Why Study War?
Franklin C. Annis
Why should we study military history? It is an interesting question that I believe most will never take the time to fully analyze. As an U.S. Army Officer, my gut reaction to this question was to answer, “It is an expectation in my profession.” But this explanation falls far short of the true purposes we should be investing in while studying military history. After close examination, I have come to three principle purposes for the study of war. Two of these purposes applies to all citizens of our Republic and a final purpose is unique to military service members.
Before we begin, it is important to note that the study of military history can never be subdivided from the larger concept of history. The application of military forces is not independent of the social and cultural interaction of the day. It would be impossible to study history without the study of the armed conflicts that occurred between cultures and within different political or religious institutions. While we can focus our examination of history onto military conflicts, it would be impossible and a grave error to attempt to study history without studying the history of warfare at some level.
The study of American history is the study of the American heritage. In this way, the study of American military history is the study of the heritage of the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen of the U.S. Military.[i] Our heritage plays a large role in how we view ourselves individually and our military as an institution. Not all of the history of the U.S. Military is positive. But the institution works to learn from the errors of the past.[ii] For better or worse, the history of the U.S. Military informs us of the trials and tribulations that we have faced as a nation. It is a record of the sacrifices made to advance the concepts of freedom found within Enlightenment philosophy and is an important touchstone for all citizens.[iii]
Too Fond of War
I write this paper today on the centennial of the end of the Great War. The death toll of this war exceeded 9 million. Within a couple decades of the end of WWI, WWII raged around the globe killing more than 60 million. With such extreme human costs, the true cost of these wars almost exceeds human comprehension when the financial costs are added. Even if we could calculate the cost of every bullet or artillery shell fired, how could we ever imagine calculating the losses of a generation of service members that could have lived to be great artists, inventors, businessmen, or civic leaders.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee once said, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” These words ring true and as memory fades of the cost of war and romantic notions of warfare enter the public mind, it becomes ever more likely to recklessly engage in warfare. In the modern era with the ever-shrinking size of the U.S. Military, and a noticeable gap between the military and civilian cultures, it is now more important than ever to teach about the horrors of war. With less than 10,000 American casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after more than a decade of fighting, could the American populace ever understand the horrors that would occur in a “near-peer” war with death tolls in the millions?
As citizens of the Republic it should be considered a duty to learn the personal costs of war. We should always assert pressure against our elected officials to only use military force when necessary. We must ensure that all other means of diplomacy are used to prevent or limit the requirements for military engagements.
For service members, the study of military history provides insight into the military arts. While it is true that we will never repeat any historical operation, like Operation Overlord, because both the enemy and technology has changed, it is likely that we will have to deal with similar planning and environmental factors in future wars. We will always have to deal with things like the weather, providing logistical support, and determining the best application of our forces. While the identical answer to modern battle field questions are unlikely to be found in historical records, studying military history may begin our problem-solving thought processes years before we arrive on the next battlefield. The famous WWII General George S. Patton understood this concept and believe that all military leaders should study military history,
“in its earliest and hence crudest form and to follow it down in natural sequence permitting his mind to grow with his subject until he can grasp without effort the most abstruse question of the science of war because he is already permeated with all its elements.”[iv]
The study of military history has been a common feature of our best military leaders. With Patton and Eisenhower being the role models for the WWII generation, and Marine General James Mattis being a modern example. Mattis explained this importance of reading (including the topic of military history) in the 2018 Defense Intelligence Agency Director’s Reading List:
“The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men. Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”[v]
With the complexity and speed of warfare ever increasing, the need for the study of military history will continue to grow in importance. Military leaders, for the sake of their profession, must seek to understand the very nature of warfare, plan in accordance with the immutable features, and be prepared to learn and adapt quickly to changes on the modern battlefield.
There are several critical reasons to engage in the careful study of military history. It can be used to better understand our heritage and the challenges faced and overcome by our forefathers. It can remind us of the true cost of war and act as a stanch warning against recklessly engaging in needless military conflict. For military service members, it can act as a guide for preparing to fight on the next battlefield. Regardless of the reason why you chose to engage in the study of war, know that it is a critical area of scholarship that we cannot afford to ignore as citizen of the Republic.
[i] W. W. Hartzog, American Military Heritage (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 2006).
[iv] R. H. Nye, The Patton Mind: The Professional Development of an Extraordinary Leader (Garden City Park: Avery Publishing Group Inc., 1993), p. 18.
[v] Defense Intelligence Agency, ‘Director’s Reading List 2018’, (Washington D.C., Government Printing Office) (p. iii, Retrieved November 11, 2018 from,