Reading Military History

By Alan Stephens

In this post, Alan Stephens argues the case for military professionals to read history – not for ‘lessons’ or details, but to appreciate the influence and importance of context in planning and making decisions. According to Stephens, “people who do not read good history cannot achieve professional mastery in the full meaning of the term.” 

The German philosopher and revolutionary Karl Marx once wrote that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. A similar sort of perspective was provided by the Anglo-Irish statesman and author, Edmund Burke, who suggested that those who do not know history are destined to repeat it. Presumably neither viewpoint impressed the American industrialist Henry Ford, for whom history was ‘more or less bunk’.

Marx and Burke were towering intellects and Ford was a managerial genius. It is proper, therefore, that we should be interested in their dramatically differing interpretations of the merit of one of the principal fields of human enquiry.

On the one hand, Marx and Burke are representative of the widely-held belief that we must study the past in order to prepare for the future; on the other hand, Ford is representative of those for whom the well-known challenges of historiography – inadequate sources, the selective use of material, self-serving witnesses, biased authors, etc – too often make its ‘lessons’ misleading. Ironically, either belief could be used to support the common criticism that too many generals prepare for the next war by studying the last one.

Perhaps one final aphorism might help to resolve this clash of opinions.

Another common criticism of history is that it is rewritten by every generation. The implication here is that because history apparently is based on ‘facts’, its authors should get the story right the first time – so why should it be necessary constantly to rewrite it? Again ironically, and notwithstanding their fundamental difference over the value of history, Marx, Burke and Ford all presumably would have agreed with this axiom, the first two because they understood intellectual process, and Ford because it seems to offer evidence of his belief that we cannot trust ‘history’.

It is indeed the case that each generation rewrites history, but there is a very good reason for this. Antony Beevor’s masterful examination of the Spanish civil war can be used to provide the answer.

When Beevor first published The Spanish Civil War in 1982 it was widely acknowledged as the ‘best, and fairest and most accurate’ account of the conflict available. His use of the available sources was exhaustive, his scholarship exemplary, and his judgments astute. Anyone wanting to understand the context of the war, in addition to learning about what happened to whom, when and how, could have done no better than to have started with Beevor’s book.

But over the next two decades important new sources emerged as previously closed archival records were released in Spain, Russia, and Germany. Beevor eventually felt he had to revise his work, and in 2006 published a new version titled The Battle for Spain, which incorporated significant changes from the original, and which was again acknowledged as the definitive study of its kind.

This leads to the point about history and context that Marx and Burke understood, and that Ford did not.

Change is constant, a truism that includes our interpretation of history. The challenge is to accept that, and to respond accordingly, whether as writer or reader. That’s why Beevor’s 1982 book was essential reading at the time for anyone trying to understand what had happened in Spain, it’s why he needed to return to the subject, and it’s why his 2006 book should be recommended reading for today’s military professionals. Intellectual process, like history, never stops.

This episode also explains, incidentally, why history books have the author’s name on the cover. Any historical study almost certainly will reflect to a greater or lesser extent the selective use of sources, cultural influences, the writer’s background, and the like. First-rate historians tend to be scholars who not only can tell a good story, but who also who strive for objectivity, to the extent that it exists (noting that there’s nothing wrong with a strong opinion piece, as long as we know enough to recognise it for what it is).

It would be fair to conclude from the preceding discussion that the books recommended by a professional reading list without exception should be high-quality; that is, their authors should be respected for their writing, research skills, analysis, and judgment. It would also fair to conclude that the pedestrian nature of some professional reading lists is a factor in the unenthusiastic response they sometimes attract.

Senior commanders have a responsibility to ensure that their recommendations are both informative and enjoyable. Official histories, for example, tend to be strong on detail and factual narrative; but their impersonal style and cautious judgments explain why they are rarely best-sellers. People are more likely to pick up a book if it’s a good read.

Military professionals plainly need to acquire a certain amount of technical knowledge, which is one of the purposes of a reading list. What were the issues in the Royal Air Force’s ‘Big Wing’ debate at the start of World War II? How was the air campaign for Operation Desert Storm planned? Does the Royal Australian Air Force’s present organisation reflect sound warfighting principles? And so on.

But while technical knowledge is necessary, it is not sufficient. Military professionals must appreciate context: they must be able to examine issues from a perspective that transcends mere detail. We are more likely to become wise, as opposed to technically competent, if we read high-quality books about great people, great campaigns (regardless of their era or setting), and great strategy.

Without context, nothing we say or do has any meaning; without understanding the setting in which events took place or ideas were developed, we are unlikely to understand anything fully.

Commanders who do not appreciate context risk making ill-informed decisions, which in turn can set a course for disaster: think of Gallipoli, the West’s post-World War II confusion of communism with nationalism, the American invasion of Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and so on. Examples of military catastrophes arising from ignorance of context are legion.

It is the context that history provides, more than the presentation of detail or of (possibly disputed) facts, that gives the subject its innate power, and which makes it the centrepiece of professional mastery. People who do not read good history cannot achieve professional mastery in the full meaning of the term. It’s as simple as that.

Dr Alan Stephens is a Fellow of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation. He has been a senior lecturer at UNSW Canberra; a visiting fellow at ANU; a visiting fellow at UNSW Canberra; the RAAF historian; an advisor in federal parliament on foreign affairs and defence; and a pilot in the RAAF, where his experience included the command of an operational squadron and a tour in Vietnam. He has lectured internationally, and his publications have been translated into some twenty languages. He is a graduate of the University of New South Wales, the Australian National University, and the University of New England. Stephens was awarded an OAM in 2008 for his contribution to Australian military history.

And this reader’s comment is to the point:

Good read. Alan nails the point, as he so often does.

As well, I would observe that understanding the context of the time must be conjoined with understanding context across time; that is, a professional can thematically analyse change and tipping points on one hand, and use that to create new ways in operational art exploiting emergent context on the other.

Professionals therefore demonstrate simultaneous historic breadth and analytical depth, and can demonstrate that in practice founded on a coherent and wholesome character. I believe we call that ‘generalship’ …

This post was first published April 29, 2018.