An Ahistoric Army Cannot Understand Putin’s War in Ukraine
By MAJ Joseph “Josh” Bedingfield
A picture without a background is both uninteresting and misleading. Hence, in order to paint you an intelligent picture … as it exists today, we must provide an historical background.
Among the many problems Putin’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine presents the U.S. Army is a highly dynamic and complex situation leaders must continually reassess. According to Army doctrine the first step of solving any problem is to “understand those conditions that represent the current situation.” Toward this end, officers at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College cluster around white boards to discuss NATO’s options, how Ukraine is performing so well, and why Russia is performing so poorly. Their conversations are invariably characterized by a heavy emphasis on the current state of the crisis and account for all the operational, mission, and civil variables at play, an approach well founded in U.S. Army and Joint doctrine. Unfortunately, these perspectives reflect a persistent problem within the Army – a culture of ahistoricism. Few, if any, of these conversations include a historical perspective on variables such as NATO’s eastward expansion, Putin’s past and how it shapes his worldview, or Russia’s complex relationship with Ukraine. This is perplexing given Putin’s use of revisionist history to justify his invasion. Perhaps Army officers believe history insufficiently prepares them to solve modern problems. Nonetheless, if the Army wants to prepare officers to understand and win in complex environments like Ukraine it must first reverse an ahistoric culture and restore officers’ historical mindedness.
An ahistoric culture seems at odds with the U.S. Army’s substantial professional military education system. Army education is designed to develop “strategically minded joint warfighters, who think critically and can creatively apply military power to inform national strategy.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff categorize history as critical to achieving that end. Despite this, officers spend remarkably little time studying history through their careers. Lieutenants spend six hours “describ[ing] military history and heritage and understand[ing] why … military leaders study history.” Majors spend fifty-eight hours “analyz[ing] the evolution of warfare, the major military revolutions, and doctrinal innovations from the eighteenth century to the present.” If left to the existing structure, officers would spend a total of seventy-four hours of their entire career studying history. In contrast, it takes eighty hours to qualify a soldier in air assault operations, a definitively less complex skill than applying military power to inform national strategy. It is no wonder Russell Weigley characterized the U.S. Army’s way of war as ‘ahistoric’.
History gives officers a lens through which they can understand the world around us, a critical aspect of planning. Understanding the how and why of the past illuminates threads to and through the present. In a sense, the study of history ages and matures a leader, stimulating in them a sense of empathetic wisdom. In practice, studying history can yield stunning operational advantages. When the 101st Airborne was surrounded during the Battle of the Bulge, General Patton began planning their relief well before General Eisenhower sought options from his subordinate commanders. Patton’s knowledge of Germany’s strategic interest in Ardennes enhanced his understanding of the operational environment and allowed him to stay ahead of his opponents and prevent a crushing defeat at Bastogne. General Mattis claimed history enhanced his operational reach and gave him models to plan with imagination. Mattis’ study of the British Expeditionary Force in Mesopotamia revealed Iraqi units would tie themselves to sources of water which allowed him to bypass the Iraqi IV Corps and retain the initiative on his drive to Baghdad. Patton and Mattis leveraged history to understand which variables were critical to their own operations and exploited that knowledge to gain an advantage over their adversaries.
In addition to perspective on the operational environment, historical mindedness also offers an opportunity to glean wisdom in the absence of personal experience. Polybius observed how when Scipio Africanus assumed command of the Roman legions in Spain he compensated for his lack of experience through a continuous study of earlier campaigns. Scipio never stopped seeking the wisdom of the past to anticipate what would come next. History may not reveal the solution to a new problem, but it will help an officer generate options and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. To this point, ahistoric officers march forward stripped of the experiences of Lord Cardigan when he charged the Light Brigade into oblivion or General Paulus as he watched the Red Army envelop his 6th Army at Stalingrad. How tragic would it be for the lessons of these crushing defeats to echo through time and for leaders to earn that same wisdom in the throes of their own failure. Even a cursory examination of history reveals the sanity of Crane Brinton’s sage observation that any one historical event being wholly unique is nonsense. Historical mindedness provides a measure of clarity in the face of uncertainty - a way to see through the fog of war, generate options, and seize the initiative.
From a logical perspective, if historical mindedness yields understanding and wisdom, then ahistoricism yields an officer with less capacity for both. R.G. Collingwood likened this difference to that between a trained woodsman and an “ignorant” traveler in a forest. As this pair journeys through a new land, the woodsman sees new routes and dangers through the brush whereas the traveler sees nothing but trees. Under the Joint All-Domain Command and Control System officers of increasingly junior rank will find themselves making decisions once reserved for senior strategic leaders. As less experienced officers “creatively apply military power [and] inform national strategy” they must also justify those decisions to policy makers and strategic leaders (who ironically also disregard history’s lessons). Ahistoric officers render themselves travelers in a confusing world and strip from themselves crucial information. In contrast, historically minded officers see the similarities between the past and present and exploit historic threads to generate cognitive and operational advantages. If an officer needs more motivation, Putin’s politicized historical revisionism demonstrates the need for historical minds to meet emerging threats.
It seems odd the Army eschews historical mindedness considering its benefits. The source of the problem is not so much what officers learn about history, although there are problems with that as well. The root of the problem is cultural and manifests in paradoxical ways. The Army institutionally recognizes the importance of history but fails to train officers on how to use history to enhance operations. The Army acknowledges how history shaped the performance of great leaders like George Washington and identifies self-development as a domain of leader development, but fails to reward leaders who develop historical mindedness. Army doctrine declares history is essential to understand the operational environment and enemy force, establish the rule of law, and leader self-development. This list is not a summary of complex instructions on how history enhances operations or professional development; it represents the Army’s complete doctrinal direction on implementing history. In short, Army doctrine does not mention how or why leaders should account for history.
The discrepancy between the Army espousing the value of history without providing direction on how to educate or operationalize historical mindedness is not surprising. The Army prefers to digest history in the same way it prefers all information: succinct data points or short soundbites. This is why officers learn that German assessments of their performance in the Great War catalyzed their post-war modernization and overlook myriad machinations behind the rise of the Third Reich. The soundbite is not necessarily untrue, but it radically oversimplifies an incredibly complex topic. This is a common academic practice necessary to test students against specific learning outcomes but is dangerous for Army leaders. In relation to the current security crisis, the soundbite those majors around whiteboards receive regarding Russian interests in former Soviet states is a shared pan-Slavic cultural identity. Again, this is not entirely untrue, but ignores academic works challenging this notion as well as the increasingly resilient Ukrainian cultural identity. Historic perspectives such as these complicate clean soundbites and require leaders to accept that understanding often comes at the expense of speed.
There are three limiting factors preventing the Army from promoting a culture of historical mindedness within its officer corps. First, the Army lacks prescriptive guidance outlining when and how leaders should integrate a historical perspective in their operations processes. Second, the Army’s method of training and educating history is too focused on training to tests and grades rather than exploring history in context. Third, the Army lacks mechanisms to incentivize leaders to develop historical mindedness. An Army culture favoring speed and brevity over context fuels these limitations. Fortunately, minor changes in how the Army trains, operates, and incentivizes leaders will go a long way in reshaping Army culture to promote historical mindedness.
The Army must first define what historical mindedness is and extract why it is important to the force before implementing any solutions. The author offers the following definition for historical mindedness, “The use of history to enhance operational outcomes.” Sir Michael Howard’s seminal depth, context, and width posit concluding that “[history] directly improves the officer’s competence in [his/her] profession,” remains the strongest argument for history’s value to an officer. If history improves officers’ competence, discounting history invites ignorance, willingly or not. This definition, impact, and value provides persuasive motivation for officers to be historically minded.
With a definition of historical mindedness and a clear understanding on why it is important in hand, we can now address when and how officers should integrate history into the operations process. A historical perspective can enhance every stage of the operations cycle. During planning and preparation, historical mindedness should be integrated during the Mission Analysis phase of the Military Decision Making Process. Instead of solely focusing on current operational and mission variables, leaders must leverage history to contextualize the current state of the environment. History colors the current state of the environment and enhances execution outcomes through the wisdom of lessons and events past. Admittedly, this adds an incredibly complex step to understanding the current situation in any operational environment. However, it is essential to understand how the threads of the past inspire, motivate, or drive the current situation. Given the Army’s Regionally Aligned Readiness and Modernization Model, it is more than reasonable for an officer to develop a targeted historical mind to enhance operations in their assigned theater.
The Army must also revamp military education to fully operationalize historical mindedness. Army education institutions distill history into bite size facts and primarily assess historical competence through multiple choice tests. Multiple choice examinations are an effective method to confirm an officer knows Napoleon’s Russian campaign failed because Tsar Alexander I denied him a decisive battle. However, writing about the topic demands the officer understand the numerous other variables that led to Napoleon’s defeat (width, depth, and context). Leader Development Programs provide another vehicle to educate officers in history. The Army’s Combat Studies Institute’s Staff Ride Handbooks offer ready-made options to explore historical lessons on leadership, tactics, command and control, and numerous other aspects of warfighting. Leaders looking for a historical lesson on the integration of conventional and irregular forces against a superior force (a paradigm Ukraine is well versed in) should look no further than The Staff Ride for the Battle for Kings Mountain. Commanders who include mission relevant historical study to develop leaders will set a strong example for their subordinates to emulate and positively influence Army culture via unit climate.
Reading is the cornerstone of educating history, and to the Army’s credit there is no shortage of reading lists available to the force. Unfortunately, the absence of depth and context in these reading lists remains a critical flaw in their design. For example, the 39th Chief of Staff Reading List highlights over 120 books which collectively survey a broad spectrum of history with breadth and context. However, lists like this do not account for depth of understanding. Officers cannot rely solely on Russel Weigley’s The American Way of War, they must account for Colin Gray, Adrian Lewis, Antulio Echevarria, and Brian Linn’s perspectives as well. Officers will fail to fully understand Thucydides if they ignore Polybius, Sallust, and Tacitus. The Art of War Scholars Program under the Command and General Staff College provides a premier program to mirror. Scholars’ studies are distinguished by enough depth to account for divergent perspectives. This upgrade comes at the cost of time, but the product is well worth the investment.
Resolving how the Army trains history will be a meaningless endeavor without pairing the effort with improved incentives for officers to be historically minded. Extolling the meritorious achievements of historically minded leaders of the past may motivate an officer hoping to replicate their success, but more tangible and replicable options are better suited to influence officers across the Army. The Army’s current incentives for learning history include advanced schooling options like the Art of War Scholars Program, the Advanced Military Studies Program at the School of Advanced Military Studies, or the War College, and additional skill identifiers like 5X (Army Historian) and 6Z (Strategist). However, only a small number of officers will go through these courses. Instead, the Army should reward historically minded officers where it really matters – their evaluation reports. Raters can already note an officer’s historical studies in any area addressing the Army attributes of intellect (expertise) or develops (prepares self, develops others, stewards the profession) in their Officer Evaluation Reports. A brief update to ADP 6-22 extolling history’s value to leader development would sufficiently stimulate this practice across the force. As a kicker, the Army Interactive Module resume should include a section for officers to highlight areas of historical expertise, potentially alongside a list of their publications supporting their claims.
These solutions may seem a bridge too far when viewed collectively. Proper implementation requires small revisions of multiple doctrinal publications, individual buy in from leaders across the entire force, changes to dozens of educational programs, and updating officer reports and evaluations. However, a broad and comprehensive effort is necessary to change a culture. It is time to stop relying on officers’ individual initiative to become historically minded. The Army owes the joint force officers capable of synthesizing historical wisdom to enhance operational outcomes. The alternative is to cede these advantages to America’s adversaries as the Army ignores the context and history of Ukraine and Russia, and naively charges their own Light Brigades into the fog of uncertainty.