Academic journal article Parameters

A Critical but Missing Piece: Educating Our Professional Military on the History of Islam

Academic journal article Parameters

A Critical but Missing Piece: Educating Our Professional Military on the History of Islam

Article excerpt

If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development. (1)

--Aristotle

Introduction

To someone familiar with the history of Ancient Greece, the story will seem at first quite recognizable. In a bipolar world, the two great superpowers of the day wage a decades-long struggle to establish complete hegemony over the other. The conflict ebbs and flows for years, with one side occasionally gaining the upper hand, only to relinquish it later. The belligerents include allies beholden to one superpower or the other, and a great amphibious expedition helps determine the war's outcome. When the fighting finally ends, both superpowers are so depleted by battlefield losses, plague, and spent treasure that neither is prepared to confront a burgeoning superpower emerging on their periphery. This new force quickly expands across thousands of miles, creating a colossal empire and bringing with it sweeping cultural changes that still profoundly shape the world today.

Perhaps surprisingly, this is not the tale of the Peloponnesian War and the ensuing rise of Macedon. Rather, it is the story of the last great war of antiquity, the late sixth and early seventh century struggle between the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires. (2) More notably, it is the story of the great Arab conquests that followed in that war's aftermath, and the remarkable creation of an Islamic empire that soon stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Chinese frontier. Thucydides' celebrated history and Alexander's epochal expansion of the Hellenic world certainly merit the close study they receive. (3) Because of its pertinence to our own time, the early history of Islam deserves equal, if not more, attention, ideally in our nation's high schools and colleges. A more acute problem--and one that could be readily tackled--is the absence of this

immensely important period from war college syllabi. If the United States is to ensure its future policy makers and senior joint force leaders are adequately prepared to perform their duties effectively, Joint Professional Military Education needs to incorporate an objectively focused block of instruction on the formative period in Islamic history, beginning with the birth of the Prophet Mohammed in 570, and ending with collapse of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258.

In advocating for this course, it is first helpful to recall the exacting price too often paid when strategists fail to consider--or understand-- historical matters of context in their planning. A brief assessment of what the proposed block of instruction ought to include demonstrates how this record of past failures can be improved. Understanding Islam's early history is an essential foundation for anyone confronting the Middle East's most-enduring challenges, such as the Sunni-Shiite struggle, the future of the Saudi regime, and the dispute over Jerusalem. A review of the proposed curricula also helps explain how a proper appreciation of Islam's first centuries helps undercut essentialist, anti-Muslim narratives, thereby inhibiting misguided assumptions. Of course, teaching Islamic history could invite controversy; indeed there is an intense debate among academics about how to approach the subject. Nonetheless, the potential for disagreement cannot become an excuse for avoiding it, even if it does call for an important note of caution.

We Know What We Don't Know

Justifiably, Americans are often criticized for their short memories, (4) and their regrettable indifference towards the subject of history. (5) In the field of foreign affairs, the failure of US leaders to sufficiently appreciate the history of other nations is an all too common lament. (6) An appalling misconstruction of Vietnam's history--in particular its ancient, troubled affiliation with China--helped cause the United States to approach that war with an unwinnable strategy. (7) When the Eisenhower administration used the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to overthrow Iran's government in 1953, it gave no heed to that country's proud past, and planted the seed for the "first wave" of Islamic revolutions twenty-five years later. …

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