Missing in Action: Why Classical Educators Must Teach Military History

War, as C.S. Lewis stated in ‘Learning in Wartime’, only accentuates the state of our lives as they already are. Christians, Lewis pointed out, are constantly in a state of war to follow Christ because ‘we wrestle not against flesh and blood’. Those who do not follow Christ also sense that there is, as the best Marine Corps advertisements remind us, ‘something greater than themselves’ – and they want their lives, which are all too short, to matter.

Classical education is, simply put, an education in virtues of all kinds. The study of military history is also an education in virtue – the virtue both of collective groups and the virtue of individual soldiers. The study of military history is an exceptionally powerful education in virtue because, as Lewis said, the stakes are so high: lives, and souls, will live or die.

Thus, classical education should include military history for three reasons:

(1) The study of war teaches us what people believe is worth fighting for.

As Thucydides said, wars are typically fought only for ‘fear, honor, and interest.’ When they are, we see the ultimate pettiness of the human heart. We wish to ask Napoleon, powerful though he was, ‘Was the chance at a portion of Russia really worth 480,000 men? Was your personal prestige really worth the loss of five-sevenths of your invading force?’

But war can be fought for morally good reasons, as Victor Davis Hanson has described in The Soul of Battle, such as the liberation of slaves or the ending or restraining of tyranny. One need only look at the photographs of American troops liberating Nazi concentration camps or of American medics rescuing Vietnamese children to see that war can do good by suppressing evil.

Multiculturalists may cringe at the thought that one’s own country could and should be preserved; but the average citizen will hopefully cringe at the thought that another country could invade it.

(2) The study of war also teaches us what people believe is worth dying for.

Gloriously, the study of war demonstrates that men are capable of desiring and choosing to lay down their lives for right causes, and that they can be concerned to protect their homes and families.

Ominously, the study of war demonstrates that whole societies can be led to think that they must sacrifice their lives for morally wrong causes, or that they should not care whether their own nation is invaded by those who mean it harm.

(3) The study of war teaches us what people believe is worth honoring.

To paraphrase what Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said, a nation that does not honor its heroes will soon fail.

Military history teaches that medals and war memorials are not merely bits of metal, cloth, and cement; they are society’s rather pitiful attempts to recognize the enormity of soldiers’ sacrifices. What is a bronze model atop a lump of concrete compared with the flesh, blood, and soul of a man facing an enemy who seeks to kill him? What is a disc of gold and a segment of bright ribbon belatedly pinned on a uniform compared with the memories and scars a man will wear long after the uniform with its medals are taken off and stowed in the attic?

In the future, General Kelly’s recent speech on the honors granted fallen American soldiers may come to be seen as the equivalent of a physician’s shocking diagnosis of our nation’s chronic, though hopefully not terminal, illness. By stating his concern that even our nation’s elected officials saw nothing sacred about the death of our nation’s soldiers, he was demonstrating that a large portion of the population do not believe that our soldiers’ lives and sacrifices are worth honoring.

Since classical education is concerned with the virtues that should move us and the vices that should not move us, we as classical educators must teach military history to see in sharper relief the causes for which we should act and the causes for which we should be prepared to die.

Hopefully, we will not be too late to raise another generation to honor sacred lives.

Photograph: The Colors of British military units hang in Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, UK