History & The Military Professional
Henry David Thoreau argued that “the old have no very important advice to give the young” and that he never “heard the first syllable of value or even earnest advice from [his] seniors.”[i] Thoreau thought people could learn more from personal experience than from history.[ii] Nassim Nicholas Taleb does not go as far as Thoreau in his distrust of history, but cautions that “history is opaque.”[iii] Taleb further argues that “history seems clearer and more organized in history books than in empirical reality.” It is a mistake to disregard history because one thinks that the old have nothing to tell the young, or because it is not as neat as it appears in history textbooks. [iv] History is not perfect and should be continually challenged and reassessed. Though historical events do not change, the understanding of them constantly evolves with the discovery of additional information. The study of history is especially important to the long-term education of a military professional. Studying military history affords military professionals the opportunity to identify lessons that apply to evolving operational environments and develop a deeper understanding of their profession.
Military professionals that take lessons from historical events and turn them into enduring principles create a decisive advantage for their army. Enduring principles apply to evolving operating environments. Militaries that teach enduring principles have increased operational flexibility and are less likely to repeat mistakes made during previous conflicts. H.R. McMaster is a military professional who analyzed lessons from the United States’ involvement in Vietnam and developed enduring principles of military operations.[v] McMaster showed that the United States’ military action in Vietnam “did not aim to achieve a clearly defined objective” and had an “absence of strategy.”[vi] McMaster reinforced an enduring principle of military operations that Carl von Clausewitz identified in On War: clearly defined objectives are critical to the development of military strategy.[vii] McMaster’s Vietnam War analysis also showed that “each of the services” assumed that “it alone had the capacity to win the war.”[viii] The inability for joint services to work with one another in Vietnam led to another enduring principle: collaboration and synchronization of joint capabilities is a core component of cohesive military operations.[ix] Military professionals who arm their military with enduring principles create a more flexible force postured for operations in various operating environments.
Studying history reinforces the nature of the military profession. Military professionals “must provide the security—the common defense—which a society cannot provide for itself but without which the society cannot survive.”[x] David Halberstam, in The Coldest Winter, said: “undermanned, poorly trained American units, with faulty, often outmoded equipment and surprisingly poor high-level command leadership, were an embarrassment.”[xi] Halberstam specifically discussed Task Force Smith, the first unit “to leave Japan and go into battle in Korea.”[xii] Task Force Smith consisted of roughly 540 men.[xiii] Task Force Smith went into Korea without bringing the majority of its field artillery support.[xiv] One day into their mission, Task Force Smith encountered a North Korean force comprised of tanks and infantrymen.[xv] Task Force Smith did not have any field artillery assets to engage the North Korean force and air power was not an option because “the Air Force didn’t know where Task Force Smith was.”[xvi] Task Force Smith was unprepared to fight. In an embarrassing display, Task Force Smith “began to fall back as quickly as they could, many simply fleeing, some throwing down their weapons, some even taking off their boots because they could move more quickly through the rice paddies barefoot.”[xvii] Task Force Smith was inadequately prepared for combat and their first contact with the North Korean Army resulted in a retreat. The lack of professionalism present in Task Force Smith resulted in “poorly prepared troops” that were “poorly deployed” and unable to slow down North Korean forces during the initial stages of combat.”[xviii]
The Army lost its “sheer professionalism” between World War II and the beginning of the Korean War.[xix] Studying units like Task Force Smith reinforces the importance of the military profession and what happens when soldiers go to combat with a less than professional army. The military profession depends upon structure, trust, discipline, and relative autonomy. To avoid the development of an organization like Task Force Smith, military professionals have an obligation to study military history and deepen their understanding of the military profession. Military professionals who study and understand their profession create armies that have trust, discipline, leadership, and success on the battlefield.
Analyzing and understanding counter-arguments against studies of history made by Thoreau and Taleb strengthen the long-term education of a military professional. Thoreau argued that “what everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud.”[xx] Taleb says: “humans are great at self-delusion” regarding their ability to make historical events seem logical, orderly, and inevitable.[xxi] Thoreau’s argument that accepted paradigms can change with new information is not a good enough argument to dissuade military professionals from studying history. Military leaders will fail if they blindly follow a way of thinking that is not subject to intellectual scrutiny. Thoreau is right that facts today could be false tomorrow, but that just increases the need for military professionals to analyze history. Clausewitz argues that one should “appeal to historical fact to support a statement” because the use of facts lessens the possibility that a belief is just an opinion made of smoke.[xxii] Taleb’s argument that people engage in self-delusion when studying history does not diminish the importance of studying history, but encourages military professionals to study with an open and inquisitive mind to avoid self-delusion.[xxiii] Military professionals must heed Taleb’s warning and avoid projecting a neat, orderly picture of historical events. History is messy, complex, and does not conform to a strict linear causal chain. Believing that history is neat and orderly hinders a military professional from identifying general principles and deepening the knowledge of his profession.
Officers must avoid self-delusion when studying history. To avoid self-delusion, military professionals need to challenge existing hypotheses and keep an open mind. Military professionals benefit from long-term studies devoted to military history. Analysis of military history creates an opportunity for military professionals to identify abstract principles of warfare that apply to evolving problems and to deepen their understanding of the military profession.
U.S. Army, The Army Profession, ADRP 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2015).
Carl Von Clausewitz, On War: Indexed Edition. Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.
David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (New York: Hyperion, 2007).
H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs Of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997).
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2010).
Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings (New York: Bantam Books, 1962).
[i] Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings (New York: Bantam Books, 1962), 111
[ii] Ibid., 113.
[iii] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2010), 8.
[v] H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam (New York: HarperPerennial, 1997).
[vi] H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty, 333.
[viii] Ibid., 143.
[xi] David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (New York: Hyperion, 2007), 3.
[xii] Ibid., 144.
[xiii] Ibid., 146.
[xv] Ibid., 147.
[xviii] Ibid., 148
[xix] Ibid.; Carl Von Clausewitz, On War: Indexed Edition. Edited and translated by Michael Howard And Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976, 178.
[xx] Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings, 111.
[xxi] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, 12.
[xxii] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, 171.