Coastal Artillery

Navigating by Terrain Features

How the Army Sees Itself in History

In land navigation, there are several different ways to negotiate map reading and get from point A to point B. You can use a magnetic azimuth to go from point to point, but that often means that you have to stay on one path the entire time regardless of how difficult the terrain is. It is a very rigid and time consuming approach. Another approach is called navigation by terrain features. The navigator uses their knowledge of map-reading to pick out significant terrain features on their way to and at their destination. Then they follow those terrain features, such as hills, valleys, roads, or buildings, to their destination. This method of navigating can be less stressful and occasionally less accurate but quite often the most successful.

When the Army, and by definition those in it, looks at its history, it tends to reflect on its own significant terrain features, i.e., wars. Even the way that colleges teach U.S. history is done via the idea of wars as a benchmark. To be sure, for a military, war is our Super Bowl. It’s where we try out our doctrine and strategy, refine our procedures, and, hopefully, come out with a win. It is only natural to use war as a significant terrain feature.

It is only natural to use war as a significant terrain feature.

The problem, though, is that history does not stop between wars. Indeed, sometimes what wins wars are the reforms that take place in inter-war periods. While it is sometimes tempting to skip over the boring periods, those often contain gems that can help us relate to our own time. For example, I recently wrote a white paper on the history of my National Guard’s force structure that demonstrated that the most radical changes to force structure happened during periods of peace, not war. These decisions reflected changing threats, technology, and doctrine and shaped the force that we have today.

While doing research, I came across an edition of the now-defunct “Coast Artillery Journal,” of the even more defunct Coast Artillery Corps. This Corps was in existence for barely fifty years from the beginning of the 20th century. The edition of the journal I was reading was from 1922 and was an incredible snapshot of both the Corps and the Army at the time. The post-World War I Army was experiencing both growing and shrinking pains. Growing, from the vast experience the Army had gained from the war, and shrinking, from force structure cuts.

From new technology to book reviews to leadership studies, the journal embraced their cause as a profession and encouraged their officers to write about it. To me, this echoed the present movement to engage military officers to begin writing about their experiences, thoughts, and solutions.

“Of the two hundred and five documents on the official list of War Department publications, not one touches on leadership.”

Of note was an article on leadership, where the author, a lieutenant colonel, notes that “of the two hundred and five documents on the official list of War Department publications, not one touches on leadership.” That is a damning indictment of an organization that calls itself a profession since 1880. We now have enough manuals and publications on leadership to build a small mountain (although we continue to face many of the same perennial challenges in leadership) so it is clear that we are making strides.

Budgets, the ever-present monster to the Department of Defense, were an issue at the time, as the journal included a very innovative piece on how to use a M1903 Springfield rifle on a to-scale terrain model as a miniature direct fire range. It even included such details as a raised platform simulating an aerial observer. This is the kind of adaption that sharing ideas and promoting an innovative culture can bring about.

The journal also ran an editorial on the recent force structure reductions that the Army was facing. In a statement that could have been easily run in “Stars and Stripes” today, the editor writes,

“For my part I think it would be a wise thing if the army went quietly about its business for the next few years, sought every proper means of showing its own inherent worth, both to government and the people, cleaned its house wherever necessary, both in personnel and in customs, and then found itself ready to take advantage of the turn of the tide. And the tide will surely turn.”

The Army of 1922 was not part of a cultural terrain feature yet it warrants studying. If we are going to “turn the tide” of our own political and economic storm, we should not attempt to re-invent the wheel. It might behoove leaders and historians alike to look away from the dramatic terrain features of history and instead examine some of the paths less trodden. As Robert Frost says, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Angry Staff Officer is a first lieutenant in the Army National Guard. He commissioned as an engineer officer after spending time as an enlisted infantryman. He has done one tour in Afghanistan as part of U.S. and Coalition retrograde operations. With a BA and an MA in history, he currently serves as a full-time Army Historian. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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