A Student of History

August 2, 2006

Why Military History Matters

Filed under: The Academy,Wars — John Maass @ 3:40 am

As I learned from Mark Grimsley’s blog, Fred Kagan has an article (here) entitled “Why Military History Matters,” at the American Enterprise Institute’s site, from June.  The field of military history seems prone to this sort of article, and many have appeared over the past few decades. This one I found to be quite “on”.  One of his first paragraph’s lays out his thinking:

The citizens of a democracy must have a basic understanding of the issues confronting their state in order to choose their leaders wisely. Those leaders must have a much more sophisticated understanding in order to choose and execute their policies well. This fact is nowhere more important than in the realm of warfare, in which the lives of soldiers and civilians–friendly, enemy, and neutral alike–hang on almost every decision. Civilian control of the military, moreover, rests on the ability of civilian leaders and the electorate to understand the military issues before them. It is easy for military officers to rely on tortuous, acronym-laden PowerPoint presentations to obscure matters if their civilian masters do not speak their language. It is also easy for anyone with a vision and the ability to mine history for pseudo-examples thereby to persuade those who might know better, if only they were armed with a better understanding of the past. It is becoming commonplace to argue that the United States cannot succeed in the long war against terrorism without developing a cadre of people who speak the languages and understand the cultures. It is even more important to develop leaders and voters who understand war.

This speaks volumes about the need for more military historians or increased utilization of those we do have, or both (I am not sure which.)  Nevertheless, his call for a polity “armed with a better understanding of the past” is a great one, regarding military history and other historical fields as well.  Much of what I read (on line, it seems) that is called history by its authors is rather polemical partisan politics, given a thin veneer of “history” to make the disingenuous arguements appear to have some validity.  One may see a particularly egregious example here, though it is not within the realm of military history.  Another is here.

The article’s conclusion:

There are many reasons for the relatively poor position of the field of military history today. It is not important to assign blame or even to study the causes of the problem closely. What matters is to recognize that fixing the problem is an urgent national security priority and should be important to those interested in the welfare of the nation on both sides of the aisle. Those–like President Bush–who believe that military operations play a critical role in the current struggle should easily see the importance of this study. Those–like many of his opponents–who would prefer a reduced role for the military, should also support the study and teaching of war as the best way to prepare a future generation of leaders to be able to exercise civilian control of the military. This problem should not be a partisan issue or even an ideological one. Solving it is simply an essential precondition to maintaining a healthy democratic process in a time of danger and conflict.

Kagan, a Yale Ph.D., is a military historian who has taught at West Point, & specializes in defense issues and the American military. In particular he studies defense transformation, the defense budget, and defense strategy and warfare. He has also written about Russian and European military history.

Resident Scholar Frederick W. Kagan  


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