View Full Version : The Military History Debate

10-11-2006, 07:47 PM
At the HNN blog Cliopatria

Military History Debate (http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/30692.html)

10-11-2006, 09:06 PM
At the HNN blog Cliopatria

Military History Debate (http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/30692.html)

...and posted a link here. Nice catch on the blog entry because the subject certainly generates interest on the SWC.

Ray Levesque
11-28-2006, 04:41 PM
It's very common to refer to the "lessons of history" when making points about military issues. Fortunately we're not always at war which means we have to study history to practice the profession most of the time. In discussing small wars, LIC, OOTW, (whatever your term of choice) we often refer to historical examples. The members of this forum usually understand that historical "lessons" don't really exist, but many politicians and columnists do not and they frequently find so-called lessons they glean to support their argument.

It's not unusual to use historical references; even on this forum we've recently seen reverences to Vietnam, the Phillippines, and the American Indian wars, but it must be done with care. Using the US experience against American Indians points up the problem with finding lessons in (military) history for our problems today. Yes we won, and yes our wars against the Indians lasted for generations, but there were significant differences between then and now. For example, the one strategy the Indians were never able to overcome was the huge wave of people moving continuously and uncontrollably into US territories. Even Vietnam cannot be analyzed outside the context of the Cold War when China and Russia openly provided all kinds of support, and the Vietminh took advantages of (relative) safe sanctuary in Cambodia, Laos, and N. Vietnam. And this is just the beginning of listing the numerous, inter-related variables that impact the outcome of wars.

The best essay that makes this point is Michael Howard's "The Lessons of History." He makes the point that understanding history makes one better prepared for the present, however he says it's difficult to obtain lessons from history because, "the unique quality of an experience that resulted from circumstances that would never, that could never, be precisely replicated....It is safer to start with the assumption that history, whatever its value in educating the judgement, teaches no 'lessons'," After discussing the limits of history, Howard proceeds to discuss four general lessons 1) "not to generalize from false premises based on inadeuate evidence." 2) you must learn as much about the past as possible comparing it to a foreign country where you have to learn the language and assumptions before you can understand it. 3) Cope with cultural diversity. 4) the social framework in which a historian works is vulnerable. What studing does do is provide understanding that hopefully can improve judgement -- this does not mean one can list our "lessons."

This is why I smile when I see columnists and politicians refer to the "lessons of Vietnam," the "lessons of El Salvador," etc.

SWJ Blog
09-05-2015, 05:36 PM
How Should History Inform the Life-Long Education of a Military Professional? (http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/how-should-history-inform-the-life-long-education-of-a-military-professional)

SWJ Blog
12-01-2015, 05:31 PM
The Importance of History in Technology and Security Policy Analysis (http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-importance-of-history-in-technology-and-security-policy-analysis)

02-11-2016, 12:31 PM
An article by Dr Huw Davies, Kings Defence Studies, after a trip to Australia and New Zealand, which explains why studying military history and the military generally remains valuable:http://defenceindepth.co/2016/02/11/research-dispatch-from-sydney-new-directions-in-war-and-history/

Here is a sample passage:
As a result of this conference, the study of military history, seems to me to be re-invigorated. The military is closely linked with other aspects of society, and it is impossible, indeed a disservice, to separate these elements from one another. The same currents and challenges that drive adaptation and change in wider society, wields important effects on the military. To study the military in isolation from these undermines our understanding of it as an institution.

(He adds later, almost a conclusion) The military frequently feels outpaced by societal developments over which it has no control: this is not a symptom of the Twitter generation, but has always been the case. The military has frequently been caught up in social and political movements and contests, and study of this under-examined aspect of military history can yield important and useful lessons for dealing with different challenges faced today.

02-14-2016, 10:29 AM
An older Huw Davies article, from September 2014 'The Instrumentalisation of History' and it starts with:
History is a dangerous thing. Parallels between contemporary events and history are all too easy to arrive at. In unskilled hands, historical events can be manhandled to seemingly deliver lessons and solutions to apparently intractable contemporary problems. This is ‘instrumentalising’ history. In reality, history can be misleading, its so-called ‘lessons’ proving counter-productive if their context is not properly understood.Link:http://www.thestrategybridge.com/the-bridge/2014/9/30/the-instrumentalisation-of-history

Another piece:http://www.academia.edu/21432841/The_Evolution_of_the_British_Armys_Use_of_its_Hist ory

05-13-2016, 04:48 PM
A podcast (93 mins) from The British Academy, with three eminent historians, one Canadian and two Brits. The BA explains:
Policy-makers face a world of increasing complexity, but what insight can historical knowledge bring to the table? Does looking back enable us to learn lessons from the past, or ask better questions about the present? In the noisy and competitive marketplace of ideas, how can historians ensure that their voices are heard?Hosted in partnership with the Mile End Institute of Queen Mary University of London, a panel of three distinguished historians and a leading policy expert reflected on these and other questions concerning the relationship between history, policy and the public good.Link:http://www.britac.ac.uk/events/2016/Does-Good-Policy-Making-Need-Historians.cfm
All I need now is time to listen or watch and listen!

11-19-2016, 08:13 PM
Hat tip to WoTR for a superb article which seeks to:
...is about thinking historically. It is not a history of a particular event, person, place, or process. Nor is it strictly a presentation about methodology or how to do historical work effectively. There are many excellent books and articles that can help you become a good historian. What I hope to do is explore something I call “historical sensibility,” which I believe can be a powerful tool to understand and aid making policy, especially foreign, foreign economic, and national security policy.

The author is:
Francis J. Gavin is the Frank Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security Policy Studies at MIT. In January 2017, Gavin will become the inaugural director of the Henry A Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at SAIS-Johns Hopkins.

Fascinating aspect of JFK's murder in Dallas and the unknown witness.

Then one of my favourite photos, which illustrates how far affairs of state can go involving the most unlikely people:
https://62e528761d0685343e1c-f3d1b99a743ffa4142d9d7f1978d9686.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.c om/files/146411/width754/image-20161117-18131-z30q95.jpg

The photo is from an article on 'Able Archer' a "near miss" nuclear crisis, which is timely reminder how close war came:https://theconversation.com/how-the-world-reached-the-brink-of-nuclear-war-not-once-but-twice-in-1983-68998? (https://theconversation.com/how-the-world-reached-the-brink-of-nuclear-war-not-once-but-twice-in-1983-68998?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=The%20Weekend%20Conversation%20-%206124&utm_content=The%20Weekend%20Conversation%20-%206124+CID_89598f5c5f329b77db6289f8663ceb7e&utm_source=campaign_monitor_uk&utm_term=How%20the%20world%20reached%20the%20brink %20of%20nuclear%20war%20not%20once%20but%20twice%2 0in%201983)

05-12-2017, 09:49 AM
Prompted by the next post I have merged five threads that follow the same theme and re-opened the thread.

On a quick review there are other threads, but they do not readily fit here.

05-12-2017, 09:53 AM
From the UK Defence-in-Depth blog an article on 'History and Policy', prompted by the third term (semester) of an advanced course at the Defence Academy; in part explained in this passage:
One thing the students will be asked to consider is the relevance of history to contemporary policymakers. How, exactly, does a grasp of historical precedence inform decision-making in a useful sense? How does a knowledge of the past inform one’s understanding of the present, and the future? – particularly when the past is such an ideologically contested morass of rival interpretations. These debates strike to the heart of a debate of growing significance within the academic discipline of history itself – that of the utility of history to policy and to government.Link:https://defenceindepth.co/2017/05/12/history-policy/

Bill Moore
05-12-2017, 03:32 PM
Collectively we have turned military history into a pile of half-truthes that is selectively sourced to support a particular theory. While most embrace complexity theory, and that every situation is different, we prefer to contribute cause and effect to a particular doctrine. Military history, and some is, must be a multi-discipline study of history (political, social, economics, military, paramilitary, overall geopolitical globally, etc.) to more effectively determine what worked, what didn't, and why. I dread that future generations will embrace simplistic theories put forth on good governance, networks to fight networks, Nagl's COIN theory, principles of war that aren't, etc. as proven templates. While each simplistic theory has a place in the greater whole, they are all roads to failure if not integrated in the greater whole, and informed by understanding of the situation at hand. While much of military history is half-truths, at the end of the day history is still critically important, students just need to be leery of interpretation by over confident theorists and authors. In other words they need to be critical thinkers, which is what the purpose of higher learning is supposedly aimed at.