History, Military Use of

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History, Military Use of. The armed forces have periodically emphasized or de‐emphasized the study of history. Their approach, generally, has been one of “lessons learned,” to study the past so as to avoid mistakes in the future. To accomplish this goal, the analysis of history has ranged from individual study requirements to inclusion in professional military education and training courses, the establishment of history offices at service headquarters levels, and other centers to analyze experience.

For decades, all the services have included the study of war and battle in officer cadet and professional schooling. After the Korean War, for example, Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadets studied every major battle and campaign of the U.S. Army, from before the Revolutionary War to the Korean War; the text: an army‐produced manual, ROTCM 145‐20, American Military History, 1607–1958 (1959). Newly commissioned officers in their initial training also have received service, and now joint‐oriented, history. A renewed emphasis and more in‐depth study of history has occurred in the late twentieth century in all the professional military education schools. But this is not new; the Naval War College in the years between the world wars analyzed the 1916 Naval Battle of Jutland, while in the 1930s the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, Virginia, studied the failed Gallipoli campaign of 1915—and the analysis contributed to the development of amphibious warfare doctrine.

Historical examples of campaigns and battles have always been used in officer education, with the Civil War a constant, and others studied from the experience of American and foreign armies. Such study ranges from detailed analysis of campaigns and battles to lead‐in examples for contemporary exercises. An extension of this are the “staff rides,” which date from 1906. In these, military personnel visit the sites of battles or campaigns; in the ensuing “staff ride” (originally on horseback), extensive analysis is conducted through discussion and interaction. The U.S. Army pioneered this approach, and the Marine Corps and air force have included such “rides” in their professional educational programs.

All four armed services, plus the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the Department of Defense, have established history offices. These have multiple missions, from recording the history of the services and events in which they have participated to responding to inquiries from the heads of services and their supporting staffs to answering public inquiries and assisting in official and unofficial research. The U.S. Army's Center of Military History is a prime example: it has published works spanning the spectrum from unit lineages to its monumental 78‐volume history of the U.S. Army in World War II. The sister services have similar agencies, and all also have historical museum programs for preservation of artifacts and display for specific service and public education.

The armed forces also established programs for individual education. For example, during the commandancy of Gen. Alfred Gray (1987–1991), the U.S. Marine Corps set up a reading program for all Marines, from privates to generals. Most of this is rooted in history. The list is revised periodically, most recently in 1996. The other services, in various forms, have their own programs; for example, in 1995, students attending the U.S. Air Force's Air Command and Staff College received a reading list, history‐based, of 95 books.

However, a word of caution. Many professionals study history to “learn lessons.” Thucydides, still studied by the military, pioneered this approach in his history of the Peloponnesian War. But there is an inherent temptation here to use the past to prove a point or theory. This dilemma was addressed decades ago, when the Prussian general Paul Bronsart von Schellendorf commented: “It is well known that military history, when superficially studied, will furnish arguments in support of any theory or opinion.”

Another aspect of the study of military history has been the attempt to determine “principles.” A listing of principles of war first appeared in 1921 in a U.S. Army training regulation, and in the ensuing decades has appeared in various forms in FM 100‐5, Military Operations. These still appear in all contemporary doctrinal publications, as well as those promulgating joint doctrine (for example, Joint Pub 1: Joint Warfare of the Armed Forces of the United States, 1995, and Joint Pub 3‐0: Doctrine for Joint Operations, 1995). Too much focus on or adherence to the “principles” of war, however, can be a liability. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant cautioned that “If men make war in slavish obedience to rules, they will fail.”

How can the misuses of history be avoided? Today, within armed forces professional military education institutions, academically educated historians—both civilian and uniformed—are faculty members. Integrated into both course development and teaching, they bring their education, standards, and approaches to the evaluative process. Whether in separate organizations (the Combat Studies Institute at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College), or within academic departments (the Air University and Naval War College), or paired with uniformed colleagues into faculty advisory teams (the Marine Corps Command and Staff College), they help ensure perspective and contribute to the broader training and experience of their students.

The armed forces believe in the value of history. There are three main reasons for this. Conceptually, most problems personnel will face as commanders or staff officers have been confronted by their predecessors in the profession of arms. History provides an opportunity to learn from the experience of others. And a study of history can reveal what succeeded and failed in the past, as well as the reasons why. This military faith in the study of history is expressed in the Marine Corps publication on Warfighting (1997): “The military is a thinking pro fession. Every Marine is expected to be a student of the art and science of war. Officers especially are expected to have a solid foundation in military theory and a knowledge of military history and the timeless lessons to be gained from it.”

The armed forces have faith in the lessons of history. The key is asking the right questions of the past—with the ensuing analysis, interpretation, and conclusions. As Professor Jay Luvaas, formerly of the U.S. Army Way College, has so often counseled professional military officers: “No source can answer an unasked question”; and then the important follow‐on: “Ask not just what, but why.”
[See also Disciplinary Views of War: Military History; Museums, Military History.]


Michael Howard , The Use and Abuse of Military History, Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 107 (February1962); pp. 4–10.
Allan R. Millett , Military Professionalism and Officership in America, 1977.
John E. Jessup and and Robert W. Coakley , A Guide to the Study of Military History, 1979.
William G. Robertson , The Staff Ride, 1987.
Carol Reardon , Soldiers and Scholars: The U.S. Army and the Uses of Military History, 1865–1920, 1990.
Ronald H. Spector , Military History and the Academic World, Army Historian: The Professional Bulletin of Army History, 19 (Summer 1991), pp. 1–7.
David A. Charters, Marc Milner, J. Brent Wilson, eds., Military History and the Military Profession, 1992.
E. H. Simmons , Why You Should Study Military History, Fortitudine: Bulletin of the Marine Corps Historical Program, 25 (Fall 1995), pp. 3–8.
Marvin T. Hopgood, Jr. , “The Professional Reading Program,” with insert “The Commandant's Reading List”, Marine Corps Gazette, 80 (July 1996), p. 44.
U.S. Marine Corps , MCRP 6‐11A. A Book on Books (14 April 1997).

Donald F. Bittner

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