Today's Military History-Past Imperfect

By Carafano, James Jay | Army, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Today's Military History-Past Imperfect


Carafano, James Jay, Army


Today's Military History-Past Imperfect The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession. Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich, eds. Cambridge University Press. 287 pages; index; $23.99.

Military history is a discipline under siege. The military hardly has time for it any more. Civilian universities generally view the study of warfare with disdain, believing that if we studied wars less there would be fewer of them. Publishers prefer pop war books that entertain and sell briskly over serious scholarship.

Williamson Murray, a popular and prolific historian and teacher, and Richard Sinnreich, a retired artillery officer and now a highly regarded columnist, have launched a modest counteroffensive, editing The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Militant Profession. A collection of 14 essays derived from a series of AngloAmerican conferences held in 2003, the book covers the practice and relevance of history as well as a variety of case studies. The Past as Prologue offers a sampling of the best modern practitioners of the craft have to offer.

It is hard to imagine a better one-stop shop for catching up on contemporary military thought than this book. In a lengthy overview, Murray and Sinnreich argue that today senior policy-makers and military officers underestimate the value of history in decision making. At the same time, they consider what makes the study of history so difficult and challenging. That is followed by a published lecture by Michael Howard, considered by many as the father of modern military history. Howard's importance to the subject is reflected in the numerous times his seminal 1961 essay "The Use and Abuse of Military History" (reprinted in the March 1981 edition of the Army War College's journal Parameters) is referenced by other contributors to the book.

The following chapters offer essays by Murray, Sinnreich and Generals Paul Van Riper and John Kiszely on the influence of historical writing and teaching. Van Riper's is particularly insightful. A retired Marine officer who has played a prominent role in the debate over the transformation of today's military, he offers a catalogue of the books he read through his career, when he read them and the impact they had on his thinking about the nature and practice of war.

The remaining chapters in the book offer case studies in military history. Historian Paul Rahe analyzes the writing of Thucydides, the chronicler of the Peloponnesian Wars and one of the first military historians in the ancient Western world. Colin Gray and John Gooch write on strategy. Andrew Gordon and J. Paul Harris provide essays on innovation in the British army and navy. …

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