AmericanHeritage.com / History and War: An Interview With Eliot Cohen

Posted Monday March 12, 2007 06:00 AM EST

History and War: An Interview With Eliot Cohen
By Fredric Smoler

Eliot A. Cohen
The new counsel to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talks about the uses of history, in Iraq and everywhere else wars are fought.

Up to a point, Eliot A. Cohen’s curriculum vitae looks like that of many high-flying American academics: a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. at Harvard, academic posts at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, eight books, and so on. But he also was just named counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

He has been the director for Pacific and Atlantic issues of the Department of Defense Policy Planning Staff and spent five years at the United States Naval War College, including a stint as acting chairman of the Department of Strategy. He directed the Gulf War Air Power Survey, the Air Force study of operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and has been a member of the National Security Advisory Panel to the National Intelligence Council, and the Defense Policy Board. He has put in six years in the U.S. Army Reserve, with the rank of captain, military intelligence.

I met Eliot Cohen in 2004 at a workshop on teaching strategic studies, participated in one of his staff rides and one of his simulations, and was fascinated to observe the different ways soldiers and academics think and learn about war and politics. I then spoke to him at his office at Johns Hopkins, where he is a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies. We discussed what history has to teach soldiers and politicians, and how such history can be taught.



1. History and Policy
You believe history has great value for soldiers and policymakers, and you left government in part to devote yourself to teaching history to such people. Would you talk about the value of history for policymakers?

There are a number of connections between history and policy, and not all of them are encouraging. There are cheap or superficial lessons of history. Going into Afghanistan, you had all these people saying, “Well, the British were never able to succeed, and the Russians failed, and so you won’t succeed either.” And sometimes this lesson was drawn to mean more than that we’d fail, but rather that we’d have a debacle. This lesson seems at best premature.

This tendency struck me most forcefully during the Bosnian and Kosovo crises of the mid-1990s, when you had a lot of people in the government, particularly in the military, warning against fighting the Serbs and saying, well, in World War II these folks pinned down more German divisions than the Allies did in Italy. They were falling back on a very stylized and actually incorrect version of history.

I had an excellent army officer who’s a paratrooper, fluent in German, a very, very bright fellow. He decided to do a research paper on what, exactly, the Germans had faced in Yugoslavia. He showed that most of those German divisions were about one-third strength, and most if them were not first-rate divisions or even second- or third-rate divisions. A lot of them weren’t even German divisions. And what were the German objectives? They were they trying to hold onto some critical facilities, particularly mines. Did the partisans ever prevent them from doing what they wanted to do? Never in any large way, until the bitter end. It was one of those moments that really struck me. A supposed lesson of history turns out to be no lesson of any kind, because the received version of the history is simply wrong.

You’ve argued that even when the history is right, the lesson can be wrong.

Another characteristic mistake is the misleading analogy. For example, I think a lot of the debate about the United States as an empire is profoundly misleading. Even quite a respectable historian like Niall Ferguson can say something like, in the good old days, the British Empire would send people out to India for eight, ten, twenty years, and that’s what you have to do if you’re going to run an empire. The United States doesn’t do that, so the United States will fail in its imperial mission. Well, think about what the United States is not: It’s certainly not an empire like the British Empire. It isn’t trying to be. There may be other ways in which you can exercise influence or control, and the fact that Americans are not much like former British elites does not mean that we’ll necessarily fail at a different project. Superficial analogies can get you in a lot of trouble.

But mightn’t it be true that many Americans have a profound ambivalence about the morality of maintaining authority anywhere—such as in Iraq? According to Ferguson, older British elites had a stronger ethic of public service. Could he be on to something there?

You have loads of Americans, and I get many of them as my students, who are quite self-sacrificing and quite willing to go off into all kinds of places. One of my students got interested in strategic studies, joined the Army, served in Iraq, came back, and then joined the U.S. Institute of Peace and set up their first country office there—in Iraq. Many Americans would be more than happy to go over to Iraq and expose themselves to shot and shell to do good. It is not a question of a spirit of self-sacrifice. I don’t like the empire debate because America’s purposes in the world are profoundly different from British purposes. The British really intended to hang on to India. We do not intend to hang on to Iraq.



2. History and Iraq
You have written that many of the things we think we know as lessons of history are actually very ambiguous. For example, the lesson that the United States doesn’t do nation-building.

Well, whether successfully or unsuccessfully, we’ve done it in lots of places, including Germany and Japan. This school at Johns Hopkins was founded in part to train people for military government. Going into Iraq, some people understood that our job was not going to be to defeat the enemy and withdraw. We have had various relevant experiences. Cuba and the Philippines are the main cases, but there are others. Some Americans were good at it, and some weren’t. We should be thinking hard about our historical experiences. After Vietnam there has been a deep institutional reluctance, particularly on the part of the military, to think about nation-building, and some civilians have refused to contemplate the possibility that we would ever do that again.

In Iraq we were insufficiently thoughtful about what it would take to win the peace, excessively optimistic, and unprepared at a number of levels. And we almost preferred not to worry about it, assuming somebody else would take care of it. I remember talking to one soldier who fought in Iraqi Freedom. He said, “Well, you know, we went in, and we expected a fight; we got a fight. And then I always expected that I’d look over my shoulder, and there would be battalions of nation-builders from ORHA [the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance] or someone from the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority]. I kept on looking around, and they didn’t show up. Then I realized that I’d have to be doing some of that.”

Some of our people reacted very quickly to the problem, which is why I object to the incorrect, patronizing, and false assertion that Americans don’t do nation-building. We have, and some of us still can. If you look closely at what happened in Iraq, some units went immediately into this line of work and did a great job. I think the textbook case will probably be the 101st Airborne Division up north, where with a very, very smart commander, David Petraeus, they immediately understood that they had to begin doing all kinds of stuff, little local projects with commanders making an emergency response and other things too. He had his soldiers make a point of clearing away all the burned-out vehicles off the road, so that there was a sense of peace, of normalcy; making contacts with the local notables—all that sort of stuff. The idea that Americans are constitutionally incapable of this is just wrong.

One historical analogy people make much of is the British experience in Iraq in the 1920s. They suggest that Iraq is an artificial invention, a multinational empire waiting to break into pieces. The charge is that the United States went into Iraq unaware of or oblivious of this.

It would have been a great thing if our decision makers had known much more about the British history in Iraq and gotten a sense of the violence that’s inherent in the place, a sense of the tribalism and the nature of the internal splits. You would have learned something, I think, about the difficulty one might have in co-opting any significant group. The British were relying on officers of the old Ottoman army, who they thought were their guys, and they really weren’t their guys. On the other hand, the circumstances are very different today. The British didn’t come in with a view to developing Iraq. They didn’t come in planning on spending billions dollars reconstructing the country. They were going to run the place, and there were going to be oil pipelines and air bases, but they didn’t have any ambition to create a different kind of political framework. They didn’t face the problem that we have of two neighbors, Iran and Syria, which are really hostile and are going to be bases for infiltration. They didn’t face the problem of dealing with a society that had just been through three crushing decades of extraordinarily brutal totalitarian rule and bloody warfare that left it a mess.

But we also were coming into a society that at least had some experience of very high rates of education and development, which was not the Iraq the British encountered in the 1920s and ’30s. They weren’t coming into a country that, because of international travel and globalization, had some idea that things could be different. Frankly, they weren’t coming in with a sophisticated military doctrine. The British doctrine was called “air control,” and it was something you could do on the cheap, wiping out villages from the air if the natives got restless. It was pretty brutal, although from a sufficient distance it looked attractive because it was done from airplanes rather than by soldiers with machine guns. It would have been useful to know about that history, but it would not be useful to say, hey, the British had this terrible trouble, so you’re going to have the same kind of terrible trouble. It’s one thing to understand origins, also deep-seated cultural and other patterns, but it’s another thing to think that history inevitably repeats itself.

The most popular analogy now is Iraq to Vietnam. What about the use and abuse of history in the Vietnam analogy?

It’s good to know about the Vietnam War for what it tells you about the history of counterinsurgency, for what it tells you about the American military, and certainly for what it tells you about the Vietnamese and about international politics. Some things in counterinsurgency tend to repeat themselves. Carefully handled, the analogy tells you something about American military culture, because part of the story of Vietnam is a story of how the United States Army tried to impose a very conventional matrix on a very unconventional problem. It also tells you something else about the American military: You had a lot of people who were very effective in Vietnam, people like John Paul Vann. American Special Forces did interesting things; the Marines did interesting things. Creighton Abrams was much more successful than he gets credit for. And so the analogy should remind you that the United States is a complicated power. But the way people use the Vietnam analogy is to assert that Iraq is just a long-term ghastly business that can only get worse and worse and end in frustration and failure.

Now, Iraq may end in frustration and failure, but if it does, it’ll be for reasons different from Vietnam. What are some of the differences? Well, in Vietnam you had a unified enemy fighting a largely rural insurgency, very much on the modified Maoist model, with party cells, with very strong party discipline going all the way back to Hanoi. Following that model, which is unfortunately still in our counterinsurgency field manuals, over the course of a three-phase offensive—what we’re up against in Iraq now, according to the analogy—the next step is that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi raises half a dozen infantry divisions and marches on Baghdad, because that’s what you’re supposed to do in phase three of your standard Maoist insurgency.

Well, that’s not what we’re up against. We’re up against a much more complicated and in some ways more difficult opponent, because the opposition is fractured. Moqtada al-Sadr is not the same thing as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. We are fighting many different groups, which may be networked and to some extent are not, and they do not have a clear program. Different groups have different visions. The Sunni fundamentalist vision is not the same thing as the Shiite fundamentalist vision, and none of these groups has the kind of superpower support that the Vietcong had, let alone the support of a regular North Vietnamese Army.

Remember, in Vietnam you had conventional warfare. If you’ve studied the Burma campaign in World War II, that’s what conventional warfare looks like in the jungle, and it looks a bit like Vietnam. There are artillery barrages, there are large infantry battles fought out in very difficult terrain. That’s not what you’re up against in Iraq.

To pick another weakness in the analogy, the American military is a profoundly different military from the one that fought in Vietnam. This is a professional military, aided by the citizen soldiers of the National Guard and the Reserves, who are now a semi-professionalized force. When you look closely at it, Iraq could go badly, it could be a debacle. But if it is a debacle, it’ll be so for very different reasons and in very different ways from Vietnam.

What are the right and wrong lessons to apply from Vietnam to Iraq?

I don’t think history dishes up lessons, except in a very narrow tactical sense: What’s the best way of protecting a convoy? Even that changes when the other guy figures out how you escort your convoys. The best question that Vietnam should pose is, have we done a good job of adapting a force that is oriented toward conventional all-out warfare to an unconventional problem? Have we done the things that we need to do to develop the indigenous forces? Those forces are ultimately the only ones that can win this kind of war, because they’re the ones who live there, they’re the ones who know the culture, they’re the ones who know the language, they’re the ones who’ll get the intelligence. Those I think are the two biggest things to take away from Vietnam, and in Vietnam we didn’t really succeed at the first and we didn’t really begin working at the latter until too late.

I think there are other things one should not learn from Vietnam. One of them is that the other side’s success is inevitable. Most insurgencies don’t succeed. Most guerrilla wars are lost by the guerrillas. So don’t assume that this can only end in one way. Don’t assume that you’re up against a single monolithic opponent. Don’t assume that the kind of military that we’ve put into Iraq will react the same way that the military we put into Vietnam did.



3. Historians vs. Soldiers
You’ve written about some the fundamental differences in the ways historians, soldiers, and policymakers think. Historians’ writings, as I understand you, are extraordinarily valuable but are liable to be looked on with some disfavor by the policymakers. Can you talk about that a bit?

Historians and military folks have something in common: Historians should have an eye for the particular or the unique, and a good soldier usually has that. The better soldiers are, the more they have it. That said, it’s in the nature of military training and military education to try to reduce learning to templates, whether it’s different kinds of battle drills or a standard operations order or a standard way of conceptualizing the enemy. I think the reason is because war is so chaotic that the more things you can reduce to routine or to something very, very structured, something that you don’t have to invent entirely fresh, the better off you will be.

The second thing is, although military people, probably more than any other profession, have an interest in history, they mostly have an interest in the history of their own profession. A lot of military culture is technicist. Soldiers have an engineering background, with an engineer’s view of the world. An engineer might have a side interest in how you build the Brooklyn Bridge, but he also knows that’s not really relevant to what they do now, and he’s going to be more interested in the lessons learned from a nice bridge that was recently built somewhere in Australia, and how certain kinds of materials react to certain kinds of strains. This has implications for the way soldiers react to operational narratives.

Really good operational narratives can be unsettling. They uncover ambiguity, choices that might have gone a different way, decisions that, in retrospect, may have been questionable. They can surface invidious comparisons between commanders or between units, all of which can make military people feel uneasy. But all military people are practical, and they’re under a lot of time pressure, so what they want is something cut and dried. “So, okay, what do I need to do to fix this, and let’s move on.” But a good, textured operational narrative makes you think and reflect and argue and ruminate, and most of the time the system doesn’t have time for that. The big exception is our very elaborate military educational system. Military people take to those sorts of narratives when they’re separated from their day-to-day life and have time to reflect. At the end of the day, the military profession is an eminently practical and outcome-oriented profession. There’s a difference between that and the pursuit of the truth, particularly when the truth leads to something other than an immediate conclusion.



4. Learning on the Battlefield
You have championed two particular ways of trying to get soldiers to learn something from history, the staff ride and the simulation. Can you talk about those?

The staff ride is a modification of something the Germans began doing in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the essence of it is that you’ve got to visit a battlefield. The Germans used either a real or a potential battlefield. If you’re going to a historical battlefield, you perch on the shoulder of the commander, and at certain points in the action, you’re asking, “Okay, what should the commander have done?” or simply analyzing their decisions. The modified version that we do is one is driven by role-play, where you’re General Sickles, and we’re at the peach orchard at Gettysburg, and you say, “Well, Sickles, you’re actually not supposed to be here. Your orders said, if I understand them, that you’re supposed to be on Cemetery Ridge, and that’s a half mile back, and we’ve exposed the Union left flank. What’s this all about?” And the participant says, “Well, first let me tell you who I am. I’m this politician who became a general,” and so on.

Now, we do a lot of staff rides with my students here. We go to Civil War battlefields. We go overseas. But I also do this in various executive education programs we run for the Defense Department. It’s a very powerful technique, not so much for teaching history per se, although you do that, but for allowing people to tackle certain problems at several removes. For example one of the largest problems any military organization has is the one that you see with the Abu Ghraib scandal. Who do you hold accountable for a substantial failure? How do you hold them accountable? What are the right standards?

Those are important questions. They probably have no definitive answers, but it’s very important to be thoughtful about them. If you take people to Harpers Ferry, this is the scene of the largest surrender of United States troops until the fall of the Bataan Peninsula. There’s a commission of inquiry, and who do you blame? You have an entire chain of command. At the bottom, there was a Col. Dixon Miles, who had the good judgment to get killed on the last day of the siege, at the very last moment, so you can blame him. There’s a general officer who rides in but doesn’t take command. There are some of Miles’s subordinates. And then there are Miles’s superiors, going all the way up to General McClellan, and you could take it further yet. Over dinner, we’ll reenact the commission of inquiry, and everybody will have their roles to play. I’ll be the judge advocate, asking everyone questions, and you’ll get a very rich discussion about responsibility and accountability, where you know that at the back of their minds they’re thinking about contemporary issues. But because you’re in a historical context, it’s a lot easier to talk. That is one major use of the technique.

How do you use simulations?

One of our best simulations was of the escalation decisions in the summer of 1965. It’s a little bit artificial, because we try to boil it down to a point decision, which it wasn’t. But we gave the participants newspaper clippings, internal documents of the National Security Council and Defense Department, and so forth. And we had them play a kind of combination of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and some of the other figures in the government. We had a group of general officers, and I think the thing that stunned them—it certainly struck me—is that if you look at the kinds of decisions they made, they ended up being more or less the decisions that President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara made.

That was very useful in that by and large these folks all had a great deal of innate and perfectly understandable disdain for Johnson and McNamara, and certainly a deep distrust of them. Their inclination going in was to think those guys were simply fools, or criminally irresponsible. Walking themselves through the decision and coming out with something similar was sobering. You got into a discussion about how hard it is to break out of a decision that seems structured for you by the circumstances. So I think these are very powerful ways of teaching, as long as you don’t try to predetermine the outcome.

How do you avoid hindsight? I had a fascinating experience at your events. I drew foolish conclusions on the basis of imperfect hindsight. I knew that a Revolutionary War general had been acquitted of responsibility for the disaster we were examining, but I didn’t know that he was later responsible for another similar disaster. But hindsight seems inescapable. You had us simulate the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971. I knew that U.S. policy had failed, and it colored my reactions.

I think one of the things you try to do, depending on your objective, is get away from history people know a lot about, because you can’t escape from hindsight. But I don’t really care whether people vote to acquit or to hang, if over dinner that night they’re still talking about it and going back and forth about the issue of accountability. Do you sometimes fire a general, even if in some absolute sense it’s unfair, or if he’s a good guy doing the best he can? The teaching point is, most of us are unwilling to pull the trigger on a guy who is probably incompetent but was put in a very difficult circumstance, did his level best, was undoubtedly patriotic, was trying to look after his men, and all the rest. From my point of view, the point is achieved if people find themselves thinking that maybe that’s not enough. I never think of these exercises as ways of teaching history per se. People will learn some history anyway, but that’s not the point.

At the Revolutionary War battlefield at Ticonderoga, you taught the influence of terrain. I have the impression that staff rides were originally designed to stress the importance, if not the tyranny, of terrain.

The lessons depend on the battlefield, and they vary according to the group you’re dealing with. The ground never looks the way you imagined it would look from the books, and there’s a great lesson there for historians. In many accounts of battles it’s clear that one historian is largely drawing from other historians, who are drawing from original accounts, but none of these historians has necessarily seen what the ground looks like. They include some little things that probably weren’t so, or there are decisions that seem to be inexplicable, but when you see the ground, you go, “Aha!”

Sickles at the Peach Orchard is a good example. Sickles is this larger-than-life New York politician, very controversial, not a bad soldier in some respects, and certainly his men had a high regard for him. So why is he in the Peach Orchard? Everybody says this is insubordination, this is Sickles being a typical, stupid politician-turned-general. You actually go the Peach Orchard, and one thing you realize is, well, he’s got the high ground, which is what every second lieutenant is taught he’s supposed to do. So you can understand why he chooses that ground, especially when you remember that at Chancellorsville he was ordered to evacuate a similar piece of high ground with disastrous consequences, and that was just a couple of months before. On a staff ride, Sickles’s decision becomes much more explicable than in almost any account I’ve read in the history books.

Would you talk some more about what people learn from riding the ground?

Well, when you go to Antietam, you see that the ground is very complicated, it’s gently rolling ground. If you walk it carefully, you see that there’s all kinds of room for surprise. You read accounts of units suddenly coming upon one another and suffering horrific casualties, and you suddenly realize why that was the case, because they were continually being masked and unmasked. My students, most of them military people, then realize how confusing ground becomes. And with my non-military students, that’s one thing I want them to understand: Ground’s not only very important, it’s also very confusing. Another point I want them to take away from the ground at Antietam is a comparison between Lee and McClellan as commanders, because seeing the way they used ground, and their attitude toward ground, is very interesting.

This is a point that’s made when the Army War College guide, written by Jay Luvaas, goes to Antietam. Where does McClellan put his command post? Well, he puts it at the Pry House, at the top of a big hill. He has some telescopes there, he’s got a relay to the signal stations on Oak Mountain, and it’s an almost technological conception of ground. There’s only one big problem. There’s this big ravine between him and the battle, it’s very hard for him to go back and forth, and he’s not getting real-time information. You go to Lee’s headquarters, which is a little behind the front lines, and you can’t see a thing from Lee’s headquarters. But Lee can get anywhere on the battlefield within about five minutes, and he’s right by the main road where reinforcements are coming up, so he can make decisions about where to send them. So just by looking at the ground, you see there are two commanders here with two different understandings of what the job of command is all about. You can take that discussion and abstract it a little bit. How does a general define what the job of command is?

That’s another thing that makes you appreciate Lee. You or I look at the ground and we just say, boy, there’s a lot of little rolling hills and streams here. Lee clearly looked at this ground and said, this would be a great place to fight a defensive battle. Because Lee chooses Antietam. He’s not compelled to fight there; he chooses to fight there. And you realize that there must be people out there, like Robert E. Lee, who have an extraordinary eye for ground, and this is part of what makes a great soldier.

There will be some battlefields where that will be part of the teaching, but part of the fun of going to different battlefields is that there are very different kinds of teaching issues or observations that come out. The lessons are not only about the ground. I get students who are a couple of years out of college, who’ve never even met a soldier, and I always have a Marine lieutenant colonel go out on the same trips. They all take away an enormous amount, because they share very different perspectives or understandings, and it’s the dialogue between the students that makes this such an effective teaching technique.

The Ticonderoga staff ride I went on with you dramatized the difference between what an academic knows and what a soldier knows, and maybe how they know. One of the instructors was a colonel, an engineer. It happened that I remembered more arcana of Renaissance fortification than he did at the moment. That would have maddened an academic, but the colonel was happy that someone knew something interesting. On the other hand, during an analysis he came out with what sounded like a proverb, and there, with fierce clarity, was one point of the exercise: An obstacle is useless unless covered by fire. His training had stressed theory, but the theory was in no way abstract; here the theory had been ignored, and the battle lost. Most good academic historians are almost obsessed with exceptions to rules. Here the rule was the wisdom.

My military experience is negligible, but when I was a second lieutenant I learned one of the things they drum into second lieutenants: An obstacle is no good unless covered by fire. It’s not so much theory as a bit of homely wisdom, and there is a lot of homely wisdom that gets passed along. I think a lot of military lesson-learning really takes place in the same way that the Iroquois learned lessons. You’re effectively sitting around a campfire, and the younger braves are saying, oh, what’s the best way of lifting scalps? And the older braves present say, well, if you’re going to attack a raiding party, or you’re going to jump a bunch of Frenchmen coming back from out West with a bunch of beaver pelts, this is the best way to do it. And sometimes it’s written down, which makes it formal doctrine, and sometimes it’s just folk wisdom that gets passed along.

One tension between the historian and the military person is that the military person will have a deep conviction of the kind one gets only from folk wisdom, that the obstacle is no good unless covered by fire, while the historian will quibble with a doubt or a question, and there won’t really be a dialogue. It’s probably important to understand where there is not room for dialogue, as much as where there is.

How do different ranks learn different things from the same staff ride?

I would probably take junior officers to battlefields where junior officers had had to make crucial decisions. Someone said to me that it would be interesting to do a Gettysburg staff ride entirely from the point of view of brigade commanders. You’d just get a brigade commander’s view—which is the real tactical event of the Civil War—of the fight. When I’m taking general officers on staff rides, I am more interested in larger issues of command, accountability, responsibility, maybe civilian-military relations, and there are wonderful places for doing that.

When I do Gettysburg, I’ll distribute an anguished letter that Lincoln writes to Meade. Meade has heard that Lincoln was desolate at the failure to pursue Lee. And then I’ll ask the group, okay, so should Lincoln send it or shouldn’t Lincoln send it? I point out that sometimes Lincoln sent such letters and sometimes Lincoln didn’t. I’ve done these things not only with generals but with corporate executives, and they have a wonderful discussion. For the more junior officers, I’d probably take them on the staff ride where terrain really does count.

Part of the trick of leading a staff ride is to get the participants to empathize—not sympathize, necessarily, but to empathize—with each of the characters. It’s one of the reasons why you do role-playing. When you role-play, you have at least one person who’s going to make it their business to see the world as the historical agent saw it, and to make their case. They’re not allowed to lie, but I want them to talk as though they were that person sprung back to life, making his case before the bar of history. Empathy is one of the great goals of the technique.



5. Drawing Lessons From History
Should we worry about too much empathy? I’m thinking of many recent studies of French and British policies of the 1930s. They are triumphs of empathy, quick to excuse, attentive to historical context and cultural constraint. They suggest that no one could have seen things differently. But some did see things differently, Churchill, for example, and de Gaulle. The men who made the historical decisions got things disastrously wrong, and scores of millions died as a result. Can too much empathy paralyze historians’ judgment?

One reason I’m out of sympathy with that revisionist wave is that Churchill is one of my heroes. It’s fascinating to read Churchill’s eulogy of Neville Chamberlain. Churchill could be tremendously generous, but I think he was able to find some kind of median: You do have to understand why they did what they did, but at the end of the day you should be able to come to a real judgment about their culpability. If you find yourself unwilling or unable to make any kind of judgment, or if you find yourself slipping into the assumption that everything’s pre-determined—of course they were going to be that way, because of all the environmental issues, culture, psychological makeup, and all of that stuff—then you have come up with a deterministic theory of history, and studying the past has no relevance for policy.

I think the way into this is to look at the most thoughtful statesmen making judgments about other statesmen. Churchill, despite his faults—he had his faults and his weaknesses and blind spots—was extremely thoughtful when trying to judge somebody else’s decisions. For example he was absolutely livid with the Royal Navy for not making the initial push through the Dardanelles after they lost three ships. And Churchill is going nuts, because he says, look, we weren’t really taking casualties. These had skeleton crews. These were completely obsolete. This was basically scrap metal that we were sending down there. But then he says, well, imagine you’re a sailor. You’ve given your entire life to the handling of these massive and beautiful constructions. Seeing these things you’ve given your entire life to sinking beneath the waves is a terrible psychological trauma. He then makes the case for having continued on. I think that’s the standard of judgment that you want to have. We can understand all the reasons why they did it, but they’re still negligent, or if they’re not negligent, it was still a huge and culpable mistake.

Some years ago a strategist looked at lessons people had drawn from the Russo-Japanese War. They had managed to draw exactly the lessons that confirmed their existing practice. Is that a problem?

I’d state the problem differently. I think we’re in a period when people know less history, and I think they’re genuinely less curious about it, particularly political figures. Harry Truman was an avid reader of American history. Teddy Roosevelt was an avid reader of history. Even FDR, who was not an intellectual, was very curious about the American past. It’s a question of the historical sensibility as much as of historical knowledge. Leaders need a sense of the past as being something that’s other and not like us but that somehow informs us. They need to believe it has something to teach about how things happened. I’ve been reading Isaiah Berlin on the nature of real political judgment and the origins of a political sense of reality. What he admired as good political judgment is in fact a historical sensibility—a feeling for contingency, for otherness, for difference, for ambiguity—and I think that’s increasingly slipping away from us.

Why do politicians have less of a historical sensibility than they once had?

Well, what happened to the historical profession? You once had a lot of terrific historians who wanted to teach bright young undergraduates about how the world around them came into being, and who believed that a knowledge of history would assist those students in reshaping the world. They wrote well, and their works were accessible and rather general. Many people think that style of history has gone out of fashion in the academy.

The challenge is finding ways of making history talk to policy, but we also have to have historians who can comprehend the worldview of policymakers. Historians are appalled by policymakers either being completely ignorant of history or making gross misuse of it, usually through oversimplifications, which they indeed do all the time. But historians tend to be so detached from the world of policymaking that they make misjudgments about history. These days the only practical activity most historians have known has been grading papers, and they tend to apply that standard to their judgments about politicians. They find it quite difficult to have real empathy with what a statesman is up against, what kinds of decisions people make, what kinds of information they have, what kinds of pressures they’re under. Part of the biggest problem is that Churchill was probably right, one has to nail one’s life to a cross, either in thought or in action, and the kinds of people who do one aren’t likely to do the other. And yet it seems to me very important that the two types engage in a conversation, and that’s my project in this place.

The good news is that there are always a lot of younger people who are fascinated by stuff that’s intrinsically fascinating. That has two consequences. One is that undergraduates will flock to courses on military history, and the history of international relations, and diplomatic history. There will be young academics who find it fascinating, and they’ll get Ph.D.s in the subject, and if left to their own devices they’ll teach it. And there are some bureaucratic incentives. Deans do usually notice who’s pulling in the students. That might be some cause for optimism.

How does military history, as opposed to military theory, prepare soldiers for their profession?

One of the great things Clausewitz says about theory is that theory is meant to educate the mind of a commander, not to accompany him to the battlefield or to indicate the path to victory through a hedge of principles on either side. That is an absolutely brilliant summary of what military theory is all about. Military theory doesn’t tell you what to do. I would say something very similar about history. I don’t think reaching for historical analogies well help you. Our technological circumstances are different, our geographical circumstances are different, and our strategic circumstances are different. In any concrete policy decision, it is not the case that you say, “Somebody be my staff historian to tell me what the correct analogy is.” Which is pretty much, by the way, what too many policymakers think history is for.

Instead, I think history should be a foundational component of education for judgment. It teaches the kinds of questions that you ask. What’s important is not necessarily to know the narrow efficacy of commerce raiding, or of attempts to attack battleships with torpedo boats, but rather to have thought about the problem of contests at sea between opponents who are really asymmetrical. I do not want my students to learn the lessons of history. They do not exist. I want to make them think historically.

—Fredric Smoler teaches history and literature at Sarah Lawrence College and is a contributing editor of American Heritage magazine.