How Should History Inform the Life-Long Education of a Military Professional?
John Q. Bolton
History is profoundly important to the Military Professional. Encompassing a wide spectrum of military campaigns, political-military interaction, and technological developments, history is the lifeblood of Professional Military Education. History informs an officer’s life-long education by fostering a love of learning, providing context, and creating an understanding of the long-term trends in military affairs. Armed with a thorough education in history, Military Professionals are poised to operate in a variety of capacities and environments.
A well-developed comprehension of history helps address perhaps the most troubling aspect of modern military history teaching, an insistence on practicality. Officers trend toward the practically minded; they seek tools that solve problems. However, history seldom offers direct correlations or specific, packaged solutions for the problems of today. Furthermore, once we encounter problems, it is too late to seek a historical solution. There is no book of answers leaders can simply open for an answer. Rather, history offers lessons that, if properly understood within context, elucidate continuous themes. As opposed to practical, set-piece solutions, history creates options in the mind of Military Professionals, fostering adaptability through broadening.
More importantly, a broad historical background teaches officers the value of general education and critical thinking. There are abundant, varied historical examples of well-learned Military Leaders successfully utilizing history. Just as importantly, the failure of commanders who lacked historical understanding of their environment should provide all the necessary motivation. As J.F.C. Fuller pointed out, “Until you learn how to teach yourselves, you will never be taught by others.”[i] History provides the vehicle for this education.
A love of learning is a tenet of the Classical Tradition. Though considered esoteric today, the Classics were the foundation of education during the Enlightenment through the early 20th century. Officers familiar with the Classical Tradition possess the skills of reason, logic, and rhetoric. Just as importantly, the Classics provide a thorough understanding of the central tenets of Western Civilization, namely individual liberty, secular humanism, and rationalism. The Classics prescribe knowledge of Roman Military History as well. From a military perspective, the problems faced by Caesar, Scipio, and Hannibal are still applicable today when viewed through the lens of history and combined with an appreciation of context. Together these elements comprise the foundations of strategic thought and strategy.
History, therefore, provides context for what an officer sees and experiences. This is perhaps the most important aspect a thorough education in military history engenders. Understanding the historical milieu of the Operational Environment gives Military Professionals an ability to weigh contemporary actions, plans, frameworks against the backdrop of cultural, geographical, and political factors. History provides maturity through self-aging, allowing a person to be ‘old in mind.’[ii] Too often, Military Leaders expend effort re-learning what history teaches with a minimum of effort, unacceptably wasting time, money, and lives. T.E. Lawrence illustrated this futility, “With 2000 years of examples behind us we have no excuse, when fighting, for not fighting well…”[iii] If Military Professionals can conducting self-aging, they create a force-multiplying maturity that informs plans and influences decisions to great effect.
History is the first step toward a learning institution that continually improves, not just from contemporary mistakes, but also from an understanding of historical trends. Perspective helps military institutions develop doctrine. Too often institutions, seeking practical examples to justify doctrine, use history to serve their own ends.[iv] As John Boyd pronounced, “You’ve got to challenge assumptions. Otherwise, what is doctrine one day becomes dogma forever.”[v] If the institution’s leaders are not familiar with the reality and context of an event, the example becomes a distortion. Less understanding results in greater bias and lessens the ability to identify the error. True professionalism involves not merely citing examples of our righteousness, but a thorough examination of the institution’s strengths and weakness.
Great commanders of the past knew how to leverage historical perspective into the framework of current operations. Napoleon’s analysis of Frederick’s Austrian Campaigns before Austerlitz or Patton reading the Norman History of Sicily in 1943 serve as two excellent instances of ‘self-aging’ commanders.[vi] These are just two of the many examples that provide the most obvious rationale for the study of history. More importantly, however, great commanders of the past demonstrate the usefulness of history. It is not a one for one exchange of lessons or tactics, but an acknowledgement of the environments, problems, frictions, leaders, and men. Many things change, but much more stays the same for the military commander; history elucidates the continuities.
The continuity of long-term trends in military affairs is obvious to the historical-minded Military Professional. This understanding is essential when reality fails to match expectations. For example, the disorder in Iraq following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein surprised American Leaders, but would have been no surprise to those familiar with the failure of Caesars’ assassins, who assumed governance would spontaneously recover. Moreover, when the situation rapidly changes from our plans or information is incomplete, a commander with history at his side will understand that, regardless of technology, a complete understanding is never possible. Incorporating a variety of foundations ranging from Physics, Psychology, and Thermodynamics, John Boyd hypothesized that we can never truly understand a system or event.[vii] We should consider that, even in an age of profound technological awareness, all attempts to manipulate a complex system invariably upset it in ways we may not r foresee. This inevitably causes frustration as we fail to understand despite efforts to do so.[viii]
Military operations are never as simple as a map illustrated with icons and corresponding graphics would have us believe. War is a profoundly human endeavor, complicated and uncertain. History illustrates a consistent theme of a pervasive fog, rife with uncertainty, misperception, and conflicting reports; history tells us there are always multiple truths. The key, according to Napoleon, is for a commander to distil the ‘true truths’ by filtering what is relevant amid the chaos.[ix] A commander armed with history understands that technology, no matter how advanced, cannot dissipate the Fog of War. We may mitigate confusion, but we cannot dissipate it entirely. Efforts to understand, without an evaluation of our own biases and limits, will merely create more confusion.[x] Furthermore, history tells us that understanding ourselves is just as important as understanding the enemy.
History remains of the utmost importance to the Military Professional. History provides the context so critical to officers facing ambiguity and uncertainty. By fostering a love of learning, history arms the officer for a career of education, so that he may grow in his profession. To deal with challenges and uncertainty Military Professionals must already have already inculcated history to act at the decisive point; the education cannot wait until the moment of need.
[i]Matthew L. Smith, LTC (P) US Army, J.F.C. Fuller: His Methods, Insights, and Vision (Carlisle Barracks, PA: US Army War College, 1999), 2.
[ii] Liddell Hart, Why Don't We Learn from History, (1972; repr., York, PA: 2012), 7-8.
[iii] Robert B. Asprey, War in the Shadows; the Guerrilla in History, 1st ed., 2 vols. (Garden City, N.Y.,: Doubleday, 1975).
[iv]Jay Luvaas, "Military History: Is It Still Practicable?," Parameters 12, (March 1982): 1.
[v] Robert Coram, Boyd : The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, 1st ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 2002), 189.
[vi] Luvaas: 1.
[vii] John Boyd, "Strategic Game Of ? And ?," ed. Chet Richards and Chuck Spinney (Washington, D.C.: Defense and the National Interest, 1989), Slide 23-26.
[viii] Dietrich Dörner, The Logic of Failure : Why Things Go Wrong and What We Can Do to Make Them Right, 1st American ed. (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1996).
[ix] Napoleon, The Mind of Napoleon; a Selection from His Written and Spoken Words (New York,: Columbia University Press, 1955), 50.
[x] Boyd, Slide 26.