The Value in Historical Lessons: Continuing the Discussion on the Value of History in War

Editor's Note: This article was written in response to Dr. Huw Davies’ article, “The Instrumentalisation of History.”

History is a powerful tool, and with the power of knowledge comes the inevitable mention (Thank you, Spider-man) of responsibility. The noted British historian Michael Howard wrote an article “The Use and Abuse of Military History,” which was reprinted in a 1980 edition of the U.S. Army War College’s scholarly text Parameters, quipped an adage “history doesn’t repeat itself…Historians repeat each other.” It is easy to fall victim to the myths of history, such as the glorious battle of Bunker Hill (tactical defeat), that the USMC single-handedly won WWII in the Pacific (untrue), or that the battle of Gettysburg was the turning point in the U.S. Civil War (debatable).

I recently wrote an article “Islamic State on the Road to Waterloo,” in which I argued the value of using the wars post-French revolution as lenses to view the current conflict of IS, Daesh, or ISIL in Syria. While advocating that the introduction of a land force to defeat ISIL (an area where Dr. Davies agrees) is necessary, it does not have to be the United States or a Western power. There are two fallacies worth evaluating in Dr. Davies article. One, because the United States is not local to the Middle East it cannot sufficiently grasp the potential solution, and two, Western ground troops are the only means to defeat ISIL. Furthermore, as previously written by Michael Howard and many historians, the reference to history must be used with caution but is a extremely useful construct to shape, discuss, and red team current events.

There is a competing alternative to a U.S.-led coalition in the region, and it is a more local solution. Iran presents an opposing pole. This Shia nation, state sponsor of terrorism, and major proxy war opponent of coalition forces in Iraq would gain major credibility as the leader, formally or informally, of efforts to defeat ISIL. As several sources have reported throughout 2013 and the summer of 2014, the Quds forces and other IGRC forces have operated in and around Baghdad with limited success. Iranian and Russian weapon systems have poured into Syria to support the Assad regime, and Iranian weapons have supported Hezbollah and Hamas as recently as Operation Protective Edge this year. Iran is a prime regional exporter of security in line with its national security objectives. With this political reality in mind, and the reluctance of Muslim nations to lead a fight against other Muslims, the world needs a strong international leadership presence, which will continue to be the United States with strong allied support until a time when international organizations present the capacity to act within their charter (looking at you, United Nations).

It is probably not a sound doctrinal argument and many will discount this statement, but if you want your international solution to have traction, the United States better be involved. Many conflicts worldwide fester and roil until the might of the United States coupled with some exception regional or NATO partners enter said conflict and fundamentally change it. We might not always do it right, and certainly our political process leaves much to be desired, but if you look at the series of conflicts, especially in the post-Cold War, this thesis holds true. The United States military provides any situation at least one unmatched capability whether it be strategic airlift, C4ISR, SOF support, global strike, or divisions of well-equipped and highly-trained Soldiers and Marines.

We’ve provided military support to international humanitarian or peacekeeping efforts around the globe, and continue to do it every year. The ability to defeat ISIL on the ground doesn’t require the 40 plus Brigade Combat Teams of the U.S. Army, but a portion of forces acting in coordination with local and regional ground forces are going to have to close with and, in a very personal way, impose the political will of an international coalition on each terrorist. The United States has learned the lessons of going it alone; we need credible partners who can mentor host nation forces and grow them once the decisive force leaves. Just as the British needed the physical numbers and might of the Prussian, Russian, and European forces to defeat France in 1815, we need the unique skills and capabilities that Middle Eastern partners bring to the fight.

Note how Turkey is poised on their border with Syria, and as their government stated awaiting increased resolve from the United States. Turkey’s own tumultuous history in Syria and their own revolution is less than a hundred years old, and yet they are a member of the current ad hoc coalition against ISIL. They too were belligerents of the United States and the West within the last 100 years. As Washington shakes it’s head in “exasperation” over the Turks watching Kobane over-run, politicians demonstrate their failure to apply the lessons of history to understand that Turkey’s goals do not necessarily align perfectly with those of the United States.

History is not just for historians. We cannot reserve the use and evaluation of history as a sacred cow only for the academics. Using history as a lens to evaluate our current and future conflicts provides a construct for analysis; as Dr. Davies artfully argued, history provides “valuable context.” More importantly, history illustrates a series of actions and consequences that contemporary planners can utilize to mitigate potential risks to an operation. Based on the historical examples of operations in a given area, the variables of potential courses of action may change. These historical vignettes are valuable at the tactical and strategic levels.

At the tactical level, several of the vignettes from Bear Went Over the Mountainand The Other Side of the Mountain have played out in the current war in Afghanistan. I’ve personally witnessed very similar attacks to those detailed in the texts such as ambushes at Sheikhabad Bridge along Highway 1 and in attacks on convoys in southern Kunar province, Afghanistan. Personal war story aside, what value do specific historical examples hold for contemporary students of military history? Our enemies often believe a different series of historical “facts” to be the truth of the past. Howard argues that we are not studying “what happened in the past, but what historians say happened in the past…that the first job of a military historian was sifting through the evidence with a view to the establishment of facts.”

Howard continues that, as means to avoid falling victim to the subjective view of history, it is important to study war in width, depth, and – as Dr. Davies will agree – context. As someone who is interested in alternative analysis, I believe utilizing historical events within today’s context provides valuable insight. I am not advocating the imagination of alternate outcomes (such as imagine if the Axis won WWII), but certainly conflicts can be table top exercised with current political context and or capabilities. Example: How would the battle of the Atlantic be fought in today’s environment? The events of past battles and campaigns will always present a learning method to prevent wasting valuable lives, time, and money in upcoming conflicts.

As Dr. Davies and Dr. Howard present, it is vital to not misuse history as a means to bring about a policy outcome. In the same vein, history is vital to the planning process to ensure we look at the context of preceding events and operations to avoid operating isolated to the current situation. As an American in Afghanistan, anytime an Afghan government official or U.S. official mentioned the Russian experience in Afghanistan, the collective eye roll could be heard in the room. This response is part organizational hubris, but also demonstrates a failure to examine the historical events through the context of our enemy. Attempting to view history from our adversary’s or international partners’ viewpoints is equally valuable.

Our adversaries long remember the stories told to them about previous battles in their homeland; Afghan guerillas are rumored to pass down fighting positions from generation to generation. While a mixture of myth and fact, these stories have undeniable influence on adversarial operational models. Historical choke points and the effects of terrain often are only exaggerated by modern technology. History is too often disregarded in operational and strategic planning as if the dynamics of a campaign decades or centuries ago have little effect on today’s “dynamic” and “complex” battlefield.

Many modern military planners reject historical campaigns because often they seem to unravel too slowly to have influence on the modern battlefield. Our near-instaneous exchange of information allows for a rapid decision-making cycle compressing the conflict timelines. Our shortened mobilization, transit time, and increased logistics capacity provide a different understanding of time when evaluating historical events for today’s conflicts. The histories of the Syrian Civil War are already being written, but the outcome is still yet to be decided. Based on competing factors, the ad-hoc international coalitions of willing partners are attempting to influence the outcome.

The global connectivity of today’s political landscape compared to the early 19th century means a solution to a regional problem does not have to be generated from that region. Several historical lessons are being relearned with each day, and proper reflection on the past may have changed our current position and our steps toward the future.

Mike Denny is a logistics and procurement manager and U.S. Army National Guard Officer. He is also an editor of the Red Team Journal. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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