Military History and the Study of Operational Art

By Vego, Milan | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Military History and the Study of Operational Art


Vego, Milan, Joint Force Quarterly


Wage war offensively, like Alexander [the Great], Hannibal, Caesar, Gustav Adolphus, Turenne, Prince Eugene and Frederick [the Great]; read and re-read the history of their campaigns; model yourself on them; it is the only way to become a Great Captain and to master the secrets of the art.

--Napoleon I

One of the key prerequisites for applying operational art is full knowledge and understanding of its theory, and theory cannot be properly developed without mastery of military history. The great military commanders were, almost without exception, avid readers of history. Because the opportunities to acquire direct experience in combat are few for any commander, the only sources of such knowledge and understanding are indirect, and military history is the most important source of such experience.

The Problem

The education of operational commanders should start early in their careers. The U.S. Service academies and colleges can and should provide a solid foundation of military history. However, far more important is self-education of the future operational commanders through the study of both general and military history throughout their professional careers. In general, inattention to the history of warfare is perhaps the greatest weakness in the education of U.S. officers. History is largely treated as a marginal embellishment instead of a core of military education. (1) One of the major problems in teaching operational art is generally poor to almost nonexistent knowledge of wars conducted in the modern era, not to say of those conducted in the ancient and medieval eras. This cannot help but have highly negative consequences on the ability of future flag officers and their staffs to exercise their duties in times of war and peace.

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Too many officers have an aversion to military history, a problem made worse over the past 20 years by several factors. Not only the leading proponents of information technologies but also their many uncritical followers firmly believe that military history cannot provide any valuable lesson for today or the future. Despite all the experiences of previous generations, military history is considered essentially irrelevant in the information era. Historical examples are sometimes willfully distorted and even intentionally falsified to prove preconceived notions on the importance of advanced technologies in the conduct of war.

What Is Military History?

All too often, history is considered the exclusive preserve of professional historians. Yet it is inherently broader, deeper, and more diverse than the study of any other area of human activity. (2) It encompasses every aspect of the experience of humanity, (3) and it tends to broaden the vision and deepen the insights of its readers. Events are seen as part of a much broader framework filled out with complex and dynamic interrelationships of social forces, individuals, location, and timing. (4) B.H. Liddell Hart, for instance, wrote that history is:

the record of man's steps and slips; it shows us that the steps were slow and slight; the slips, quick and abounding. It provides us with the opportunity to profit by the stumbles and tumbles of our forerunners. An awareness of limitations should make us chary of condemning those who made mistakes, but we condemn ourselves if we fail to recognize mistakes.

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History serves as a foundation of education because it shows how mankind repeats its errors and what those errors are. French historian Marc Leopold Benjamin Bloch (1886-1944) observed that history is, in its essence, the science of change. History teaches that it is impossible ever to find two events that are exactly alike because the conditions from which events spring are never identical. (5)

The true purpose of history is to describe the truth. However, a pure truth is never unalloyed. History can only provide objective truth as closely as possible. …

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