Why they fight: A historian’s view

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On December 1, 2008

An issue focused on Missouri S&T’s connection to the military wouldn’t be complete without a word from military historian John C. McManus, associate professor of history and political science. Missouri S&T Magazine staff sat down with McManus to ask a few questions.

Missouri S&T Magazine: Are there similarities in soldiers’ experiences today versus decades ago?

“American soldiers may sign up for patriotic or economic reasons, but when the bullets start flying, soldiers generally just fight for one another and it’s pretty uncomplicated.”

McManus: Some things never change and I don’t think they ever will. Fear, for instance, is pervasive. Each generation may deal with it differently, but it’s there in the tight clenching of the stomach, the bile in the throat. It never ever changes.

American soldiers may sign up for patriotic or economic reasons, but when the bullets start flying, soldiers generally just fight for one another and it’s pretty uncomplicated. There is a great deal of dedication from people across varying backgrounds.

There are differences, too. The soldier of the mid-20th century on is much more accustomed to being well fed, well clothed and equipped with the best weapons and complementary equipment than his 19th century counterpart. The expectation of the guy on the frontier might have been to make do, but that is no longer the case.

Missouri S&T Magazine: How has fighting and strategy changed through the years?

McManus: Fighting is always impacted by fire power. But at the end of the day, the average soldier on the battlefield is still the person who determines the outcome of the war. In spite of all of this incredible range of fire power, including nuclear weapons, it still comes down to a guy with a rifle in his hands. That hasn’t changed throughout history and I don’t think it’s ever going to change.

Missouri S&T Magazine: What role, if any, does public perception play in strategy on the battlefield? Was the Vietnam War the first to show the average American graphic images of the loss of life?

McManus: Interestingly it wasn’t. In the 1860s, 100 years before, a couple of photographers, Alexander Gardner and Matthew Brady, went out and photographed the dead on the Antietam battlefield very soon after the battle. It was a horrible battle…still the bloodiest day in American history.

Their photographs had an electric impact in the North when they were displayed. People in New York City were truly shocked. They had been raised on tales of guns and trumpets and they never considered what war really was. Vietnam just takes that older concept to another level because of the medium of television, especially color television. Seeing something in black and white has a different impact than full color. Think of how you react seeing the grainy black-and-white images of World War II versus the vivid living-color images of Vietnam and subsequent wars. It’s more real to you. In the Vietnam War, there was a graphic nature and people were shocked.

If there was any uncertainty over whether the war was worth it or whether we needed to be there or what we were actually doing, these images had a pretty serious negative effect on public opinion. It’s horrible, but it’s needed in a free and open society so that people really understand what war is.

Missouri S&T Magazine: It seems like patriotism among the average American was stronger during World War II than today.

McManus: Most of our wars have been unpopular with a significant segment of society. For instance, the Revolutionary War. A third of the population was dead-set against it. Another third was kind of favorable toward the Patriot cause, but didn’t want to get involved. They wished there wasn’t a war.

Seen in that context, World War II was just a unique moment in American history. There was a kind of unity among society. People interpret patriotism differently. Some would argue opposing war is being patriotic because they don’t think war is good for our country. War has always been unpopular to some extent. It’s inevitable in a big, fractious country like this.

Missouri S&T Magazine: What made WWII unique?

McManus: We were attacked at Pearl Harbor and that is indisputable. There was no doubt. We knew who did it, why they did it and what needed to be done to them. People were in agreement. They realized that the Nazis and the Japanese fascists were a big threat to the United States and we needed to fight, like it or not. Prior to Pearl Harbor, Americans were a bit complacent. They didn’t like the Nazis and they didn’t like what the Japanese were doing in China, but that was “over there.” We didn’t have to worry. Of course, that all changed.

Missouri S&T Magazine: In today’s global society, why do young men and women continue to choose military service?

McManus: Economics is always a reason, but it goes deeper than that. There is a desire to prove oneself as free and mature; to demonstrate independence. Some are seeking a challenge; others want to do something that is bigger than they are. Patriotism, of course, is a strong reason. Young people tend to be idealistic. And young folks fight wars. It has nearly always been that way.

McManus has published seven books on military history. His latest work, The 7th Infantry Regiment: Combat in an Age of Terror: The Korean War Through the Present, was published in May. This spring, McManus received the 2008 Missouri Conference on History Book Award and, in 2007, History News Network named McManus one of America’s Top Young Historians. Click here to read the full transcript of our interview with McManus.

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On December 1, 2008. Posted in Features, Winter 2008