Nobody Asked Me, But...The Navy Is Giving History a Bad Name

By Lieutenant Colonel Brian Hanley, U.S. Air Force (Retired)

Reading is an exacting exercise in listening and reflecting—a task sharply at odds with the harried existence of military leaders, who wear out the day interacting with their BlackBerries, attending meetings, and adapting their outlook to that of their bosses. History is finely drawn narrative that synthesizes a welter of facts and suppositions, while the lives of most officers are a fragmented procession of short-notice tasks that must be addressed with an eye on internal organizational politics. Founding a new bureaucracy, then, is hardly an effective way to encourage a proper appreciation of history. That the Navy does not recognize the contradictions between what the service professes to seek and its manner of proceeding is a disquieting situation.

Here's how the Navy can engender the wisdom that the cultivation of a historical intelligence makes possible. Junior and mid-level Sailors need to see that senior leaders have profited by reading history. A conspicuous example of this would be eloquence, and not mere glibness, in written and oral communication that surveys and justifies hard decisions. Another example would be courteous, discerning consideration of views that conflict with policy or convention. The historically minded officer is capable of perceiving similarity among difference and clarifying complex circumstances by the judicious deployment of words, which are the carriers of ideas. What is more, demonstrations of wisdom and humanity in day-to-day matters—momentous decisions are faced rarely even in a full military career—are potent advertisements for the worthiness of studying history.

More worrisome is that the new command apparently mistakes historical understanding, which is rooted in impartiality, for advocacy. The idea that the Navy's new command offers an authoritative record of the service's past seems a proposition that only the na i ve would find plausible. What is perhaps meant by the command's claim to authoritativeness is that it will serve up historical narratives that conform to the Navy's current interests. I cannot imagine that a leader, seeking to draw on history when formulating a decision, would be given advice from the History and Heritage Command that did not square with contemporary Navy policy. Such a misuse of history encourages the abdication of judgment, in which the new command's counsel is assigned the status of an oracle's pronouncements—which are bound to be wrong far more often than they are right.

A more appropriate role for the new command is that of archivist, a function better suited to the way the world actually works. So let's encourage the new command to acquire, preserve, and make available to the public information that cannot be easily found elsewhere. But let's also remember that history embodies habits of mind that are antagonistic to the ends, ways, and means of bureaucracy.

Lieutenant Colonel Hanley works for an intelligence agency in the Washington, D.C. area. He is the author of Planning for Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Praeger Security International, 2007) and a frequent contributor to Proceedings .

Brian Hanley Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Air Force (Ret.) is an award-winning author and former Professor of English at the United States Air Force Academy. While at the academy, he oversaw its nationally ranked debate team and supervised its Writing for Leaders course. Lieutenant Colonel Hanley's Air Force career included service as an Air Battle Manager on board E-3 and E-8 aircraft. His awards include the Air Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, and Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal. A member USNI's Editorial Board, his writing has been frequently published in Proceedings.

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