The study of history can be a wonderful method of instilling patriotism and civic pride into a nation. During the early years of the Cold War, the study of history was viewed as a vital way to instill the notion that the home nation was virtuous and grand, but opposition to a sanitized version of history was growing even as ultra-patriotism became a propaganda tool. Certainly, the sanitization of the history of war did not begin during the Cold War, but during that half century, the sanitized version of history was considered patriotic, and history critical of the homeland was seen by many as being subversive. Therefore, the shock was profound when footage of war was televised for all to see during the Vietnam War. A generation reared on stories of the noble victories which had defeated tyranny, slavery, totalitarian abuse, and genocide found themselves faced with the horror of war, most for the very first time. Furthermore, war was not noble as they had been told. It was not a clear cut battle between good and evil. It was ambiguous, uncertain, and many times utterly irrational.
The sanitization of history had stripped from collective memory the realities of war. The brutality, the savagery, the rape, and the hunger; all the devastating human suffering had become overshadowed by glorified patriotism. It became easy to believe that the modern rules of war were long rooted in history and only a villainess enemy would commit atrocities against prisoners and civilians. In a sanitized history, it was easy to forget the human suffering of the American Revolution and that such human suffering was generally accepted as part of war. School children had been taught of noble men, of dedicated soldiers who faced frost bite and starvation as they pressed for liberty, and of rag-tagged colonists who changed the world. While it might have been acceptable to sanitize history for the very young, it was problematic to continue with a sanitized version of history for older students. In fact, it led to disillusionment and civil unrest. It also led to backlash against those who tried to rectify the problem and expose the gritty nature of U.S. history.
In 1757, the writings of Maurice de Saxe were published. In his Reveries on the Art of War, he revolutionarily suggested changes to the formation of a modern army. The modern army as we think of it today had not yet been created. Saxe’s writings and the writings of Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini would change the way nations formed and utilized armies, however change was a slow process and not universal. When World War II came to a close, the leaders of the great warring nations desired for a universal set of rules that would govern modern war. Yet, they failed to fully comprehend the difficulty of enforcing such rules. Modern war was not to include the savagery and brutality of previous wars, and while bombing citizens was still being debated as an effective means of ending a war more quickly, citizens were otherwise seen as unacceptable targets in war. Rape of civilians was certainly no longer considered an effective war tactic or even a spoil of war. Part of the early appeal of nuclear weapons was that war by technology seemed more humane, at least for the nation in possession of the technology. It was not just history that was being sanitized, but warfare as well.
Unfortunately while the Cold War dominated the news, bloody, violent, ugly war continued in many parts of the world. War had not been sanitized, human suffering had not been eradicated, and the great powers could do little but suppress the violence of war. Peacekeeping efforts managed to suppress multi-national escalation, but seldom suppressed the human suffering historically associated with war. What was often suppressed was the news coverage the realities of war. When stories emerged of horrendous human rights violations during regional or civil wars, it became easy to condemn the perpetrators as savages, ungoverned by the modern rules of war.
Had the history of war not been so sanitized for the general populace of nations like the United States, these realities of war would have been less shocking. War is and has always been horrifying. Terror has always been a part of war. Sadly, for the children reared on the sanitized history and the patriotic rhetoric used during the Cold War, children who are now adults, war became disassociated from terror and horror. War was too often seen as a solution to regional conflict rather than part of the problem.
 Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (New York: Vintage, 2006), 41.
Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. Reprint edition. New York: Vintage, 2006.
Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, 2010.
Jomini, Antoine-Henri, Baron de. The Art of War. Translated by G.H. Mendell and W.P. Craighill. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008.
Pape, Robert A. Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.
Saxe, Maurice de. Reveries on the Art of War. Translated by Gen Thomas R. Phillips. Dover Ed. Dover Publications, 2007.
One thought on “Sanitizing the History of War”
Reblogged this on Pithy Ponderings and commented:
Not so pithy but I felt this was important to share on both blogs.