Reviewed by Fletcher M. Burton
Military History for the Modern Strategist
by Michael O’Hanlon
Brookings Institution Press, 2023, 399 pages
In one of the biting satirical stories from Friedrich Duerrenmatt, the Swiss author, a character rejoices over the beginning of a war because now, as a foreign minister, he can go on vacation. That dark jest turns Clausewitz on his head by mocking his dictum that war and politics and policy are all interlocking. The Russian war with Ukraine has brought little time on the beach for the world’s diplomats. They instead are feverishly pursuing diplomatic advantage as all parties maneuver for the day when the screaming guns fall silent.
War is “astounding,” in Lincoln’s piercing description from his Second Inaugural Address. Diplomats will do well to reflect on its meaning. A recommended starting point is a remarkable new book by Michael O’Hanlon, Military History for the Modern Strategist. O’Hanlon is one of the intellectual luminaries at the Brookings Institution where he has excelled as a defense analyst. His latest book is different; it is a work of historical synthesis. Readers can plumb its military narrative on several levels, strategic, operational, and tactical, as the author intended. It can also be read from several angles, including the diplomatic, as the author implied.
O’Hanlon organizes his material in an elegant structure. He examines “America’s major wars since 1861” (his subtitle) encompassing the Civil War, the two World wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Each chapter has an introduction and conclusion, both lending purpose to the primer. He ends with a meditation on the three most important lessons drawn from the mass of material. The book achieves its striking originality when the author rises above the smoke and fog of battle to offer philosophical ruminations on human nature and political behavior.
Of the many gems in the narrative, one that gleams is his judgment on the leaders during World War One—all flawed, he says, more part of the problem than solution, even Churchill. The one exception, “the most impressive figure of the day,” was the reform-minded Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo sparked the conflagration. History has only given us his death; O’Hanlon restores him, albeit briefly, to life.
O’Hanlon’s historical survey includes sharp critiques of diplomats. For example, he faults the profession for stoking crises before the outbreak of World War One and for launching later in Versailles a “peace that ended peace.” He castigates Secretary of State Dean Acheson for green lighting the North Korean attack on its southern brethren. On the other side of the ledger, he credits diplomatic efforts after World War Two in rehabilitating Germany and Japan, resulting in “one of the most magnanimous peace arrangements in history.”
The dire peril of reckless overconfidence is one of the book’s major themes, a tendency of leaders to test fate by gambling on war. That suggests one vital function for American diplomats. Those posted in China, for instance, can gauge the confidence level of Xi Jinping in his calculation of risk in assertive action. A Civil War historian remarked of the Confederate generals: “They had an exultant acceptance for the chances of war.” And Chinese generals?
The concluding chapter of Military History, a distillation of the preceding five chapters—and to some extent of the author’s many previous books—bears close study for diplomats. For my summation of his ten-page summary, I return to Lincoln: War is “astounding” in the manner that ferocious collisions shape its course, terrible to endure, impossible to foretell. The word is engraved on an interior wall of the Lincoln Memorial, a short walk from the State Department. Lincoln spoke it some six weeks before his assassination, making the Second Inaugural akin, in spirit and standing, to the Requiem of Mozart, who died shortly after composing the score.
Let us allow the author, after all his extraordinary diligence in synthesizing, his own formulations for the concluding lessons: First, “outcomes in war are not preordained.” Second, “war is usually harder and bloodier than expected.” And lastly, “America’s grand strategy is strong enough to absorb some setbacks.”
The first two are universal, applicable to all states, not just to the U.S., as history amply reveals. War confounds. It shreds plans. It sets off a mad dynamic of kinetic interaction that is uncontrollable. Tolstoy understood this in War and Peace. Violence begets violence. Revenge smolders. War destroys all romantic notions of gallantry; it abrades all illusions to dust. Vladimir Putin must be gnashing his teeth as he confronts these lessons.
The third lesson is particular to the U.S. Whereas O’Hanlon is unforgiving in scoring the American military record after World War Two—no wins, two losses (Vietnam and Afghanistan), and two draws (Korea and Iraq)—he argues that the U.S. is sustaining “the most successful grand strategy of any power in the history of the planet.” That, too, is astounding. This is no “march of folly” (Barbara Tuchman’s take on military misadventures), more like a procession of irony. Yet this is also no “All’s Well that Ends Well” (Tolstoy’s working title for what became War and Peace).
If the first two lessons are “fundamentally sobering,” then the last one is spirituous. It proclaims a mighty paradox, one the author explains by the terms of his craft: favorable correlation of forces, advantageous distribution of power, enduring structural strengths. Specifically, he cites such U.S. attributes as our continental size, geographical position, innovative economy, democratic tradition, social resilience, and research infrastructure. He also credits nuclear deterrence. And luck.
Further, most striking from a diplomatic standpoint, O’Hanlon underscores the Western alliance system encompassing two-thirds of world GDP and a similar percentage of global military expenditure. It is a coalition of partners not system of vassals. At its heart lie two former enemies, Germany and Japan, whose transformation after WWII marked the historic watershed between the first and second halves of last century, the first marked by devastating strife, the second by great-power peace.
In effect, this interpretation assigns a vital role to U.S. diplomats to strengthen those alliances and exercise wise leadership. An implied theme of the book is that diplomatic and military exertions are anything but separate, an integration perhaps best imagined as a marble cake not layer cake. Diplomacy is an embedded part of strategy during conflict, not sequestered before and after.
Lest diplomats become intoxicated by U.S. success in grand strategy, they should recall O’Hanlon’s other dispiriting lessons. Diplomats can only dream of that vacation scheduled by Duerrenmatt. Hope is not a plan. And luck can run dry. There is no holiday from history.
For the last word, we might turn to America’s first and greatest diplomat, Ben Franklin, who gave a memorable answer to the question of what the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had produced (“a republic, if you can keep it”). Here the question posed by Military History for the Modern Strategist is what U.S. grand strategy has generated: A superpower, if we can keep it.
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