History of Arms Is the Difference

By Michael Evans

It sometimes is fashionable to suggest that in order to prosper, today's military must become a New Age organization, reflecting contemporary social trends—but the absolutist values outlined by General MacArthur are universal ones, fundamental to the Western concept of military professionalism both in the past and in the future. Such values can have true meaning only if they are underpinned by a modern appreciation of military history as the corporate knowledge of the profession of arms. A broad understanding of the history of war retains a powerful intellectual relevance in the information age, and will be integral to the development of future leaders of Western armies during the next century. But military educators need to use the discipline of history in a modern and imaginative way. This can be done only if a military establishment adopts an approach to historical study and analysis that links the past with the present and indicates the way of the future.

The Relevance of Military History in the Pre-Nuclear Age

In the first half of the 20th century, after the study of tactics, history often was regarded as the most important subject in the preparation of a future military leader in Western armies. For instance, in 1912, a final-year officer at the famous German Kriegsakademie , spent 7 hours out of a 17-hour instruction week studying both military and general history. As Colonel G. F. R. Henderson, Professor of Military Art and History, at the British Staff College, Carnberley put it in 1900, "Leadership is the greatest lesson of history." The 19th century demonstrated how a single decisive battle—a Waterloo, a Konnigratz, or a Sedan—could change the course of international affairs in a day. Intimate knowledge of the great encounter battle became the main educational model for military professionals, and its careful reconstruction—by what became known as the applicatory method of history—was highly valued by armies.

According to the applicatory method, officers studied war leadership by examining particular examples of generalship and by testing the soundness of battlefield decision-making against actual events and outcomes. The focus was on the classical art of war, in which knowledge of the discrete sequence of battlefield/campaign events was as important as the analysis of their content. One learned Marathon for the flanking attack; Leuctra for the echelon attack; Cannae for the double envelopment, and so on. Comparatively little attention was paid to placing warfare in a modern industrial or political context.

Despite the experience of the World War I, the orthodox model of narrative military history continued to be used in most Western armies to develop officers during the interwar period. With the possible exceptions of the German Reichswehr and the U.S. Army, the increasing mechanization of war and totality of industrial warfare were not reflected in the teaching of military history. This lack of modernity and adaptation was the subject of considerable criticism by such military intellectuals as J. F. C. Fuller and Liddell Hart.

But the supremacy of orthodox military history did not survive the World War II. That conflict confirmed that modern war was as much about industrial resources, technology, and political leadership as it was about battlefield skill. As the Korean War demonstrated, in the new age of the Cold War and atomic weapons there was no possibility of swift, decisive battle by conventional military methods. War no longer could be understood as a narrative of battlefield events disconnected from broader political, social and technological factors. Thus by the time MacArthur's generation had retired from service in the early 1950s, military history inside armies was losing its traditional intellectual preeminence rapidly. History was not to revive again as an intellectual force in Western armies for a quarter of a century. The reasons for this swift fall from grace stem from the onset of the nuclear age.

Implications of the Nuclear Age for Military History

In the 1950s and 1960s, the development of nuclear age strategic thought brutally exposed the intellectual limitations of orthodox/narrative military history. Campaign history seemed to lack application to a military profession facing a strategic and technological revolution. A prime focus on decisive battles in military education seemed obsolete during an era in which military power had to be employed within careful limits, under the shadow of mass destruction. To understand the new international security system, many Western armies adopted methods from the emerging field of civilian strategic studies, which in turn based its ideas on social science, mathematical and economic techniques.

Strategic studies did not accept the notion that there was usefulness in studying land warfare. Indeed, its main premise was to try to prevent major war through a framework of deterrence and arms control. Bernard Brodie, perhaps the greatest of the nuclear age thinkers, summed up matters in 1946 when he said: "Thus far the chief purposes of our [the U.S.] military establishment has been to win wars. From now on, its chief purpose must be to avert them." Traditional military power—especially land warfare—was seen by many civilian defense intellectuals as impotent or even outmoded. This perception was reinforced by the fact that even though conventional wars did occur during the Cold War they were mostly confined to the Third World and did not involve Western forces.

Between the early 1950s and the late 1970s, the intellectual activity of Western armed-forces establishments was influenced by ideas on conflict that often grew out of civilian Cold War strategic thought—notably notions of limited war, escalation, flexible response, and counter-revolutionary warfare. In a bipolar world of nuclear confrontation, conventional warfare seemed at best to be a tripwire leading to nuclear suicide. Thus, by the mid-1950s there was a rapid decline in—and in some cases almost an elimination of—the historical approach to war in the curricula of Western armed forces.

Military thinking tended to be shaped by the reality of nuclear weapons and the grand strategy they spawned. Defense organizations became increasingly civilianized; deterrence was seen as more important than mastery of combat; and an understanding of escalation seemed more relevant than operational skill. The practical experience of most Western armies became limited to field tactics and the politics of nuclear age defense bureaucracies. As the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General Maxwell D. Taylor observed sadly in 1955, the American Army officer now carried a field marshal's baton "not in his knapsack, but in his briefcase."

The Revival of Military History in Western Armies

Given this unfavorable atmosphere, how did military history succeed in regaining any kind of influence inside Western armed forces during the 1970s and 1980s? There are perhaps three interrelated reasons: First, between the 1950s and the 1970s, military history succeeded in slowly modernizing itself as an intellectual subject, capable of responding to modern military requirements. Second, contrary to received nuclear-age wisdom, advanced conventional warfare was not obsolete. This became evident by the 1970s as the operational level of warfare came into focus in Western military thought. Finally, by the late 1980s, it became clear that nuclear age strategic thought was inadequate to provide an intellectual framework for planning at the new operational level of war.

The Modernization of Military History

In the 1960s and 1970s, reformist historians broadened military history away from campaign narrative into more of an analytical and problem-solving discipline. The focus moved toward the study of war itself, in a broad and more interdisciplinary context. Two notable pioneers were British historians Michael Howard and John Keegan—both of whom modernized the approach to military history and made it a central component of war studies. At London University, Michael Howard devised the now famous "width-depth-context" formula for the use of military history in the armed forces: Officers should study military history in width (or comparatively), in depth (by extensive reading of sources to deduce the real experience), and in context (treating it not autonomously but as a reflection of social forces). At Sandhurst, John Keegan exposed many of the fallacies behind the stereotype of the "tidy battlefield." He showed how the writing of traditional campaign history had become so artificial and mechanical in narrative—so "tidy"—as to be almost useless in the education of modern officers. He helped transform the study of battle by focusing on the sociology and psychology of combat experience. The work of Howard and Keegan demonstrated how a broad approach to military history could have purpose and relevance in nuclear age military organizations.

The Return of Conventional War and the Emergence of the Concept of the Operational Level of War

In the 1970s, military professionals began to realize that even as nuclear parity had decreased the possibility of a nuclear war, it also had increased the probability of conventional operations. This perception was reinforced by the dramatic impact of precision weapons during the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the Middle east. As military thinkers in the West began to contemplate the implications of precision war fighting, there was a gradual recognition that nuclear deterrence theory had limited applicability for those charged with developing doctrine for a high-tempo electronic battlefield.

Between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s, many Western armies experienced a renewed confidence in the utility of land warfare—largely because of the developing concept of the operational level of war, at which one seeks to relate tactical means to strategic ends. Fundamental to this concept was a corresponding revival in the study of military history, especially in the U.S. and British armies. This revival hinged on developing a sophisticated understanding of the conceptual basis of warfare, rather than merely studying campaign detail. Both the U.S. and the British armies began to emphasize historical study in analyzing war at the operational level—especially with regard to doctrine, command and leadership.

For instance, in the post-Vietnam U.S. Army, the doctrine of AirLand Battle which emerged in the 1980s was influenced by an appreciation of historic notions of maneuver warfare. Historical awareness and analysis played a significant role in the U.S. Army's movement from the power warfare of the industrial age towards the precision warfare of the evolving information age. As General Donn A. Starry, Commanding General, Training and Doctrine Command (TraDoC) from 1977-81 has argued, the modern purpose of history in the U.S. Army was threefold: to inform judgments of the future; to provide a context for change by providing an informed vision, and to foster a common intellectual culture among Army leaders in times of uncertainty. The fruits of this approach were demonstrated by the performance of the U.S. Army during the 1990-91 Gulf War.

Just as the advent of the Cold War in the 1940s had found orthodox military history wanting, so the end of the Cold War found many of the ideas of strategic studies inadequate for the 1990s. With the collapse of their Cold War context, strategic studies—which had in many respects replaced military history in the 1950s—were plunged into a form of intellectual sclerosis from which they have yet to recover. Several Western military establishments began to focus more on the empiricism of history and less on the theory of social science to get a clearer perspective on contemporary security issues and to develop ideas about waging conventional warfare and developing doctrine.

The Role of Military History in Future Officer Development

Against this background, what benefits can Western officers expect to derive from exposure to the study of and use of history in the future? There probably are three areas where history needs to be emphasized for leader development in the next century:

  • For education in operational art
  • For the conceptual development of officers, by devising a contemporary approach to the discipline
  • In reinforcing the traditional ethos of the profession of arms

Leadership and Operational Art

Views differ on what kinds of armies will emerge in the next century but military history will be crucial in the professional development of future leaders, simply because operational art—the art of winning campaigns—can be understood only by comparison with classical military strategy. Further, officers will have to understand that operational art is not merely a form of "bigger tactics." They must grasp that operational art is the key to modern warfare because it relates tactical capabilities to strategic objectives. It represents theater warfare in depth—that is the design and execution of a complex distributed campaign. As a former U.S. Army TraDoC Commander, General William R. Richardson, has argued, operational art can only be mastered by "thoroughly and systematically searching military history while simultaneously scanning the future for new technology and new concepts." Because of this, preparing leaders at the operational level of war will require an osmosis of art and science and an interplay of past and present. The art of war in the past still must be studied, but with a careful eye on the present state of science, technology and international affairs.

Mastery of military history and theory—which Clausewitz once called the indispensable basis for an "imaginative intellect"—will be required for operational specialists to gain the wide frame of reference needed for planning and directing joint campaigns. But unlike traditional campaign study, operational art will have to be understood from a top-down analysis because an officer must understand the connection between military theory, military strategy, and national policy. Leaders will need to know how to conceptualize and to sequence a series of encounters into a distributed maneuver campaign-which reconciles tactical events with strategic aims. In the future, a successful practitioner of operational art will have to master the theory of war on all three military levels so that he can visualize the center of gravity and set the battle environment accordingly. In short, future commanders will have to understand the past in order to command the present and even to glimpse the shape of the future.

Conceptual Development through a Contemporary Approach to Military History

In the next century, if history is to be of value in educating officers, it must be used by armies as an intellectual discipline directly related to professional development. It must become part of the interdisciplinary infrastructure of modern military establishments—and it must seek to demonstrate rather than assert its value to the military profession.

Because of the interplay between past, present, and future in military education there is a natural and vitally important role for history to be used as an intellectual resource in officer education. But to fulfill this role properly, history needs to be developed according to an approach that has conceptual application to modern defense problems—that is, according to a contemporary approach. The central assumptions of this approach to military history envision using the discipline to meet the modern needs of professional officers by employing knowledge of the past, to deepen an understanding of the present. A contemporary approach to history seeks to bring clarity and perspective to complex modern questions. It welcomes an interdisciplinary environment, since it views history as being essentially an interpretative, rather than a narrative discipline. The practical benefits of such an approach are twofold:

  • It inculcates a method of historical-mindedness in military thought
  • It uses historical knowledge to temper a materialist philosophy of warfare

Inculcating a culture of historical-mindedness when dealing with present problems is a very important concept in leader development. Historical-mindedness helps to refine a logical thought structure for purposeful decision making. In a contemporary approach to history, the discipline should be employed as a conceptual base for studying situations and accustoming officers to think critically and deeply for themselves. The aim of military history in a service environment should be to probe the viscera of living war; to assist officers to become broad strategic thinkers—who like Liddell Hart are able to see the present in the past and the future in the present. This critical ability to "think across time" is the essence of a contemporary approach to history that armies need to cultivate in the coming century.

Second, knowledge of history helps temper the tendency in armies to view war through the narrow materialist lens of science and high technology. Overemphasis of a materialist approach to warfare is dangerous because it tends to encourage the development of technicism—that is the fostering of a military culture based on functional expertise in which war is seldom viewed as a holistic or social phenomenon. Military learning must be, as General Omar Bradley once observed, "a finely balanced whole and include not only the mathematical approach of the scientist but the probing search of the historian."

The materialist school of military thought, with its emphasis on the tangible elements of technical skill, needs to be tempered by employing a historical approach that weighs the impact of the intangible elements in combat. For while science is essential to war because of human fallibility, war itself remains an art. Combat is never simply the administration of firepower against an array of static targets. It is first and foremost a human encounter between, as General George S. Patton once put it, "two magnificent bastards with warrior souls." Its outcome is determined by leadership, intellect, morale, organizational quality and unit cohesion which only historical inquiry illuminates.

By developing a contemporary approach to military history with conceptual application to present-day defense problems, officers learn that historical knowledge complements materialist knowledge and that both modes of thought are needed in their intellectual preparation as military leaders.

Reinforcing the Ethos of the Profession of Arms

Military leadership can emerge only if it has an intellectual foundation which extols a sense of special calling. Military history provides this intellectual foundation; it reinforces the ethos of the profession of arms as a noble endeavor, pursued in the interests of the preservation of civilization. As Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, awarded the Medal of Honor in Vietnam, has written: "In my view the single most important foundation for any [military] leader is a solid academic background in history." From the history of arms, an officer learns martial values, how greatness of mind and the sweep of endeavor combine in the grandeur of leadership. He learns that the proper subject of war is man and his nature and that this nature remains unchanged, from the Hittite charioteers at Kadesh to Western tank crews in the Gulf War.

But there is a dilemma for armies in pursuing such martial values in a Western democracy, because they are at odds with liberal values. To be an effective servant of democratic life, the military profession cannot become the mirror image of a free society; it must instead consciously and deliberately become the guardian of freedom. If there is to be a reflection of society it must always be through the lens of a shield. In a real sense, if there is to be the democratic splendor of an Athens there must also be the stern regimentation of a Sparta—for while the civilian community exists to promote a free quality of life—the military community exists to fight for and, if necessary, to die in defense of that free quality of life.

Military leadership therefore will not flourish if it loses its sense of historic mission based on a set of unique institutional values. This sense of history can be endangered by the occupational model of civilian society, especially in free enterprise social democracies. Consumerism—not militarism—is the greatest threat to the health of post-industrial democracy. Democratic politicians must be reminded constantly that the military is not a social welfare agency, a human rights organization, a laboratory for social engineering, or a conduit for defense economics. It has a historic mission to guard society by the sanction of force. The military can absorb only those societal changes that will not reduce its prime mission—the ability to fight. If a military organization becomes imbued with civilian rather than combat ideals or with a managerial rather than a martial set of values, it risks signaling to its political masters that it has forfeited the mantle history has conferred. As the U.S. Army discovered in Vietnam, one must beware the rise of a technically competent but historically illiterate officer corps prone to equate technology with tactics, efficiency with effectiveness, and management with leadership.

Future officers will need both the skills of excellent leadership and of efficient management. But we need to understand clearly the difference between them. As a former U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General Edward C. Meyer, has put it: "managers are not asked to die in the name of corporate cost-effectiveness." Military leadership is the historic instrument of warrior action; managerialism is the functional instrument of civilian business enterprise. They may intersect at times, but the twain never meet. We must heed the wise words of Admiral Stockdale: "the soldier cannot adopt the methodology of business without adopting its language, its style, its tactics, and ultimately its ethics. Efficiency replaces honor as the greatest good."

As we approach the next century, some Western intellectuals have argued that we have entered a "post-heroic age" in which there will be no more pedestals in Valhalla and no more victory marches through Persepolis. Military service will be shaped not by a warfighting mentality or by great causes but by impersonal economic globalism, by the unromantic constabulary role, and by the minimum use of force. If this is so, then the military will need the binding force of service tradition, professional identification, and honor—in short, the way of the soldier—more than ever before. This can be learned only from one source—the history of arms.

Dr. Evans is the Senior Research Historian in the Australian Army’s Land Warfare Studies Center, at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Canberra. He is the author of Western Armies and the Use of Military History since 1945 (Canberra, Australian Defence Studies Working Paper, No. 46, 1997.


Dr. Evans is a Senior Research Fellow in the Australian Army's Land Warfare Studies Center at Duntroon in Canberra. This article is based on a paper delivered at the Australian Defense Force Academy, University of New South Wales.

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