in death counts in Europe juxtaposed with news of a surging economic in America.
And, whereas, 19th Century Americans saw war as a "promising arena for personal fulfillment," in this new era he writes about (up through the mid-Seventies), Americans have "lost all illusions about the heroic possibilities or war." He doesn't say it, but one key reason for the absence of further romanticizing of war following Vietnam, was that TV coverage of Vietnam brought up-close-and-personal pictures of war's bleak and bloody realities into living rooms for the first time. Through the daily, depressingly enormous body counts, and the seemingly endless parade of negative reports from reporters on the front lines, Americans had apparently seen enough, it seems, of movies depicting glamorous images of war - at least for a time. Kennedy's discussion of the cost of the Vietnam war is the point in his essay where his position is obviously way out of date and out of whack with today's war costs - through no fault of his own.
Kennedy placed the cost of the Vietnam war at some $352 billion - and that was a war that lasted more than ten years. Meanwhile, American troops haven't been in Iraq six months yet, and the cost is being tabulated at over $50 billion, with no end in sight. "Those figure stagger the mind," writes Kennedy, alluding to the tab for Vietnam's conflict. One can't help but wonder what Kennedy - a professor at Stanford - is saying about the U.S. administration recently shelling out a $30 million reward to the "tipster" who led U.S. troops to the hideout where Sadaam Hussein's sons were holed up.
Kennedy alludes to the "massive diversion of resources" that went to the war in Vietnam, at the time he wrote the essay in the mid-Seventies. And, certainly, today, as well, there is a "massive diversion of resources" being directed towards the U.S. effort in Iraq, and elsewhere around the world, in the so-called "war on terrorism." If the Vietnam war was confusing as far Americans' attitude toward the military, and redefined how Americans view war, the world since 9/11/01 has taken that collective bewilderment to new levels.
At the conclusion of his essay, Kennedy talks about lessons which Americans have learned as a result of Vietnam - "the poisonous effect on political life that war and preparation for war have brought" - and he says history, which once "had been so good to Americans," now appears "to have caught up with us." How could he have known, in 1976 that his writing would be an enormous understatement in 2003?
And in an eerily prophetic line, Kennedy, saying it's not "pleasant to ask" what might happen if America "one day became a battleground." It is "especially frightening," he continues, "to contemplate the circumstances in which America might lose this last vestige of its innocence about modern warfare." After all, he concludes, "we alone in the world have not felt the pain of modern war in our heartland" - and surely he knew, or believed in his heart when he wrote those lines, that America wouldn't remain a sanctuary from war's terror forever.
Shy's essay attempts to explain America's "unusual" international behavior in what he calls, an "unusual" way.
And he acknowledges at the outset that "there is something peculiar about all military activities," but that the collective memory that a nation has of war "becomes a strange and selective thing." And…