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How Should History Inform the Life-Long Education of a Military Professional?

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How Should History Inform the Life-Long Education of a Military Professional?

John Q. Bolton

History is profoundly important to the Military Professional. Encompassing a wide spectrum of military campaigns, political-military interaction, and technological developments, history is the lifeblood of Professional Military Education. History informs an officer’s life-long education by fostering a love of learning, providing context, and creating an understanding of the long-term trends in military affairs. Armed with a thorough education in history, Military Professionals are poised to operate in a variety of capacities and environments.

A well-developed comprehension of history helps address perhaps the most troubling aspect of modern military history teaching, an insistence on practicality. Officers trend toward the practically minded; they seek tools that solve problems. However, history seldom offers direct correlations or specific, packaged solutions for the problems of today. Furthermore, once we encounter problems, it is too late to seek a historical solution. There is no book of answers leaders can simply open for an answer. Rather, history offers lessons that, if properly understood within context, elucidate continuous themes. As opposed to practical, set-piece solutions, history creates options in the mind of Military Professionals, fostering adaptability through broadening.

More importantly, a broad historical background teaches officers the value of general education and critical thinking. There are abundant, varied historical examples of well-learned Military Leaders successfully utilizing history. Just as importantly, the failure of commanders who lacked historical understanding of their environment should provide all the necessary motivation. As J.F.C. Fuller pointed out, “Until you learn how to teach yourselves, you will never be taught by others.”[i] History provides the vehicle for this education.

A love of learning is a tenet of the Classical Tradition. Though considered esoteric today, the Classics were the foundation of education during the Enlightenment through the early 20th century. Officers familiar with the Classical Tradition possess the skills of reason, logic, and rhetoric. Just as importantly, the Classics provide a thorough understanding of the central tenets of Western Civilization, namely individual liberty, secular humanism, and rationalism. The Classics prescribe knowledge of Roman Military History as well. From a military perspective, the problems faced by Caesar, Scipio, and Hannibal are still applicable today when viewed through the lens of history and combined with an appreciation of context. Together these elements comprise the foundations of strategic thought and strategy.

History, therefore, provides context for what an officer sees and experiences. This is perhaps the most important aspect a thorough education in military history engenders. Understanding the historical milieu of the Operational Environment gives Military Professionals an ability to weigh contemporary actions, plans, frameworks against the backdrop of cultural, geographical, and political factors. History provides maturity through self-aging, allowing a person to be ‘old in mind.’[ii] Too often, Military Leaders expend effort re-learning what history teaches with a minimum of effort, unacceptably wasting time, money, and lives. T.E. Lawrence illustrated this futility, “With 2000 years of examples behind us we have no excuse, when fighting, for not fighting well…”[iii] If Military Professionals can conducting self-aging, they create a force-multiplying maturity that informs plans and influences decisions to great effect.

History is the first step toward a learning institution that continually improves, not just from contemporary mistakes, but also from an understanding of historical trends. Perspective helps military institutions develop doctrine. Too often institutions, seeking practical examples to justify doctrine, use history to serve their own ends.[iv] As John Boyd pronounced, “You’ve got to challenge assumptions. Otherwise, what is doctrine one day becomes dogma forever.”[v] If the institution’s leaders are not familiar with the reality and context of an event, the example becomes a distortion. Less understanding results in greater bias and lessens the ability to identify the error. True professionalism involves not merely citing examples of our righteousness, but a thorough examination of the institution’s strengths and weakness.

Great commanders of the past knew how to leverage historical perspective into the framework of current operations. Napoleon’s analysis of Frederick’s Austrian Campaigns before Austerlitz or Patton reading the Norman History of Sicily in 1943 serve as two excellent instances of ‘self-aging’ commanders.[vi] These are just two of the many examples that provide the most obvious rationale for the study of history. More importantly, however, great commanders of the past demonstrate the usefulness of history. It is not a one for one exchange of lessons or tactics, but an acknowledgement of the environments, problems, frictions, leaders, and men. Many things change, but much more stays the same for the military commander; history elucidates the continuities.

The continuity of long-term trends in military affairs is obvious to the historical-minded Military Professional. This understanding is essential when reality fails to match expectations. For example, the disorder in Iraq following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein surprised American Leaders, but would have been no surprise to those familiar with the failure of Caesars’ assassins, who assumed governance would spontaneously recover. Moreover, when the situation rapidly changes from our plans or information is incomplete, a commander with history at his side will understand that, regardless of technology, a complete understanding is never possible. Incorporating a variety of foundations ranging from Physics, Psychology, and Thermodynamics, John Boyd hypothesized that we can never truly understand a system or event.[vii] We should consider that, even in an age of profound technological awareness, all attempts to manipulate a complex system invariably upset it in ways we may not r foresee. This inevitably causes frustration as we fail to understand despite efforts to do so.[viii]

Military operations are never as simple as a map illustrated with icons and corresponding graphics would have us believe. War is a profoundly human endeavor, complicated and uncertain. History illustrates a consistent theme of a pervasive fog, rife with uncertainty, misperception, and conflicting reports; history tells us there are always multiple truths. The key, according to Napoleon, is for a commander to distil the ‘true truths’ by filtering what is relevant amid the chaos.[ix] A commander armed with history understands that technology, no matter how advanced, cannot dissipate the Fog of War. We may mitigate confusion, but we cannot dissipate it entirely. Efforts to understand, without an evaluation of our own biases and limits, will merely create more confusion.[x] Furthermore, history tells us that understanding ourselves is just as important as understanding the enemy.

History remains of the utmost importance to the Military Professional. History provides the context so critical to officers facing ambiguity and uncertainty. By fostering a love of learning, history arms the officer for a career of education, so that he may grow in his profession. To deal with challenges and uncertainty Military Professionals must already have already inculcated history to act at the decisive point; the education cannot wait until the moment of need.

End Notes

 [i]Matthew L. Smith, LTC (P) US Army, J.F.C. Fuller: His Methods, Insights, and Vision (Carlisle Barracks, PA: US Army War College, 1999), 2.

[ii] Liddell Hart, Why Don't We Learn from History, (1972; repr., York, PA: 2012), 7-8.

[iii] Robert B. Asprey, War in the Shadows; the Guerrilla in History, 1st ed., 2 vols. (Garden City, N.Y.,: Doubleday, 1975).

[iv]Jay Luvaas, "Military History: Is It Still Practicable?," Parameters 12, (March 1982): 1.

[v] Robert Coram, Boyd : The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, 1st ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 2002), 189.

[vi] Luvaas: 1.

[vii] John Boyd, "Strategic Game Of ? And ?," ed. Chet Richards and Chuck Spinney (Washington, D.C.: Defense and the National Interest, 1989), Slide 23-26.

[viii] Dietrich Dörner, The Logic of Failure : Why Things Go Wrong and What We Can Do to Make Them Right, 1st American ed. (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1996).

[ix] Napoleon, The Mind of Napoleon; a Selection from His Written and Spoken Words (New York,: Columbia University Press, 1955), 50.

[x] Boyd, Slide 26.


About the Author(s)

John Q. Bolton is the Brigade Aviation Officer for 4/25 IBCT (ABN). He is a graduate of the Command and General Staff College’s Art of War Scholars Program and holds degrees from West Point and American Military University. His assignments include 1st Engineer Battalion and 1-1 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The views presented here are his alone and not representative of the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.


Move Forward

Sun, 09/06/2015 - 7:34pm

<blockquote>A well-developed comprehension of history helps address perhaps the most troubling aspect of modern military history teaching, an insistence on practicality. Officers trend toward the practically minded; they seek tools that solve problems. However, history seldom offers direct correlations or specific, packaged solutions for the problems of today. Furthermore, once we encounter problems, it is too late to seek a historical solution.</blockquote>

Not sure I agree with this observation. Lessons learned from recent conflict are an important aspect of history. Training also can be enhanced by using recent battles to examine flaws and successes. Study of tools that solve military problems is not problematic or controversial. In addition, the old saying that military leaders want to fight the last war often is inaccurate. It frequently reflects lack of money to resource new tools as opposed to minor modifications of past tools. Budgets and external factors like think tanks seem an increasing driver of both <strong>effective and marginally essential</strong> military tools. Perceived less costly shortcuts like airpower and SOF/SF also are driven by budgets rather than military history. A2/AD exaggeration and its emphasis on targeting is another misdirection that improperly diverts budgets from practicality. After all, targets generally do not cooperate by remaining still, obvious, and far from civilians.

Civil leader failure to listen to the practical history-based advice of military leaders also can lead to problems. Historical problems of WWII appeasement and Jewish genocide seem unlearned by our President and NSC in Ukraine and Iraq-Syria. Neither has the historical peace created by a long-term ground presence in Germany and Korea been learned by isolationists who would withdraw ground forward presence. If General Shinseki tells the SASC in 2003 that several hundred thousand troops would be required (based on his experience in Balkans) to stabilize Iraq and Paul Wolfowitz publically contradicts him, who better understood practical aspects of history and who ultimately pushed the under-resourced decision? The tables somewhat were turned when trying to decide on the Surge and General Casey resisted it while President Bush went ahead with it (based on other former and current General advice) and ultimately proved correct.

Later, Donald Rumsfeld made the practical observation that you go to war with the Army you have, not the one you might want or wish to have at a later time. Unmentioned was how that reflected a prior century in which after five major wars, Army budgets and force structure size were reduced substantially leading to inadequate readiness for the next war. Thus, military leaders faced the practical challenge of rapidly building up a too-small Army. This resulted in having to ask Soldiers to bear the brunt of multiple year-long, dangerous, and grueling combat deployments. In addition, historical under-resourcing meant, for instance, that the light-skinned HMMWV was all the Army could afford which would prove inadequate for past lessons of mines and booby-traps. Thus when OIF and OEF were fought we ended up spending excessively in a short timeframe to first up-armor HMMWVs, and then buy multiple types of MRAPs. However, practical lessons of recent history at least now will evolve into the “specific, package solution” of the lighter, more mobile and deployable JLTV.

Airpower is a practical solution that Army Aviator CPT Bolton must recognize as something unique in military history. As it evolved since WWI, it has made the massing of ground and sea forces increasingly more hazardous. Unique aspects of vertical lift aviation also have evolved since Korea as one component that makes ground-massing dangerous for adversaries and rapid for our infantry. Combatants responded with air-to-air and air defenses that also are new to history. However, the rapid advances of the last century and today meant that we cannot look to Boyd’s visual range air-to-air as the exclusive aspect of air combat. The inadequacies of the Vietnam Sparrow radar missile cannot be compared to our evolving AIM-120 fired from beyond the range that adversary fighters can see our F-22/F-35. The AIM-9X all-aspect Sidewinder also has far greater capabilities than original Vietnam-era Sidewinders.

The great cost of today’s fighter aircraft in contrast to costs of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and F-15/F-16 mean that most adversaries no longer can afford competitive aircraft for air-to-air against the U.S. and allied 5th generation fighters. Witness the lack of current aces with five air combat kills, but do not exclude that possibility. Ignoring that an A-10 or T-X variant might need to dog-fight with an Su-27/30/35 let alone the coming T-50 or J-20/31 is not wise. Other newer fourth generation aircraft possibly can win such visual-range battles but also may never see the threat aircraft or air defense system that fired radar missiles from afar.

Rapid advances in air and missile defenses also mean historical lessons of Vietnam, the 1973 Yom Kippur war SA-6, the 1982 Syrian Bekaa Valley, Stinger missiles in Afghanistan, Desert Storm, 1999 Serbia, and 2003 OIF, all indicate a need to evolve beyond 4th generation fighters to include the A-10. For those old enough to remember, compare the car of the 1960s to what you drive today and translate that to military advances. We see multiple instances of deployed flares in the SWJ-posted A-10 video to defeat potential shoulder-fired air defenses. Such IR missiles will continue to advance, but so too will radar air defenses.

As illustrated by Georgia and Ukraine and a variety of Russian, Chinese, and European/U.S. radar air defenses, non-stealthy fixed wing aircraft flying 300 knots, or even relatively low at near supersonic speeds over the ground/sea will not survive with a large radar signature. A-10 cockpits meant to withstand 23mm air defense guns now face larger calibers. Terrain masking and adequate stand-off cannot be achieved at low fixed-wing altitudes against enemy radars. Thus, recent history tells us airpower must evolve to 5th generation fighter jets (and faster, longer-range future vertical lift) that can exploit stand-off, jamming and countermeasures, and masking terrain or medium altitude close to threats. That is a lesson that no amount of ancient history can teach us.

<blockquote>History is the first step toward a learning institution that continually improves, not just from contemporary mistakes, but also from an understanding of historical trends. Perspective helps military institutions develop doctrine. Too often institutions, seeking practical examples to justify doctrine, use history to serve their own ends…….If the institution’s leaders are not familiar with the reality and context of an event, the example becomes a distortion. Less understanding results in greater bias and lessens the ability to identify the error.</blockquote>

Yeah, but it often seems historians are too eager to compare the “reality and context” of COIN in forested small El Salvador to a different COIN inherent in the much larger area and population of Iraq and Afghanistan. The context of a primarily Christian Philippines or Columbia differs from that of Iraq and Syria where Christians, Kurds, Alawites, and other sects are a small minority and the larger Sunni-Shiite divide is a primary issue. The motivations of communism also differ from those of Islamic extremists or even mainstream Sunnis and Shiite Muslims. The context of stability operations and peacekeeping also revolves around land forces because the people we want to influence and safeguard live on land. The Navy and USAF often are too far off shore or too high in the air to exert much influence beyond targeting. Adversaries learn to hug civilians to preclude such targeting and create exploitable propaganda when civilians die.

Such propaganda spread on the internet, via cell phone, and within a 24-hour news cycle now mean bad news spreads farther and faster than in the past. Cyber, GPS navigation, computerization, space/air/terrestrial sensors, and electronic mission command and information dissemination are new battlefield tools without historical precedent. We also see a historical trend toward smaller conflicts with fewer casualties on both sides than in wars of past. What unfortunately was acceptable in casualties during the Civil War, WWI, and WWII evolved into a Cold War environment where fear of MAD led to proxy wars of Korea and Vietnam with fewer but high casualties, to today’s Desert Storm/OIF/OEF and Israeli wars where casualties are much smaller. Our precision munitions, superior armor, and fire superiority lead to more insurgents and less enemy massing to include embedding amongst civilians in urban areas to make targeting difficult.

This trend of harder-to-find individual plinking vs. massed targeting varies dependent on the service involved. The experiences and casualties of Soldiers/Marines/Sailors/Airmen differ today from WWII. Back then there was a near equal possibility of air, sea, or land casualties and massing by both opponents was far more likely on all domains. Today, Soldiers/Marines are the primary leaders writing letters to lost loved ones, and massing by both friend and foe exists primarily on the ground.

However, the author is correct that even recent 20th century history can lead to less understanding and greater bias. Airpower has only recent history to examine so it is tempting to look back to times where thousands of planes were essential driven by low-accuracy gravity bombs and gun-only air-to-air. Past WWII naval battles such as Midway can distort Sailor leader thinking causing them to envision such future sea battles with China. Recent history also can lead to distortion as an Army Aviator or MV-22 pilot may think they can fly high anywhere on any future battlefield. They may forget that wires, towers, and trees exist at low level in many theaters and night-flying requires an aircraft capable of 250 knots to slow way down to fly underneath air defenses.

Ukraine illustrates that armor is not going away, nor is massed artillery used against massed troops. Armor Soldiers may think a tank is the best tool for defeating other tanks despite the reality of anti-armor missiles fired by infantry or aircraft. Triumphs of past Airborne troops and Marines can cause leaders to downplay threats to current drop zones and beachheads. Affordability of simple WWII era aircraft, moving on to costlier Korea and Vietnam jets, then later more complex Cold War F-15s/F-16s/F/A-18s, and today’s stealth aircraft indicate that <strong>neither foes nor our services</strong> can afford the numbers of aircraft once flown.

Likewise, today's ships cost more and no threat nations have large blue water Navies except our own. Nevertheless, WWII historical naval battles and the lore of past naval battles make it too prevalent to use history and concepts like the global commons to justify large Navies. History also distorts arguments about surface, submarine, and carrier assets dependent on which the Sailor served in and studied. Yet Sailors forget the thousands of ships sunk in WWII compared to the only tens of ships sunk by all nations in the seventy years since then. The lure of returning to past historical numbers of ships and aircraft often leads to arguments to rob “Peter” on the land to fund “Paul” on the air and sea.

Air and Sea systems also invariably cost the DoD substantially more, but appear at first glance to cost less than massed ground forces. When recent wars were fought well inland far from the U.S. to secure large areas and populations, it distorted the cost of deploying and sustaining land forces. “Build” aspects also inflated costs. Somehow, I suspect that the true $400 per gallon cost of air deploying, aerial refueling, and getting jet fuel into theater were a substantial part of annual $100 billion war costs. After all, we massed ground forces in Europe and Korea for decades at acceptable costs ensuring successful deterrence. In current and future expeditionary operations, if the ground force is too small, it may prolong timeframes required to stabilize and transition, thus making ground force costs a self-fulfilling prophecy.

<blockquote>As John Boyd pronounced, “You’ve got to challenge assumptions. Otherwise, what is doctrine one day becomes dogma forever.”</blockquote>

What about DImE assumptions? Why do we cling to Westphalian concepts of border infallibility despite the historical colonial errors in border-drawing, often purposely dividing like peoples (AfPak Pashtuns) or combining conflicting ethnicities or religions (AfPak, Iraq, Syria)? Sanctions often work, but also can create conflict or justification for nationalistic wars. Witness oil sanctions on Japan in WWII. See Putin’s intransience in Ukraine. Examine Iran’s push to create nuclear weapons which caused us to barter away sanction.

If we attempt to avoid ground decisive operations entirely, hope becomes our sole plan. Recall the failure to exploit gains following Desert Storm and lack of no-fly zone decisive results that added many hours to our airframes. Remember our premature complete withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. Witness the chaos of Libya and Yemen. Watch TV to see the huge refugee crisis, use of chemical weapons, ISIL atrocities, and barrel-bombing genocide caused by only degrading ISIL, ignoring Assad, and providing inadequate support for the Kurds. Note no reluctance of Iran and Russia to exert influence and forces. Look at Ukraine.

At some point whether caused by another 9/11, rogue use of WMD, an attack on NATO, or PLA attempts to invade and hug Taiwan civilians, we will be forced to return massed ground forces to their historic relevance. COPs and FOBs are not unique to current wars, particularly if trying to train host nations to take them over after we leave. IEDs are not going away. Collateral damage will never again return to its past irrelevance that permitted carpet bombing of cities and indiscriminate use of artillery.

Short wars with clear cut outcomes are a historical anachronism today, particularly if bombing alone was the primary tool employed. Undeniably, we continue to see large Chinese and Russian armies, yet even smaller adversary nations like Iran and North Korea have large armies. It is questionable given the risk of nuclear escalation that any President would embrace deep air and missile attacks of a nuclear China and Russia, and such attacks are unnecessary if we concentrate primarily on ground defenses, CAS/Close Combat Attack, and distant blockades. In contrast, the <strong>quantity if not quality</strong> of threat air and sea weapons is far more limited today than historically evident so a large Navy and USAF force structure is less essential than past histories would indicate.