In the past month, observant Yale students may have noticed an increase in the number of military uniforms around campus. A few weeks ago, students from the War College in Paris and the United States Military Academy at West Point joined those enrolled in ROTC programs at Yale for a series of lectures and debates to commemorate the 100th anniversary of U.S. entry into World War I. The events specifically focused on Yale’s historical role in the military and its contribution to national security. The University has a storied history in the military, with thousands of Yale alumni contributing to American war efforts since the founding of the College. Indeed, Yale’s campus contains numerous markers of our involvement with war, such as inscriptions found in Woolsey Hall of the names of students who died at war.
In light of these ties, why does military history play such an insignificant role in our classrooms? The Yale Blue Book contains a plenitude of courses dealing with foreign policy and international studies, yet rarely do students focus on concrete military strategy or the structure of our armed forces. We study the intricacies of foreign cultures and languages, but know little about the largest institution in the world — the U.S. Department of Defense according to the BBC. This is not a new phenomenon, and it is not limited to Yale.
In a 1997 paper titled “The Embattled Future of Academic Military History,” John Lynn of the University of North Texas attributes academia’s disregard for war studies to a shift toward critical-theoretical fads after the Vietnam War. Whereas scholars who focused on issues such as race and gender peppered their research with the sexy terms du jour, those who studied the military were seen as “politically right-wing, morally corrupt or just plain dumb.”
As a result, war scholarship saw a steep decline. In a study of 30 years of articles published in the “American Historical Review” — a leading journal in the field — Lynn found that not a single article discussed the conduct of the two World Wars, the Revolutionary War or the Napoleonic Wars, to name a few. On the other hand, race, gender and class studies were included in 80 percent of the journals published.
At Yale, we are fortunate to have some of the best minds in military history and strategy in the United States, including Grand Strategy professors John Lewis Gaddis, Paul Kennedy and Charles Hill. Nonetheless, few students will graduate with even the most basic knowledge of how our military operates. Even the Global Affairs major focuses much more on diplomacy, governance and economics than concrete war strategy. A Global Affairs major cannot graduate without learning how to draw supply-and-demand curves, but she need not know the difference between infantry and artillery.
Yale students’ indifference to the military is particularly alarming because of our alumni’s presence in the highest rungs of government. However, the military-civilian divide permeates American life. In their recent book, “Warriors and Citizens,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Kori Schake, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, document the American public’s startling ignorance on military matters. Among their most surprising findings is that the average American cannot guess the size of our military correctly within a factor of six. The knowledge gap between civilians and military personnel has isolated veterans and effectively created two American populations — one at war, one in peace.
This divide hurts our war efforts at every level, but it is particularly harmful when highly educated citizens like us are detached from the military. Moreover, civilian leaders who lack training in military history often prove less effective in forming and executing foreign policy, due both to a lack of expertise and a lack of empathy with combatants. The authors argue that “it’s only a little hyperbolic to conclude that some Americans see the service as an experience leading to pathological behavior.”
In fact, at one of the events held to commemorate World War I, General Stanley McChrystal, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, argued that the divide between military and civilian operations has hindered America’s efforts in the Middle East, pointing to the strides he made in Afghanistan by collaborating with U.S. and international government agencies. The troubling truth is that civilian leaders trained at institutions like ours will unlikely have the expertise — or even the desire — to work directly in ground combat.
Our country has been in nearly perpetual war for the last 70 years. The military has served as the backbone of global order. If we want to be leaders in the world, we will need to understand the operations of our country’s largest institution.
Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org