The Utility of Military History for the Practitioner
War is too important to be left to the generals. — Georges Clemenceau
The challenge for military professionals is learning how to think, not what to think. By understanding the past, practitioners of war can best create their future. But history itself does not provide answers to contemporary problems. On the contrary; if history is properly considered, it presents military professionals with questions – the right questions that help develop context, understanding, and ultimately wisdom. Michael Howard articulates the need to study military history in width, depth, and context. Military professionals are presented with the added complexity of having to apply the lessons of the past as practitioners of war. The personal experience of military professionals often clouds the lens in which they view history and presents a number of unconscious biases. To overcome these difficulties, it is essential that military professionals identify themes from the past to help frame problems in the future, rather than attempt to identify lessons that can simply be applied to problems as solutions.
It is natural for those who study history to seek to articulate a logical and clear representation of events. In seeking ‘golden threads’ of information that seamlessly weave the story together, historians create a tapestry of the past that allows those who study history to develop an understanding of events. But in seeking clarity and logic when piecing together information, historians are faced with the frustrating task of capturing the consequences of war – which by its very nature is chaotic, uncertain, and at times entirely nonsensical. Clausewitz tells us that “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult”, and recording the history of war is no different. The inconsistent fragments of friction and chance are the enemy of those who seek to articulate a logical flow of factual information. The historian is charged with making sense of catastrophe and disaster, and moreover – seeks to achieve this goal impartially. Likewise, the military professional must attempt to clear their clouded lens and understand why things happened, rather than what happened. Historians as well as students of history must look for inconsistencies, things that defy logic, and consider the reasons for why they happened.
“Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult” – Carl von Clausewitz
Howard points to the use of analogies to illustrate how history can be misinterpreted and used in support of superficial propositions. Analogies allow us to develop a familiarity with a situation and analyse the similarities between something that happened in the past, and something we are more comfortable with. To be effective, analogies must be used under the proviso that the context between the two situations is almost certainly different. For example, Graham Allison’s ‘Thucydides Trap’ and the relationship between Athens and Sparta could be useful as a basis to understand general themes related to rising and ruling powers, but it is of little use for military professionals when directly comparing the relationship between the superpowers of today. Thematically, items such as the inter-relationship of strategies, alliances, and economics, all serve as excellent points for wider consideration. Yet almost none of the ‘answers’ from the past could realistically be applied to the contemporary situation with an expectation of achieving the same results.
Conversely, looking at history too broadly presents us with nothing but overly-generic and banal ideas that are of little value to the application of military thinking. In our quest for width, we may inadvertently wind up losing all specificity and relevance. It is important to maintain focus when considering historical examples and, as Howard points out, study in depth to truly understand what happened and the reasons for it. Perhaps sometimes the most valuable lesson for a military professional is that there was no logical reason for events or actions – which illustrates the friction, confusion, fear, and uncertainty of war. What worked in one campaign may not have worked in another, and there is risk in simply determining a list of reasons why. The context of the situation, the environment, the unknowable factors and the interplay of infinite variables all contributed to the outcome, so determining causal factors may lead to a flawed and narrow opinion. Thus, it is up to the military professional to determine the ‘sweet spot’ on the spectrum between theory and specificity. History can be perfectly clear, yet our misinterpretation of its lessons without appropriate regard to the context can have catastrophic consequences.
History should allow us to better understand problems, become comfortable with uncertainty, and at least help to come to the ‘least wrong’ solution. Williamson Murray says that “History is almost never predictive. It can only suggest a range of possibilities in thinking about the future”. But the future is sure to present us with an infinite number of unknowable possibilities which have not been anticipated. As practitioners of war, it is supremely important to maintain flexibility of thought; to use judgement and decide what is appropriate to the context of the situation we are faced with. Military professionals can utilise historical themes to help recognise potential problems in the future. This allows us to develop ways to think, rather than provide solutions to specific problems. Instead of simply measuring the performance of those who have been practitioners before us, we must use history to better frame problems and consider new and innovative ways to solve them.