The conduct of war is a complicated and difficult affair. It requires the total attention of the practitioner as the enduring characteristics of warfare—chance, friction, danger and uncertainty—work against soldiers trying to achieve the desired end state.
To increase performance in these conditions, the modern soldier gains experience through training and limited time on operations. But as Sir Basil Liddell Hart, a British military historian and strategist, stated, the military professional is restricted in learning because “direct experience is inherently too limited to form an adequate foundation either for theory or application.”
While there are some who have broken this mold, for most soldiers, Hart’s statement rings true. The study of military history therefore must inform the long-term development of soldiers to provide a universal experience and improve performance. In this way, military history supports soldiers in understanding context, past successes and failures, and the causation and/or correlation between actions. The long-term development of a soldier must include the study of military history, as it provides a ready reckoner for soldiers that informs their decisions, actions and future intent.
Context to Actions
The study of military history supports the soldier by providing context to the actions they are asked to perform. Without understanding the history of recent or bygone events, the responsiveness of soldiers is delayed. For example, a young officer at the start of the 19th century might be confused as to why professional education in military academies was needed before they served as a commander or staff officer.
However, the establishment of the British Royal Military College in 1802 and academies in France at St. Cyr in 1808, in Berlin at the Kriegsakademie in 1810 and in Russia at the Imperial Military Academy in 1832, enabled these students to understand the profound effects of the French Revolution upon the social, political and economic dimensions of their societies and their impacts on warfare.
In this way, the study of history supports a soldier in understanding the “why” of their actions. Once soldiers understand the “why,” it then becomes important to know what actions have succeeded or failed in the past.
Past success and failures are critical elements in the study of military history. They directly influence actions of soldiers. As these professionals devote years to studying military history, they should build a repository of actions that have worked, or failed, in the past and the contexts in which they operated.
Sometimes, the study of past successes and failures has differing outcomes. Given the Allied success in World War I, the British and French only established one commission each to understand their victory. In contrast, the Germans established no less than 57 commissions to understand their failures. The difference in the study of military history had significant implications for the long-term development of these nations’ respective troops.
The deep-rooted desire to learn from past failures, and their military history, contributed to the German ability to execute a series of victories in the first years of World War II. The studies, however, failed to resolve the culturally accepted civil and military divide in the generation of coherent national strategy—a critical oversight. While the study of military history can contribute to battlefield success and strategy development, soldiers also must be able to distinguish between causation and correlation.
As soldiers learn military history, it is important for them to understand the concepts of causation and correlation. Here, causation means that action “A” will produce result “B.” In contrast, correlation means that a relationship exists with no outcome guaranteed.
This is important, as professionals with a poor understanding of military history might assume that conducting a surprise attack ensures victory. The failed German surprise offensive in Belgium in the winter of 1944—the Battle of the Bulge—proves this point. In military terms, an example of causation could be that denying the enemy of logistical sustainment will reduce their operational reach and increase the likelihood of culmination. This specific type of causation was evident in World War II and led to withdrawal of the German Afrika Korps from Northern Africa. People can also misinterpret military history and derive causation effects where, in fact, there is only correlation.
Commentators have made reference to the low intellectual standards required of officers in the British army during the 19th century, according to Norman Dixon in his 1976 book, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. Soldiers void of long-term development in military history might assume this intellectual deficiency caused poor battlefield performance. While there is a correlating relationship between poor intelligence and the likelihood to make poor decisions, this does not guarantee a specific outcome.
The British battlefield performance between 1807 and 1815 during the Peninsula Campaign and Battle of Waterloo is testament to this. The long-term study of military history allows soldiers to draw appropriate conclusions based on the concepts of correlation or causation.
Providing the ‘Why’
Soldiers get few opportunities to practice their profession. They require a universal experience that makes up for these few opportunities and increases their overall performance. The study of military history provides context regarding “why” actions are being pursued, provides an understanding of what military commanders have succeeded and failed at previously, and provides knowledge to enable the delineation between causation and correlating events.
Therefore, the long-term development of a soldier must include the study of military history, as it provides a ready reckoner for soldiers that informs their decisions, actions and future intent. Soldiers must open the pages of history, begin learning, keep learning and encourage learning in others.
Maj. McLeod Wood, Australian Army, is an armor officer studying at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He has served in multiple battalion and brigade positions across the Australian Army’s combat brigades. He has deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. He holds a master’s degree in project management and an MBA, both from the University of New South Wales, Australia.