The answer as to why we should study history, military history or strategic thinking varies from an intellectual exercise in its own right, through the need to know the story and on to Dominick Graham’s ‘spectrum of categories: entertaining, informative, descriptive, inspirational, critical, educational and prescriptive’.51 If we extend this to encompass the notion of history as an interpretation of the past in which a serious attempt is made to filter out myth and legend, the role of the discipline becomes both more demanding and more necessary. Given mankind’s continuing reliance on the use of force as an instrument of policy, our interest in the past is ever more important. We need to shed the myths, fables and legends, of which military history has more than its fair share, if we are to learn anything from history. Tradition and fable have often matured into the fault lines between nations and between peoples. If we are to have anything approaching a reasonable understanding of the complex situations in which we are increasingly likely to find ourselves, dexterity with the analytical tools provided by the study of history is essential.
In Seeley’s mind, the thing that made history worthwhile as an academic discipline was its status as a source of education for decision-makers and others involved in the public realm. Seeley did much to ensure that the curriculum at Cambridge largely echoed his vision. Of course, while Seeley expressed it in an undoubtedly provocative fashion, his argument had a long lineage, with roots deep in antiquity. The idea that studying the past could help one to navigate the present, and respond to future challenges, was an old idea, one that went back to Thucydides and Polybius…
It is one of the more welcome developments within a troubled modern historical profession that some scholars are fighting to reassert this conception of history. After decades of ever-narrower specialisms and esoteric topics, a growing number of academics have been pushing back and making the case for historians’ engagement with policymakers — or what has been termed “applied history”…
What exactly is it about studying the past that makes history so useful? Thankfully, the answer to that question can be expressed in a single word: imagination….
A historical cast of mind opens up, and fertilizes, one’s imagination. It raises awareness of the primacy of contingency and possibility in human affairs. It underlines the importance of improvisation and outside-the-box thinking. It brings home, painfully, the need to develop a keen sense of limits. It helps us to grasp the consequences of getting decisions wrong. It serves to illuminate pathways through dense forests. And, yes, it offers inspiration from past examples….
Whatever the source, a combat case study will provide most, if not all, of the essential elements of a decision forcing case: a situation in which a leader finds himself, a decision that he makes, and the events that followed the decision. In addition, it will also provide a useful starting point for searches for items that will enhance the presentation of a decision-forcing case, things such as maps, photos, and orders of battle. (These can often be found in unit histories, war diaries, accounts of battles, and chronicles of campaigns.)
“…Yet as the historical discipline (like much of the American academy) became more professionalized, especially after World War II, it also became more specialized and inward-looking. Historical scholarship focused on increasingly arcane subjects; a fascination with innovative methodologies overtook an emphasis on clear, intelligible prose. Academic historians began writing largely for themselves. “Popularizer” — someone who writes for the wider world — became a term of derision within the profession…”
“…The result of these changes is a discipline that feels remarkably parochial to students or anyone outside the ivory tower. As Harvard’s Jill Lepore, the profession’s leading exception to these trends, recently pointed out, “The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.”
The second issue, closely related to the first, is the hostility toward certain kinds of historical inquiry. Decades ago, the subfields of political history, diplomatic history, and military history dominated the discipline. That focus had its costs: Issues of race, gender, and class were often deemphasized, and the perspectives of the powerless were frequently ignored in favor of the perspectives of the powerful. During the 1960s and after, the discipline was therefore swept by new approaches that emphasized cultural, social, and gender history, and that paid greater attention to the experiences of underrepresented and oppressed groups. This was initially a very healthy impulse, meant to broaden the field. Yet what was initially a very healthy impulse to broaden the field ultimately became decidedly unhealthy, because it went so far as to push the more traditional subfields to the margins.
Two historians, Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, have noted that “American political history as a field of study has cratered … What was once a central part of the historical profession, a vital part of this country’s continuing democratic discussion, is disappearing.” Political history, however, is a growth industry compared to diplomatic history and military history. Scholars who study strategy and statecraft, diplomacy and policymaking, and the causes and consequences of war are often labeled as old-fashioned, methodologically unimaginative, and ideologically conservative. As a recent chair of a prominent history department recently explained to us, the discipline of history does not consider exploring and understanding the decisions of state leaders or military officials to be interesting, important, or innovative. Not surprisingly, those who study these subjects are a dying breed within major American history departments…”
“History is not just about which battle took place on what day. On top of what happened, it also seeks to understand why these events unfolded as they did. On top of collecting historical data, it involves explaining the past.
To do so, it investigates why certain deeds had the consequences that they had. And this — the study of the results of different decisions in different contexts— places the study of history in the very center of our daily lives. For, if there is one thing we all have reasons to be interested in, it is why our acts give rise to the sequence of follow-up reactions that they cause.
Understanding the motivations and upshot of human behavior is no easy task…
we need to think about how larger contexts impinge on the impact of behavior.
Doing so will improve our understanding of why things happen as they do, without having to undergo the events ourselves. We gain practical knowledge, ‘for free’.
Studying history, then, helps in acquiring a solid trunk for our knowledge-tree of life…”
The immediate reaction is that if I as an officer can and will only suffer an excursion into the realms of history under the prod of promotion, how can our subordinates be persuaded to indulge? I believe that if we look back after the smoke and fog of the examination battle has cleared we will admit that our studies weren’t really that difficult and in some instances to our amazement our military history texts were fascinating and illuminating. I recall that when I was studying for a set of examinations in Wainwright in 1957 I put off reading Chester Wilmot’s Struggle For Europe time and again because it appeared at a glance to be such heavy going, until I could delay no longer Military History was to be written the next day. I forced myself page by page into the maze until suddenly I was caught up by the spirit and enthusiasm of the author. I read all night, completely fascinated, berating myself for having neglected such a magnificent treatise for so long. I suspect that the reluctance I did played in my studies is not uncommon. It was probably built up over the years by listening to unhappy examination aspirants and by reading a few obtuse texts on compulsory reading programmes. This reluctance to pursue the study of military history is understandable but will not bear up under exposure to the enlightened reading list available to any of us today.
“A gap has opened between the study of history and the construction of theory, both of which are needed if ends are to be aligned with means. Historians, knowing that their field rewards specialized research, tend to avoid the generalizations upon which theories depend: they thereby deny complexity the simplicities that guide us through it. Theorists, keen to be seen as social “scientists,” seek “reproducibility” in results: that replaces complexity with simplicity in the pursuit of predictability. Both communities neglect relationships between the general and the particular—between universal and local knowledge—that nurture strategic thinking. And both, as if to add opacity to this insufficiency, too often write badly.”