For 50 years, I have had one foot planted in Sparta and one in Athens: the military and the academy. The dichotomy is not simply between militarism and intellectualism. Athenians Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were soldiers as well as philosophers. Athens limited citizenship to free men of substance and by that they meant “arete” or “excellence.” These men lived responsible lives. One of those responsibilities included military service.
Men and women of America’s “Greatest Generation” fought and won World War II. American leaders included Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and most American and British generals were shaped by World War I. In their youth, Roosevelt and Truman, along with most of the American military leaders of World War II as well as many of my generation’s parents, heard stories from veterans of America’s costliest conflict: the Civil War. When Truman agonized over his decision to use atomic weapons to end the war with Japan, he reflected on his experiences as a Great War artillery captain. Truman and FDR also remembered the old men, many with missing limbs, who related their Civil War experiences.
Fifty years ago, on Veterans Day 1970, I was settling into my first assignment as an intelligence officer posted to Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, a highly secret complex 50 miles south of the Laotian border. There I complied and delivered the morning intelligence briefing to the general in charge of the secret air war in northern Laos where we supported Hmong guerillas and Thai mercenaries who fought the North Vietnamese and their Communist Pathet Lao ally. Since American involvement was beyond top secret, I knew nothing about it before arriving. Fortunately, I had access to CIA documents and to the few books on Laos, and (despite 12-hour shifts) there was plenty of time to read. By June 1971, I had the New York Times edition of The Pentagon Papers.
I learned the French fought this war 15 to 20 years earlier. Our technology and resources were far greater, especially in the air war. We dropped more bomb tonnage on Laos in one day than the French did throughout Indochina between 1946 and 1954. I got to Udorn after finishing my master’s degree in history. While I knew something of history, I did not know how much I did not know. When I returned home in October 1971, there were more questions than answers.
By 1974, I had decided to leave the Air Force for law school. Then, unexpectedly, the Office of Air Force History called from Washington, D.C.: “How would you like to work on the 14-volume official history of Air Force operations in the Vietnam War?” My wife, a college librarian, suggested I fly to Washington. I did and got hired.
My first day on the job was Monday, April 26, 1975. On Friday, a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon and ended the war. Two months later, I enrolled as a graduate student at George Washington University. My mentors were Dr. J. Kenneth McDonald, Director of the CIA History Office, and Dr. Vladimir Petrov, a Russian expatriate who served in a Russian anti-Communist guerrilla unit fighting along side German forces, doing so because from 1934 to 1940 he mined gold in a Stalinist prison camp in Siberia for the “crime” of playing mail chess with an American student in California. Vlad fled the USSR in 1945 and ended up at Harvard where he earned his Ph.D. in history.
On day one at GWU, Ken McDonald handed me Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and Russell Weigley’s The American Way of War. I also read all six volumes of Winston Churchill’s “History of World War II,” and all of his other works. Churchill epitomized “arete.” Vladimir Petrov had personally experienced the evils of communism. He also introduced me to his fellow expatriate, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
I spent four decades in the national security and academic fields, including eight years teaching at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. I learned from a life spent in Sparta and Athens that humans consistently do three things: eat, reproduce, and fight. We are the only species that kills for reasons other than survival. We kill to gain resources, for political and religious concepts, and some do it for pleasure.
Ultimately, there are three approaches to the future. First, go with the flow. Most people do and it renders chaos. Second, faith in something larger than ourselves. For Christians and Jews that’s God. Third, history — because knowing the past is the only way to predict the future.
Last Tuesday, I wore my “Vietnam Veteran” baseball hat to the polls. A poll watcher asked, “Are you over 70?” She led me to the front of the line. The young man who certified me said, “Thank you for your service.” I looked out to a line filled with people waiting two hours to vote. I pointed to the window and said, “We did it for them.” Athenians would agree.
Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East and terrorism with the Institute for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.