The question Michael Howard is addressing in this essay is if the historian cannot pass judgment on past eras and actors, as it is the fashion to say these days, and if by extension history does not teach clear cut lessons, then can we not condemn such historical atrocities as the holocaust? Howard rejects these “modern” sentiments; he rejects cultural relativism and moral equivalency and argues that history is process whether or not we pay attention to it as such. He points to an obvious development in the historical record from pain and suffering and lack of understanding, to better standards of life and better understanding of the world, our nature, and our social wellbeing. Though history may not be an unfolding of a preordained plan, there is an undeniable movement from earlier states to later states and the trajectory is clearly based on the better fulfillment of human life and potential. Howard does not refrain from believing this to be progress. Although the process is far from perfect, and can even at times go sideways or backwards, this approach to history at least allows us to exercise moral judgment without being divorced from history—but instead being constructively informed by history. Howard is in essence saying that history is the historian—even with all the contentious debates, limited vantage points, and sometimes insolvable conflicts—not unlike Jay Luvaas seems to argue that useful military history is essentially history of the great warriors, and especially their experiences.
Howard’s quote about “a failure to read the past correctly warps our capacity to act intelligently in the contemporary world,” seems to speak directly to what happened with U.S. Army doctrine from the end of the Vietnam War up through the insurgency in Iraq. Following the frustrating Vietnam War, the U.S. Army deliberately turned away from so-called limited wars, and the counterinsurgency lessons learned in Southeast Asia, and delved full bore into high intensity conflict against the Soviet Union, up to and including nuclear warfare. Over the 1970s and 80s the Army concentrated on developing AirLand Battle as an antidote to facing the Red Army in Central Europe, to the almost complete exclusion of all other forms of warfare. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Army stuttered through one doctrinal template after another, Force XXI, Army After Next, and the Objective Force, as it wrestled with the proper force structure, posture, and doctrine to face the wide open threat environment of the post-Cold War world. When the Army should have been critically reading history for the trends toward insurgency and transnational terrorism, instead doctrine writers were rehashing “big war” historical examples. The Army was paying lip service to full spectrum operations while in fact devoting the lion’s share of resources to vastly improved technological systems—doctrinally, the Army accepted status quo. Despite some small amount of public fanfare, Army transformation was barely underway when September 11th radically challenged American power and the U.S. military was called on to deploy around the world in a Global War on Terrorism.
Luvaas argues that military history does not produce distinct answers to even broadly formed tactical problems. He points out well that military history—if mined carelessly for ‘proof’ of preconceived beliefs—tends to yield what one is searching for, or what is already believed to be true. Furthermore, if military history is used to line up examples as evidence then practically anything can appear to be proven, but in fact nothing is conclusively proven at all. Luvaas makes the important point that the historian explains, interprets, and discriminates (like Howard’s judgment). Recognizing history’s “frail structure”—its lack of concrete pronouncements and failure to produce an indisputable record of events—is the first step to understanding what history is capable of. Even though the historian’s attempts to order chaotic past events fundamentally alters the ‘facts’ of what happened, and even though the existing shards of evidence are shaped by ulterior motives of past actors, incomplete knowledge of participants, and so on, still the student of war can reap rewards from what has been written for the benefit of future generations of military practitioners. Military history can allow the discerning student of war to get inside the minds of some great leaders during key events and to understand—if even incompletely—why they made the decisions they did. That sort of vicarious experience can be absolutely essential to developing successful military leaders and cannot be easily reproduced in any other way than to critically study military history. As a Bradley Platoon Leader at the Combat Maneuver Training Center in Hohenfels, Germany, I spent nights in the cantonment area studying Rommel’s Infantry Attacks so that when we entered “the box” against the opposing force (OPFOR) I could directly apply the lessons I had learned from a great military mind.
Can we develop a framework in which to analyze our tactical doctrine and know it is sound before we enter combat? The answer is yes and the framework is provided by a critical study of military history. How do we get an unbiased or uncorrupted version of military history to shape our doctrine? Although this dilemma can appear significant it is surmountable when we pay attention to where we have been and guard against all of the unnecessary forces, including domestic politics and congressional budgets, that can drown critical historical understanding. By building a solid foundation of critical historical studies, not unlike Hans Delbrueck did for the German military in History of the Art of War Within the Framework of Political History, and by seriously assessing our development of doctrine in the past, we can gain insight that allows us to correct course like the pilot of a ship. For example, by looking at evolving Army doctrine between 1946 and 1976, we can see how doctrine is shaped constantly by global events, strategic imperatives, inter-service interactions and rivalries, combat experience, and developing technology. This process involved many missteps but also some very sound developments including the helicopter and earlier versions of modularity and strategic deploy-ability. Although the whole process can be slow, and even sometimes messy, like Howard’s conception of history in general, by constantly rekindling the powers of the critical historian we can shape a framework that allows us to ground our doctrine and thus make it actually useful.
A critical study of military history can produce a useful framework for contemporary doctrine even if it may at times fall far short of perfect. Howard points out that studying history as process is not always comforting since it does not point to clear cut behaviors to follow and virtues to emulate for happiness and fulfillment. Instead the study of history points to more conflicts; but that conflict also leads to the growth and development of humankind and so lends even more utility to the study of history if we are to keep on developing as opposed to slipping backward into more confused and even more distressed states. Similarly, doctrine, informed by a critical study of military history, can help to wage war more successfully but it also does not provide succinct prescripts to follow in all cases. As Napoleon suggested, it is left to the practitioner to make the judgments necessary to successfully exercise the military art.
1. Michael Howard, The Lessons of History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992).
2. See Dennis M. Drew, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: American Military Dilemmas and Doctrinal Proposals (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1988) for a fascinating review of the U.S. military’s refusal to seriously consider insurgency and counterinsurgency in the post-Vietnam era. His arguments concerning COL Harry C. Summers, Jr. are excellent examples of the pitfalls that accompany a selective reading of history. Substitute Baghdad for Saigon and so much of what Drew was arguing in 1988 is being highlighted by current events.
3. Jay Luvaas, “Military History: Is It Still Practicable,” Parameters (March 1982): 2-14.
4. See Robert. A. Doughty, The Evolution of US Army Tactical Doctrine, 1946-1976 (Ft. Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, US Army Command and General Staff College, 1979).
- “A nation is only as strong as its people. To ensure national strength there must be adequate military forces, properly equipped to repel any attacks upon our sovereignty, and such forces must be backed up by a well organized civilian population of high morale which can produce all the necessities for carrying on modern warfare. This unity of military and civilian strength will be only as strong as its weakest component, therefore, we must ensure that all parts of this combination are equally strong.” --- Admiral Chester W. Nimitz quoted in Military Review 27, no. 10 (January 1948): 11.