The Relevance of Military History to the Teaching

THE RELEVANCE OF MILITARY HISTORY TO THE TEACHING OF MODERN WARFARE By Captain David B Snodgrass, US Army (Published with the permission of Defence Services Command and Staff College, Mirpur (Dhaka) Bangladesh) Throughout history, modernists have questioned the relevance of military history. With the rapid evolution of technological change in the post-industrial era and the emergence of new missions for military professionals, the question of relevance is more salient than ever.

This study examines the argument that technology and the New World Order may have reduced or obviated the utility of military history. It also examines the historians’ counter-arguments and offers practical guidelines for possible uses of military history in the teaching of modern warfare. INTRODUCTION Statement of the Problem 1. The utility of the study of military history to the military profession is an open question that has been asked for centuries.

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However, the question is even more relevant today with the advent of the nuclear age, the explosion of information technology, and the emergence of new threats (and, therefore, new missions) to the members of the military profession. Many theoreticians believe that the history of warfare will provide no glimpse into the future because of the unprecedented pace of change in the post-Cold War era. On the other hand, there are many who believe that the only way to accurately predict the future is to study the past.

This paper will examine the arguments of both groups. 2. Recently, a retired US Army colonel-cum lobbyist on Capitol Hill lamented that the newest catch phrase in the Pentagon had become ‘thinking outside of the box’. He mused, ironically, that he retired after more than twenty years of service because he couldn’t think ‘inside the box’. What this new catch phrase apparently refers to is an ability to visualize the future of warfare while being able to discard old, seemingly useless paradigms about past wars.

In an environment that rewards military professionals who seek new solutions to new problems, does the study of military history still have utility? If so, how useful is it? 3. This paper will begin with the argument that the study of military history has lost its relevance in the modern era of warfare. It will examine the extent to which modern weapons have made old paradigms and principles obsolete. It will also examine the utility of military history to the military profession as it tackles new problems posed by an increasing number of actors on a chaotic world stage.

These new problems fall outside of the normal definition of war and include non-linear threats such as terrorism, information warfare and international crime. 4. Winston Churchill once stated that military historians could do something that even God can’t do: they can change history. He then equipped that this was the only reason that God tolerated their existence. With this quotation in mind, the paper will also examine the counter-arguments made by military historians that their profession is still relevant to modern and future wars.

Beyond examining these opposing viewpoints, the paper will attempt to fulfil its obligation to offer a way forward. If the argument for relevance holds, then the best uses of history will be explored. Conversely, if the study of military history is deemed to be largely irrelevant, the paper will examine what tools military professionals might use to plan for missions today and in the future. Finally, the paper will offer conclusions based on its research and make recommendations to assist military leaders in determining the uses of military history to the teaching of modern warfare. Aim 5.

The aim of this paper is to determine the relevance of military history to the teaching of modern war fare and to provide military leaders with recommendations for the possible uses of military history in the era of modern warfare. Limitations and Assumptions 6. As stated in the second paragraph of the introduction, the question of the relevance of military history has been around for centuries. To suppose that this paper, by a relative novice, will end the debate is pure folly. This author will not be able to put to rest a debate that Clausewitz and J omini, among others, could not resolve.

Unfortunately, the subjective nature of this paper will be able to present a framework by which the reader can, hopefully, make his own conclusions. The author assumes the readers will have some rudimentary knowledge of the study of military history. However, every attempt will be made to avoid unnecessary military jargon and to make the topic salient to the largest number possible. WAR IN THE FUTURE: ARE OLD LESSONS OBSOLETE? 7. Those who argue against placing emphasis on military history in teaching modern warfare are concerned that old paradigms will be obsolete on the battlefields of the future.

The basis of their argument is that modern technological advances have outpaced conventional thought processes relating to warfare. In other words, those military professionals who are still studying how to win the last war will be overcome by the sweeping tide of technological changes in the next war. 8. Proponents of this view often cite the works of Alvin and Heidi Toffler. The Tofflers argue in ‘Third Wave’ and ‘War and Anti-War’ that revolutionary change in technology creates ‘waves’ of societal change that, in turn, define how wars are fought.

Ryan Henry and Edward C Peartree, writing in ‘Parameters’, the US Army War College quarterly, provide a concise explanation on the implications of this hypothesis: – “Successful pre-industrial war was generally predicated on the seizure of territorial assets, control of them, or both. Successful industrial age war was about reducing the means of production and out-manufacturing one’s opponent – dubbed ‘schlacht material’ by the Germans during World War I. If the analogy holds, the advance guard of Pentagon theorists and defence analysts contend, future war will be waged for control of data, information, and knowledge assets”. . These same theorists would also contend that new force structures and doctrine would be required in the information age. Furthermore, many of them would argue that conceptual models of future warfare and computer war games will have more utility than the study of military history. 10. Just as machine guns, tanks, iron-clad ships and aircraft heralded the ‘second wave’ of industrial age warfare; many believe that precision-guided munitions, or smart bombs, like the ones used in Desert Storm, are heralding in the third wave of information age warfare.

For these theorists, the study of the Persian Gulf War would have some utility, but the World Wars and all that came before would have little or no utility. In other words: Schwarzkopf is in, Hannibal is out. Similarly, Clausewitz will have less utility than Toffler and other prognosticators of future war. 11. While we can question whether or not modern weapons will render past history lessons obsolete, there can be no doubt that they will have a revolutionary effect on how wars are fought.

Battlefield tracking and warning systems such as AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) and JSTARS (Joint Surveillance and Target Radar Systems) will allow commanders to attack targets well beyond the line of sight. The system used by Gulf War commanders to transmit messages could move 2400 bits of information per second. The current system transmits 23 million bits per second into Bosnia. Space-based satellite sensors are capable of providing real time intelligence with resolution up to one metre.

In military parlance, these information systems offer a promise that anything that can be seen can be hit. 12. In addition to technological advances in information warfare, firepower systems are also achieving greater lethality, accuracy, and range than ever before. These technological advances are also taking place at an astonishingly fast pace. Tests at the US Army’s National Training Centre and elsewhere show that digitized platoons are three to five times more lethal than the tank platoons that smashed Iraq’s best forces during the Gulf War.

Systems such as the Tomahawk Cruise Missile can allow technologically advanced forces to deliver precision firepower from platforms remote from conflict areas. The implications of this new technology could be that old paradigms emphasizing numerical superiority and manoeuvre of forces would be replaced by new paradigms emphasizing technological superiority and firepower. 13. The technological advances described in preceding paragraphs have led many observers to believe that what Clausewitz called the ‘fog of war’ can be lifted.

According to one Washington consultant, ‘What the (Military Technical Revolution) promises, more than precision attacks and laser beams, is …..? To imbue the information loop with near– perfect clarity. ’ These new technologies, many believe, will allow the application of military force to be reduced to a science. Military history, by contrast, is a discipline that focuses on warfare primarily as an art, not science. To many in the advance guard of military theory, military history would have almost no relevance in the teaching of modern warfare.

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