The History Mystery

By Gregory J. Martin

Why Care About History?

But history can be written in many ways—from a simple narrative to a detailed and thought-provoking analysis. The former seems more popular, but the latter is what needs more emphasis. Some of the greatest confusion occurs when the word history refers to people and events that have special symbolic and cultural meaning. We should be careful to recognize the difference between the creation and dissemination of historical knowledge for education and decision-making within the Navy, and the separate but related role that historical heritage plays in creating and sustaining its institutional culture.

Finally, there are many conflicting perspectives regarding which chronological boundaries determine what is relevant to today’s warfighting needs. Too often, sailors perceive naval history merely as events in a distant past of wood and sail, with little relevance to current Fleet operations. Also forgotten are events, lessons learned, and knowledge gained even over the past few decades. The Navy’s critical contextual framework of collective knowledge will languish without a broader understanding and appreciation of the complex nature of naval history, including its scope of inquiry, methods of analysis, chronological boundaries, specific purposes, and primary audiences.

So why even care about past events? Because without the context historical knowledge offers, we have little understanding of the present—and scant hope of effectively planning for the future. Many question how far back one can go when looking at historic events before what has transpired in the past loses relevance. In reality, it often has little to do with how long ago events occurred. Far more important is what past events reveal about:

• The nature of leadership and why people follow

• Why policies work or don’t work

• How new technology is employed

• The strengths and weaknesses of institutions

Ancient history can be as effective a teacher of strategy and combat leadership as any event in the past 20 years. The issue of relevance is up to those who research, analyze, and communicate events of the past. On the other hand, it can be surprising how even historical knowledge of recent, clearly relevant events has been—and still is—ignored. In either case, the failure to routinely create and effectively employ historical knowledge is costly, and can be catastrophic.

During World War II, both Germany and the Allies failed to fully understand the strategic and tactical relevance of their respective experiences using and countering U-boats during World War I. 4 In the 1939–1945 Battle of the Atlantic, strategic errors on both sides regarding force composition and procurement in the run-up to the conflict set the stage for disaster; operational assumptions about employment compounded those mistakes. 5 Even after three years, the United States ignored the most recent “history” of U-boat operations and allowed coastal shipping without convoys or escorts. Understanding the different assumptions and decision-making mechanisms that led to the determinations by the Germans, British, and Americans about the nature of war in the Atlantic can still provide important insights to current and future strategic planners.

Dragging Our Heels, Institutionally

Today we need to ask if we are falling into the same traps about our assumptions. Often, it’s not just exact comparisons that provide real clarity when using the past to comprehend our present and plan for the future. Creating historical knowledge includes uncovering the critical analogies between that past and the present. Deft application of those analogies often yields innovative insights, more creative planning options, and better choices between means and objectives.

Increasingly, several advocates for better integration of naval history with warfighting have been speaking up and recommending change. Over the past ten years, the Secretary of the Navy’s Advisory Subcommittee on Naval History repeatedly has reported that the Navy is far behind its sister services in best practices when it comes to effectively using history for sustaining its institutional culture, supporting decision-making, and deepening professional education.

Over the same period, several articles in the pages of Proceedings echoed similar concerns at an ongoing marginalization of historical knowledge and the importance of the Navy’s heritage to the Fleet. 6 Writing in the Naval War College Review , Dr. John Hattendorf—a retired naval officer, longtime naval historian, and current chairman of Maritime History at the Naval War College—observed that, “Naval officers, by and large, have tended to ignore the value and advantages to be found in historical insight.” 7 A number of authors have noted that the Navy, in contrast to the Army and the Marine Corps, seems most resistant to embracing the critical insights that history offers, which leads to the obvious question: Why is the Navy, as an institution, resistant to recognizing the essential value of historical knowledge to warfighting?

Of all the available material, a report by History Associates Inc. of Rockville, Maryland, titled “History and Heritage in the U.S. Navy” offers the most in-depth attempt to analyze that institutional indifference toward history. The report identifies the underlying issue as favoritism toward warfighting and operating performance rather than intellectual ability and command of history. That is an implied choice that is unnecessary and counterproductive. What the Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force broadly recognize and incorporate into their officers’ continuing professional military education is the idea that effective warfighting and historical knowledge are inseparable. Even the Navy’s own OPNAVINST 5750.4E explicitly says that “Navy history represents the foundation upon which the present and the future of the Navy rests,” emphasizing that “historical information and lessons learned are essential for current planning, operations, analysis, and administration.” 8

In the April 2009 issue of Proceedings retired Rear Admiral Jacob Shuford, a past president of the Naval War College, quoted an earlier military sage: “The nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.” 9 How is it that, in practice and priority, the critical component of historical knowledge became separated from the “foundation upon which the present and future of the Navy rests”? Shuford pointed to important progress with the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations for developing better strategic leaders. But at the same time, he noted that while Naval War College students “are tactically astute and well grounded in systems technologies,” too many “arrive lacking in intellectual attributes so urgently needed as they transition to senior leadership levels.” 10 It seems that sailors remain too busy and have little incentive to spend time advancing more sophisticated warfighting skills and developing their critical thinking beyond what is demanded by their initial tactical, platform-specific expertise.

Rethinking Priorities

The problem is deeper, more complex, and in some ways far more difficult to address than simply a choice between warfighting and having command of historical knowledge. In my own active-duty and reserve experience as an antisubmarine warfare pilot, it seemed that the surest path to promotion rested on a record of safe operations and strong performance in one’s primary administrative billet, which generally was not warfighting. Certainly there were exceptions, maybe broad exceptions, but I believe there has been a deeply embedded institutional emphasis on one’s achievement in those primary billets—the “ground” job. From my perspective, flying, watch standing, and “combat” roles often were treated as secondary duties. Division officer, legal officer, department head, officer-in-charge, executive officer, and even commanding officer, all were billets that, in reality, were heavily biased toward administration and safe operations. Deployments were the one opportunity to sharpen warfighting skills. Only in recent years, as a result of an 11-year-and-counting war on terrorism, has combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan trumped administrative performance as a key indicator in fitness reports and promotion boards. Unless there is a war going on, the Navy seems to give the highest priority to smooth administration; warfighting finds itself taking a back seat, along with naval history.

A second challenge is rooted in the very nature of the Navy’s core mission—conducting combat operations at sea. That operational environment presents unique and arduous conditions that often allow no time for honing either historical knowledge or warfighting skills. Also, the ad hoc and temporary nature of operational commands at sea present their own difficulties for commanders, their staffs, and the forces they command. It seems as though there really is time only for short, narrowly focused training courses before work-up exercises, and on-the-job-training during deployment, to teach operational art. With the demands of a formidable operating environment, pressure to conform to a career path with few options for time outside the “normal” sea/shore rotation, and an institutional emphasis on primary-billet performance, it should not be surprising that most officers have no time to acquire naval history content and develop historical analytical skills.

Unless officers actively seek more sustained and advanced education that incorporates operational or strategic studies, they most likely will get none. Parallel to that is the career path of sea/shore rotation that makes it very difficult to squeeze in periods for graduate or professional military education. And if there is time and motivation, junior officers may see far more utility in obtaining advanced degrees in business than in military history or security affairs.

A study published in 2006 on flag promotions in the Navy noted that while graduate education could be important to promotion, “it may be outweighed by other performance variables in selection to flag rank.” 11 Other sources indicate that as recently as 2003, just 30 percent of serving flag officers had attended either intermediate or senior war colleges; only 5 percent had attended both. 12 Yet many argue, as Admiral Shuford did in his article, that advanced education provides the very framework on which to build higher levels of performance. While part of the problem is rooted in the very nature of operating at sea, attitudes within the Fleet that connect historical knowledge to better performance at war need adjustment. That will require broad institutional change.

Attitudinal Adjustment Needed

One wonders if the tempo of recent wartime operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has forced any change in using historical knowledge to improve planning and decision-making above tactical operations. Or, has operational tempo just put greater emphasis on meeting the immediate needs of combat operations, such that any lessons learned are quickly lost and never placed in a wider context to support better planning and decisions in the future? Is there any renewed emphasis on progressive levels of professional education in the Navy that aid in improving operational art or training future battle-group commanders or their staffs beyond mandatory predeployment short-courses? Has the experience of the years since 9/11 resulted in any adjustments to the curriculums at the Naval Academy, in NROTC units, or Officer Candidate School that incorporate a renewed appreciation not just for naval history, but world history? Naval history will be marginalized as long as those educational opportunities within which it can be taught and strongly linked to warfighting and operational performance are equally marginalized.

While a latent emphasis on primary-billet performance, the challenges of operating at sea, and lack of mandatory professional military education are the main institutional barriers to better integration of historical knowledge with “current planning, operations, analysis, and administration,” personal perspectives on the value of naval history also can play a key role in impeding change. Attitudes toward naval history, or history in general, are formed early in the education process. Most attention in a history classroom too often is focused only on absorbing content. Of equal importance is acquiring the critical-thinking skills required to produce and effectively use historical knowledge. There is little that the Navy can do about the prior education of its officers. There is much that the Naval Academy, NROTC units, and boot camp can do to improve attitudes toward history and historical knowledge. Officer and enlisted education is where a deep and durable foundation of contextual knowledge begins. It is where students acquire the critical-thinking skills required to frame questions, select appropriate data sources, choose an effective framework of analysis, and create the best means of communicating the results.

Those skills cut across all disciplines. But passive learning environments characterized by didactic, lecture-driven courses kill the enthusiasm to learn, burying the immense teaching power of historical knowledge. On the other hand, more open-ended, case-study methods—such as those used in business and law schools as well as the Naval War College—can effectively revitalize “old” history and substantially improve learning and attitudes toward naval history. Over the long term, the lasting benefit of shaping positive attitudes at the undergraduate level will be a sustained change in the current institutional practices and individual thinking that diminish the value of history to the Navy. Without careful assessment and revitalization of history education at our entry-level schools and in the training pipeline, no change will occur.

Tools To Assist in a Turnaround

Concurrent with efforts to update and broadly understand the critical role of historical analysis and naval history and its strong correlation to operations and planning, the Chief of Naval Operations should reconsider officer evaluation. Warfighting skills still need to receive more emphasis as part of officer evaluation. Fitness reports must be restructured to better reflect those skills, as appropriate, at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. While Box 39 on officer reports covers Tactical Performance, what about Operational Performance for O-4s to O-7s, and Strategic Performance for O-8s and above? If mid-grade and senior officers are rewarded for learning and applying the lessons of professional military education or related advanced degrees, then historical knowledge and naval history will become part of their bedrock understanding of the world.

The same goes for greater support of chief petty officer evaluation Block 39 requirements, which measure effective use of history as part of CPO performance. History and heritage are essential motivational and leadership tools for chiefs, and both need greater emphasis to create good leadership up and down the chain of command.There are organizations within the Navy that can play a central role in guiding change, but they need better support, both fiscal and institutional. Among them, the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) presents opportunities for the CNO to demonstrate the value of history, and thereby reduce institutional indifference. The Naval War College is another nexus of support because of its direct role in mid-grade and senior officer professional military education. Within the context of formal education, the Naval Academy, OCS, NROTC units, and the Naval Postgraduate School exert considerable influence outside the course content they offer. Boot camp needs far greater emphasis as a critical platform for imparting in new sailors a deep respect for all those who have proudly fought and served over the 237-year span of the U.S. Navy.

If there is a single overriding challenge, it is one of coordination. The earlier-mentioned “History and Heritage in the Navy” report suggested creating a vice admiral billet to that end, to be run either from the NHHC or as a concurrent duty of either the superintendent of the Naval Academy or the president of the Naval War College. 13 While the idea has merit it faces substantial organizational challenges. Nonetheless, at the very minimum the report’s recommendation that the aforementioned organizations better integrate as part of a larger knowledge enterprise within the Department of the Navy is well worth considering.

History is the context within which we shape our understanding of our world. Every field of inquiry—be it science, mathematics, engineering, or social studies—has its own historical and contextual framework. Their utility and application fit within the much larger context of past human events. The Navy needs to encourage its officers and sailors to better integrate historical knowledge and analysis into planning, decision-making, program management, and policy development, and to strongly promote the pursuit of education that emphasizes the critical nature of historical knowledge. If it does not, it may be accepting mediocrity in peace and risking catastrophe in war.

1. See Secretary of the Navy, Advisory Subcommittee on Naval History, “Minutes of the 2008 Meeting,” Washington, DC, and Naval Inspector General, “Command Inspection of Naval History and Heritage Command,” 1 December 2011.

2. “History and Heritage in the U.S. Navy,” History Associates Inc., Rockville, MD, 16 October 2000, iii.

3. Ibid., 6, 18.

4. Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two-Ocean War (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963), 27.

5. Ibid., 27–28.

6. Daryl Grissom, “The Foglights of War,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , August 2001, 76–77; John B. Hattendorf, “Our Naval Heritage is in Danger,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , August 2004, 64; John T. Hoffman, “Naval History Must Continue to Inform the Present,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , March 2005, 80–81; Brian Hanley, “The Navy is Giving History a Bad Name,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , March 2009, 10.

7. John B. Hattendorf, “The Uses of Maritime History in and for the Navy,” Naval War College Review  56, no. 2, Spring 2003, 13.

8. “OPNAV Instruction 5750.4E” (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 2012), 2.

9. RADM Jacob Shuford, USN (Ret.), “Re-Education for the 21st-Century Warrior,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , April 2009, 16.

0. Ibid., 18.

1. David A. Schwind and Janice H. Laurence, “Raising the Flag: Promotion to Admiral in the United States Navy,” Military Psychology  18, July 2006, 92.

2. John B. Hattendorf, “The Uses of Maritime History in and for the Navy,” International Journal of Naval History  2, no. 1, April 2003, 16.

13. “History and Heritage in the U.S. Navy,” v.

Mr. Martin, a 1978 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, is on staff at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C. After active duty and reserve service as an SH-60 pilot 1983–1991 he spent 20 years as a business executive. He holds graduate degrees in business and U.S. history.


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