Understanding war: It's a slow march

In his popular course - Weapons, Strategy, and War - Prof. Warner Schilling not only lectures on the history of warfare, he also shows students what fighting is like - with a gun.

Each year, under the watchful eye of a Columbia University security officer, Dr. Schilling shows students what a World War I rifle looks like and how it would load and fire if they used ammunition. Students dutifully line up to take their turn aiming the unloaded rifle at the wall, imagining what it must have been like at the Battle of the Somme.

Schilling is a professor of international relations at Columbia, where he was formerly director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies. He is the author of "Strategy, Politics, and Defense Budgets" and "American Arms and a Changing Europe." The book he is currently researching deals with individualized warfare - terrorism, assassinations, and the like.

North Manhattan's bustling energy contrasts with the shelves and shelves of books on defense planning, strategic analyses, and atlases in his office, where Schilling recently spoke with the Monitor about changes he has seen in both the student body and the body politic.

On how students have changed:

The people I went through graduate school with were right after the World War II, so international relations looked like deadly serious business to us, and we were all, in one way or another, party to the war. We thought that by studying international politics and foreign policy we might have a part in moving the world in happier directions.

If I was to contrast that with students today, I think that they are more taken up with the academic life than we were. Now, that doesn't mean they are less interested in the interrelationship of academic work and public policy, but they are more self-conscious of the needs and the role of a budding academic than we were.

On what war means to students today:

When war means that a bunch of professionals go off and earn their pay, the implications, the concerns with the consequences, are very different from when war meant that you or your friends might be drafted to participate.

[On campus during the] Vietnam War, when a lot of undergraduates found a way to avoid the draft, they certainly saw it as something that might impinge upon their life. So they were attentive to the war and where it was going. Today, the only thing students might think is, "Gee, terrorists might do something to New York or Boston."

The other thing is that our most recent engagements, the Gulf War and Serbia, have been relatively bloodless [in terms of American casualties], so this particular age cohort does not have as part of its own knowledge how deadly wars can be. It's all like a video game, almost.

On the importance of understanding history:

There are a whole host of questions that, even if you are only interested in the here and now, can best be answered by looking backward.

It requires a greater leap of faith than I am willing to undertake to think that people are brighter in the year 2003 than they were in 1903 or 1803 or 1703. There are some things which have changed, but I don't think there have been any major new innovations in human intelligence or human emotions.

If you are interested in the human animal and how the human animal behaves in different circumstances, a study of past behavior, or in this case, history, is one very useful way of building up your working capital, insight, and knowledge.

On how the roles of an academic and a politician differ:

The skills, the interests, the life, and the activity are different.

If you want to become an academic, presumably it is because you want to study, learn, and, if you're lucky, entertain some interesting thoughts no one has entertained before.

If you want to go down to Washington, it's to put your hands on policy to shape what's happening today or tomorrow. Some people are happy studying events, and others feel they want to be a major part.

But these are not exclusive alternatives. There are a lot of academics, particularly in international relations, [who] do both. But when you are down in Washington you are living off your capital, because you don't have time to engage in a lot of reading, ruminating, thinking; you are too busy trying to promote the better draft of the next memorandum. So they live off capital, and the academics are the ones who generate the capital, for better or worse.

On the gap in students' knowledge of history and geography:

Students know very little history; it's not that they ever knew a lot, but I am currently impressed with the fact that they know less than they used to. I find it hard to teach a colloquium on the causes of war [when] I have students who come there with all sorts of propositions about the causes of war, [but] if I ask them to give me at least one historical example, nothing's happening. They just don't know.

In the Columbia PhD comprehensive exams some years back, I would put in very hard things like "List the countries that border France." Half the students taking that exam would not even try the question, and the other half would answer it incorrectly. And yet, where countries are [located] and who their neighbors are has bearing upon what happens in the world.

Today, here we are, the imperial power fighting our little imperial wars around the globe; you'd think people would pay some attention to where Afghanistan is or where Iraq is. But in a recent poll of people between 17 and 22, only about 15 percent could identify Afghanistan on a map, even after we've been fighting a war there.

On model statesmen:

Being the age that I am, I would give high marks to the key people in the Truman administration: [George] Marshall, [Dean] Acheson, the president himself. We are today so accustomed to the United States playing such a major role in world affairs that it is hard for many people to remember that immediately after the Second World War it was not at all a given that we would want to do that or see the need to do that.

If I think of diplomats, it's impossible not to think of George Kennan.

A very perceptive man, a very thoughtful man. He had a good sense, and a very useful one, of the problems Americans keep on getting themselves into with their moralistic approaches to foreign policy.

On Americans' impatience and optimism:

One of my professors, Gabriel Almond, wrote an excellent little book [that discusses how] Americans approach problems with the expectation that there are solutions to them, and they are therefore impatient with things that continue going on.

So one wonders with what degree of sophistication people of today really think about the war against terrorism; that kind of war is like the war against drugs or the war against poverty; that's the kind of activity that will go on as long as you and I are alive, and our children, and so on.

This is one of the things that Kennan kept trying to say. There used to be a statement that diplomats struggle to leave the problem in pretty much the same shape that they found it, they don't seek to solve it.

But we have been an optimistic people, and I don't think we've lost that entirely.

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