This paper was edited for a US audience and published in the April 2022 edition of the Association of the United States Army Magazine. It was published under the title ‘Studying History Improves Soldiers’ War Performance’.
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 them achieving their desired end-state. To increase performance in these conditions, the modern military professional gains experience through training and limited time on operations. But as Sir B.H. Liddell Hart states, the military professional is restricted in learning as ‘...direct experience is inherently too limited to form an adequate foundation either for theory or application.’ Whilst there are some who have broken this mould, for most military professionals, Hart’s statement rings true.
The study of military history must therefore inform the long-term development of the military professional to provide a universal experience and to improve performance. In this way, military history supports professionals in understanding context, past successes and failures, and the causation and/or correlation between actions. The long-term development of a military professional must include the study of military history as it provides a ready reckoner for military professionals that informs their decisions, actions, and future intent.
The study of military history supports the military professional by providing context to the actions they are being asked to perform. Without understanding the history of recent or bygone events, the responsiveness of military professionals 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 commanders or as staff officers. However, the establishment of the British Royal Military College in 1802, 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 military professional in understanding the ‘why’ of their actions. Once military professionals 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 military professionals. 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 WW1, 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 military professionals. The deep-rooted desire to learn from past failures, and their military history, contributed to the German ability to execute a series of stunning victories in the first years of World War II. The studies however, failed to resolve the culturally accepted civil & 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, military professionals must also be able to distinguish between causation and correlation.
As military professionals 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 just 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 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 the withdrawal of the Afrika Korps from Northern Africa.
People can also mis-interpret 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 are testament to this. The long-term study of military history allows military professionals to draw the appropriate conclusions based on the concepts of correlation or causation.
Military professionals get few opportunities to practice their profession. They require a universal experience that makes up for these few opportunities and to increase their overall performance. The study of military history provides context regarding ‘why’ actions are being pursued, it provides an understanding of what military commanders have succeeded and failed at previously, and it provides knowledge to enable the delineation between causation and correlating events. Therefore, the long-term development of a military professional must include the study of military history as it provides a ready reckoner for military professionals that informs their decisions, actions, and future intent. Military professionals must open the pages of history, begin learning, keep learning, and encourage learning in others.
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