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Pondering the endings of U.S. wars

The daylong conference examined the ways American wars have ended and how those endings have influenced subsequent military actions and history.
/ Source: The Associated Press

American wars usually begin with a bang, yet it's the endings that usually have long-lasting influences, a gathering of prominent military historians told West Point instructors who are training the next generation of Army officers.

"Wars don't end simply, where someone declares victory," said Brian Linn, a professor at Texas A&M University, one of 14 academics, authors and other military history experts who took part in Monday's "War Termination Conference" at the United States Military Academy.

Peter Maslowski of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's history department said, "The endings of wars are messy, messy."

The daylong conference examined the ways American wars have ended and how those endings have influenced subsequent military actions and history.

Changed during conflicts
After the four-year Spanish and American War ended in 1902, America was a global power with a military presence in the Philippines that some in the U.S. envisioned as the start of a "colonial army," Linn said. Instead, American troops fought Filipino insurgents for several years before pulling out, and the "old Army" of the 19th century began its transformation into a modernized force, he said.

"The Army that goes into the Philippines isn't the same one that comes out," Linn said.

Organizers of the West Point conference brought in some of the nation's top military historians to discuss war endings before an audience that included about 20 other academics and about a dozen officers from the academy's history department. Because cadets are on summer break, West Point instructors will use essays written by conference participants and videotape of the gathering for their classroom lectures, said Col. Mat Moten, deputy head of the academy's history department.

Moten said the conference is a follow-up project to one the Army conducted in the 1980s to examine the first battles of every American war.

"What we found out was that the Army is typically unprepared when it goes to war," Moten said. "Preparedness is not really the problem the Army has right now. The problem we have now is we're seven to eight years deep into two wars."

West Point hosted the conference under the direction of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, known as TRADOC.

Based at Fort Monroe, Va., TRADOC operates 32 centers and schools on 16 installations nationwide, from basic training centers such as Fort Knox in Kentucky to specialized warfare training at the Airborne and Ranger schools at Fort Benning, Ga. TRADOC handles duties ranging from recruiting to conducting educational programs such as the West Point history conference.

Educating officers
Col. Gian Gentile said the conference was part of the Army's continuing effort to educate it's officer corps in military history so they have the necessary background to help civilian leaders carry out policy decisions both on and off the battlefield.

The history lessons can't be geared to just the American experience in war, one scholar said.

Roger Spiller, who taught at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College in Kansas for nearly 30 years, said deploying U.S. officers without knowing their enemy's history is "as bad as not having a rifle with you."

The wars discussed at the conference ranged from the American Revolution to the first Gulf War. Although the Iraq and Afghanistan wars weren't on the agenda Monday, the conflicts are never far from anyone's mind, especially at a place that has lost dozens of graduates in the fighting.

"It sort of hangs like an umbrella over what we're doing," Spiller said. "As scholars, we're not hermetically sealed from everything that's going on in the real world."

Maslowski found correlation between the 300 years of warfare between Native Americans and Europeans and challenges American forces face amid the tribal nature of the Afghan war.

"Can you find more tribes that are willing to work with you because you're fighting their traditional enemies?" he said.