Academic journal article Parameters

Learning from the Past, Looking to the Future

Academic journal article Parameters

Learning from the Past, Looking to the Future

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article offers a framework to aid uniformed strategic leaders in reflecting on the last decade of conflict. This framework takes into account emerging historiography, time-tested military theory, and a holistic understanding of military history to help prepare officers to offer strategic advice in the future.


As the black flags of the Islamic State appear in more and more places in Iraq, a new generation of officers will likely reflect on what has and has not been accomplished, and what is and is not possible through the force of arms. Conclusions about the recent era of conflict will affect US officers as they ascend to higher ranks and provide the best military advice they can to the nation's civilian leadership. These future senior leaders should not allow emotion to affect their introspection. (1) Future senior leaders must place their past service in a context that takes into account emerging historiography, time-tested military theory, and a holistic understanding of military history, as this foundation will allow them to provide better strategic advice.

This article explores emerging historiography before revisiting just a few of the military theorists who continue to transcend time. It will then offer a brief overview of American military history by examining the popular outliers in the conscience of military professionals before turning to what the US military has done more often. Penultimately, it offers recommendations for how senior military leaders should approach historiography as they consider the future, and how a grounding in theory benefits them in the politically dominated realm of strategy. Last, this article suggests how to use historical context when providing advice and "speaking truth to power," even when the message is not popular. As it has in the past, the US military will have to execute campaigns that lack strategic clarity or coherent policy objectives. Some campaigns will be, in the words of Andrew Bacevich, "fool's errands." (2) However, armed with an inclusive view of the past, not just the highlight reel, future strategic leaders may be better able to fulfill their roles.


Historiography matters because it shapes approaches used at professional military education (PME) institutions. Iconography and personal views present intellectual minefields students and faculty must navigate with civility even when dealing with interpretations of the increasingly distant American Civil War. At one time, a walk through the halls of the US Army War College could have caused one to wonder who won the war, or how the profession has chosen to remember its past. Military professionals might have to work harder to distill the lessons of emerging narratives seeking to explain the less than decisive outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, events in which many of them participated. (3) Easily digested Manichean explanations for enormously complicated issues deserve attention only in helping to define the extreme boundaries of the entire field. (4) How the profession remembers the last decade of conflict will likely influence the way it approaches the use of force in the future. (5) Remembering the past can be painful and complicated, as the Civil War illustrates, thus reminding the profession of the care it should take in capturing and interpreting various perspectives of recent events.


Gian Gentile and Douglas Porch each used historical analysis of a variety of campaigns to reach the same conclusion: counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine rarely works, especially in the context of carrying out tasks related to nation-building for a third party. To their credit, both authors offered these perspectives before the recent emergence of ISIL. Although there seems to be little stomach for another COIN campaign, Gentile, to be certain, offers his critique for the good of the profession. His overarching fear stems from the belief the nation might try a similar venture again should it follow Field Marshal Montgomery's dictum that armed with a good plan (as prescribed by doctrine) and the right general, anything is possible. …

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