Why Military History is Important

Why Military History is Important

What is Military History

The popular (mis)conception of the military history is that it is all about armies, battles and generals. But while these are undoubtably a significant part of military history, battles are only a fraction of what military history is about. Psychology, administration, logistics, biology, environment, climate… all these areas, and more, are crucial for understanding and studying military history. In fact, military historians talk more about food than anybody other than dedicated food historians, simply because without logistics, you cannot have an army.

Three major areas of study of military history are technological, social and organizational. This of course does not mean that the traditional campaign history (“drums and trumpets” history) has been or should be abandoned; it has however been mostly left to amateur historians. Technological approach sees the changing technology – be it military or civilian technology – as the main motivator of military change. And this is definitely not a wrong view, as changes in civilian technology – especially the food production technology – produce the type of social changes which then lead to military changes. Slavery got replaced by far superior (and far more humane) serfdom in part because of one technological change: horse collars. Before the invention of the horse collar, the animal could not pull much weight because it would choke. An improperly hitched horse could do five times as much work as a man, but it also eats five times as much as a man. As a result, using human slaves was actually a superior option. But rigid horse collar means that horse can do ten times as much work as a man – and this alone was enough to make feudalism a superior option to slavery. But while technology may help social change, it is the social change itself that leads to change in military. Social lens of military history sees the military as an extension of the society which created it. It goes deeper than that, though: because just as the society shapes military, so does military shape society; it is a two-way street. Lastly, organizational military history looks at military as a society of its own, with hierarchy, organizational structures and values – in short, organizational culture.

To create a full image, these three lenses must be used in conjuction with each other. How and why Japan decided to attack Pearl Harbor, for example, can only be explained through an interplay of elements: technological factors (aircraft-launched torpedoes) which made such an attack possible, sociological factors (bushido code, imperialism and Army-Navy rivalry) which made an attack desireable, and organizational factors which led into how the attack was carried out, and also into the entire conduct of war. All of this means that military history will have to include antrophology, archeology, political science, psychology and so on.

Need for Military History

Military history is often held in distaste by historians. Academics, living in their ivory towers, tend to forget the darker corners of human psyche and indeed human nature in general, believing that we have “overcome” these impulses and that civilization has won over the base nature. Warfare on the other hand goes deep into human psyche, and studying it forces us to wrestle with human nature and implications of the darkness residing in every one of us. War directly negates everything that the followers of philosophies of enlightenment and progress hold dear to their hearts, and it is thus not surprising that many would prefer to ignore it.

Yet history is the key to understanding the present. It is, in fact, collective equivalent to memory of the individual: without history (including myths, culture etc.) society is nothing more than an amorphous, essentially worthless mass. Any society will bear fingerprints of its collective experience, and these will determine its present and future. Collective history will determine future action, which is why its misrepresentation is so dangerous.

Person who does not know history is not able to learn from it, and will simply repeat the past mistakes. And learning from history is crucial for understanding anything, rather than merely knowing it, as something cannot be understood unless one understands the context in which it had been created. History thus allows a decision to be made on what is truly important, what should be kept and what can or even should be abandoned.

For this reason, study of military history is equally important for the soldiers, the politicians and the civilians alike. Lacking or incorrect knowledge of history is the cause of most ills in society, which is why history is also being controlled, akin to 1984. All of this speaks of its importance.

History itself is largely a history of warfare. All major changes happened as a result of wars: modern world and its insanity are largely a result of two World Wars, which had fundamentally shaped, changed the way people think about the world. Warfare is the oldest human occupation, and also the one that affected humanity the most profoundly. Early historiography was military historiography – historians were recording wars. In fact, complex political systems – alliances, empires and nation-states – came into being largely due to needs of warfare. State itself is a consequence of a need to organize for war, and finance the warfare.

Warfare is intertwined with and has in fact shaped the entire fabric of the society, yet most leaders today have no knowledge or experience of warfare. They thus have to rely on history to understand the nature and context of conflicts, and to make decisions. Because of this, the frequently-seen attitude of “it is in the past, it does not matter” or “we do not need to know the past because we are better than that and will not repeat their mistakes” – is not just wrong, but outright criminally negligent. Understanding history generally, and military history specifically, can easily determine the future of the world.

And the war is old – it literally predates history, and even the human species. Fortifications dating back to 8th millenium BC show that organized warfare had existed centuries before the invention of writing. And when writing was invented, the primary topic of writing was again warfare. Ivory knife handle from 3400 BC showing Egyptians and Mesopotamians engaged in battle is believed to be the earliest known representation of conflict between nations. From the 31st century BC comes the palette showing Egyptian pharaoh Namer, the earliest identifiable figure in human history – and it clearly shows him as a conqueror.

War has shaped human society at fundamental level and at all aspects of society. State itself, as noted, is a product of war. And even on an individual level, all modern states are daughters of war. United States had been formed in the Revolutionary War, reforged in the Civil War and expanded through a series of military conquests in wars against the native Americans, Mexico and Spain. Its status as a great power was established in the First World War, and the Second World War confirmed it as a global power. Francia was established in the migration period, and its survival established thanks to victory of Charles Martel at Tours. German Empire was formed after an alliance of German states led by Prussia fought two wars against the French Empire. First World War destroyed old empires of central and eastern Europe, and also gave rise to Communism. Communism in turn gave rise to Nazism and Fascism, and these three ideologies proceeded to cause the Second World War. Outcome of the war was that Communism would proceed to dominate one third of the world for the next half a century, and also infiltrate most of the rest of the world in various ways. Mao’s People’s Republic of China was established after he militarily defeated the Nationalists – a feat that was only possible because Nationalists had been weakened by fighting the Japanese (which the Communists avoided), and also because United States had supported Mao’s Communists. Mao also proceeded to conquer Tibet and Xinjiang, giving China its modern borders.

Greatest figures in history were often product of war, as well. Emperor Augustus arose from a series of civil war that had shaken and eventually destroyed the old Roman Republic. Christopher Columbus discovered America because Ottoman expansion had closed trading routes to China. Napoleon and his reforms were a product of the French Revolution. Sanitary reforms of Florence Nightingale were a product of the Crimean War.

Thus, the study of war is crucial for understanding human behavior. Notions of identity, nationality and territoriality, the way in which we process information, and the manner in which emotion and reason influence each other; all of these, while present in the times of peace, are pushed to their extremes by warfare, making them much easier to understand. Patterns of communication and miscommunication, causes, nature and consequences of escalation, and the dynamics of social and political behavior, are all important for understanding how the society functions.

People today largely prefer to avoid the war, and with a good reason, as modern weapons are highly destructive. But the war cannot always be avoided, and sometimes leaders will decide that war is in fact a good solution. In order to make such decisions, knowledge of military history is absolutely crucial – not just among the military leadership, but the civilian leadership as well. It allows better understanding, easier making of decisions, and thus also ability to avoid repeating mistakes. It is in fact crucial, especially since both leaders and voters generally lack military experience. Less than 1% of population in Western states serves in the military, and even fewer of those have actual combat experience. Remaining people, well over 99%, have little understanding of warfare, its costs and consequences. And it is civilians – either the 1% or the 99%, depending on how optimistic one is about nature of democracy – that make the decision on whether to send the troops to war. And majority of them know little and care less about the legal and ethical frameworks of war, and even less about the logistical, geographic, physical and psychological demands of military operations.

Because of this, and to avoid either vilification or even worse, glorification of war, knowledge of military history is absolutely necessary for general public as well. Most Western countries have not experienced a proper conventional war since World War II, and none of them have experienced a warfare against a peer power. This can easily lead to war being romanticized, just as other things can be romanticized by people who had never experienced it. It is likewise easy for the civilian and military leaders to drift apart, focused as they are on different goals and with different mindsets, to drift apart. Yet military strategy – if done properly – is ultimately rooted in the overall national strategy, and if civilian and military leadership drift apart, it is easy for the overall strategy to become aimless and even counterproductive. It is precisely this effect that has caused failures of the Western military interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan and other places. And while soldiers are being educated about their responsibilities in a civilian society, there is no such education for the civilians. Civilians, including the politicians, know little and understand less about the military and its capabilities, and even less about their own responsibilities relative to the military. This in turn affects nation’s ability to ensure its own security.

For soldiers, study of military history provides an insight into military art. Knowing something is one thing, understanding it is completely different; and to understand something, it is necessary to place it into a historical context. While technology has advanced and significantly shaped the battlefield, fact still remains that wars are fought by people, against people, and with similar geographic, geopolitical and geostrategic constraints. Byzantines might not be able to teach us much about battlefield tactics, but the basic principles of Byzantine strategy and fundamentals of the Empire’s survival still hold important lessons for today’s decision makers. Things like geography, logistics and politics are permanent fixation of warfare. Details of how things are done do change, and no general of today will be in position to replicate Napoleon’s victories – there are no blueprints of action that can be followed to the letter. Yet history always holds lessons for the attentive.

All of the best generals in history were good students of military history. They learned on the experiences of those that had come before them rather than learning on their own men. As US Marine General James Mattis said:

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men. Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”

Complexity and speed of warfare is increasing. But rather than reducing, this only increases the importance of the military history, as only by placing things into a proper historical context is it possible to understand their lessons. Without understanding the past, it is impossible to prepare for the future.

And understanding is the key. Imitating the past is as dangerous as ignoring it. Lack of understanding of the history results in armies always fighting the last war. Carnage of the Great War was a result of not understanding new developments in transport technology (primarily railways), infantry weapons (machine guns) and artillery. And early in the Second World War, few people really understood the importance of the tank and the truck. As a result, in preparing for the future German invasion, the French General Staff applied the lessons of the 1916., preparing thus for the static defense. Germany however focused on the lessons of 1918., which were far more relevant due to both tactical and technological advancements. The result was advanced doctrine of maneuver warfare that would win Germany the Battle of France.

In 1926., British general J.F.C. Fuller criticized the officers of the Great War who had hung onto old theories and, by doing so, deprived themselves of the ability to make sense of the complexities of warfare, resulting in carnage. But the reality was quite the opposite: it was lack of understanding of the past that led to mistakes of the present. Especially American Civil War could have offered important lessons, had it been studied with understanding. Mistakes made by Austrian generals during the Italian campaign against Napoleon are almost identical to those made by British generals against Rommel in 1941. and 1942., with both being overly concerned with security.

Yet Fuller’s mentality had prevailed, in many cases to this very day. Industrial society and modernist mindset had created “cult of the new”, approach based on the assumption that the past offers no valuable lessons, that new advances had discredited everything from the past. America’s defeat in Vietnam and the following Israeli-Arab wars had reignited the interest in the military history, yet even today people are surprised when lessons from the past are proven valid, time and again.

For modern militaries, many of whom lack experience – especially against a near-peer opponent – military history can provide valid basis for testing and creating new theories, albeit only when new advancements are taken into account. Purely mathematical and technical models cannot be used as a substitute for historical experience, because wars are fought by people, not by weapons, and human reactions cannot be reliably predicted by mathematical models. Warfare is the most confusing, chaotic and stressful human activity, and thus understanding previous experiences is the key to preparing for the future.

This study of history of war is something that has a long history in civilized societies. Both Chinese and Byzantine Empires held respect for historical study, with many generals writing military manuals with intent of leaving them for the future generations to learn from. Emperor Nikephoros Phokas, in introduction of his text On Skirmishing, is explicit about the text being intended for the future:

“Although it is our intention to set down instructions about skirmishing, we must bear in mind that they might not find much application in the eastern regions at the present time. (…) Nonetheless, in order that time, which leads us to forget what we once knew, might not completely blot out this useful knowledge, we think we ought to commit it to writing. If in the future, then, some situation should arise in which Christians need this knowledge, it will be readily available to assist those who have the responsibility of using it, as well as the entire commonwealth.”.

In the post-Roman West, the idea that general principles of war exist originated in the eighteenth century CE and underpinned the foundation of military schools and academies, as well as development of general staffs. After all, only something that acts according to principles (or laws) can be systematically studied. Basic assumption was that, by undierstanding these principles and adhering to them, one could achieve victory. And once principles had been identified, they would find their way into the military doctrine, turning them into practical prescription for action. This is the very basic logic that underpins rich Byzantine and Chinese military literature.

On individual and tactical level, unit’s history (tradition) is a vital element in unit cohesion and thus its battle effectiveness. Some Roman units had traditions of nearly a thousand years, from the late antiquity of Diocletian and Constantine all the way to final dissolution of last remnants of the ancient Roman military tradition after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. Many army units still active in Western militaries have a tradition dating back centuries, even if in some cases continuity had to be made up.

Still, as noted, one must always be aware of the limitations of the military history and also of military experience. These limitations may not be very pronounced on the strategic level, but on the personal level they are massive. While there is a tendency to stress the commonality of military experience (“war never changes”), fact is that war does change, and the lower one descends from the levels of strategy, the more obvious changes are. Experience of a siege for the Roman legionary will have been completely different to that of a French soldier at Verdun, and mentality required to withstand push of the pike is not the same as the mentality required to withstand protracted artillery bombardment. There is a reason why post-traumatic stress disorder was first recognized by official medicine after the First World War, then being termed the “shell shock” since it was a product of protracted artillery fire.

Historical Discipline

Problem with application of history to anything, including the military, is the fact that historiography allows for reconstruction of the past – but this reconstruction is never perfect. Like a puzzle with missing pieces, imagination must be used to fill in the gaps, yet such filling will always have flaws. But civilian historians often go even further, asserting that there are no laws, no immutable principles, and that the past doesn’t repeat itself. This belief is borne out of the psychology of modernity, optimistic view of a ceaseless progress – but that does not mean it is correct. Cyclical view of history was common from antiquity until today, and with a good reason: there is significant evidence that it is correct.

In fact, history is best described as a sort of “dynamic stability”. Conditions clearly change through history: technology changes, exact geopolitical circumstances change. But the most basic foundations of strategy remain the same. Geography changes at a pace that is literally slower than glacial, and human psychology and nature change slower still.

Yet there are always issues with drawing lessons from the past. The most obvious issue is that the information we have may be simply incomplete. Historical records are not, despite all the literature on the matter, books filled with information. Rather, they are more akin to post-it notes, and historians are people who are trying to turn scraps of information on scattered notes into a cohesive narrative. As a result, it is impossible to avoid influence of historian’s own personality and personal experiences – or even the influence of personality of the person reading historian’s book.

Further, much of what we consider history is little more than myths and legends. Tales of King Arthur are arguably as historical as much of official history that we read about the First or Second World Wars. Many of these myths may be repeated by historians, and some were even established by historians, meaning that relying on historical literature to dispel myths is not enough. Yet presence of these myths shows the need for critical application of history, especially since history is oftentimes used for purposes of propaganda. Self-written memoirs by generals are almost inevitably an example of this, as they seek to excuse their own behavior. Sometimes that propaganda gives rise to historical myths, sometimes myths themselves are a vehicle of propaganda in and by themselves. But for history to be truly educational, these myths have to be eliminated.

And even when trying to look at things objectively, it is extremely difficult to establish causal links. Did an army win an engagement because of the advantages in training, doctrine, command, weapons, logistics, or some combination of these? People writing the history – commanders and so on – will usually write about what they are familiar with, and insist that their particular area was the most important for victory (or least to blame for defeat). And when looking at individual policies or commanders, what were the causes, the formative experiences? As a result, historians will often miss causal connections on one side, while creating connections where there were none on the other side.

Situation is made worse by the fact that historians, both amateur and professional, might have a “dog in the fight”, as it were. Historians are liable to excuse or gloss over the crimes of the side that they find sympathetic. This is something that even academically trained historians are not immune to, as some truths may be ideologically, politically or societally unacceptable in the place and time historian is working in. Even when there is no intentional ideological bias, historians are – by their nature – an integral part of the process of writing historiography, and their values, cultural perspectives, personality and biases affect the end result.

Because of this, and impossibility of producing certain predictions, military might choose to ignore even those lessons that can be deduced from history. Yet uncertainties of history are by themselves a good lesson for uncertainties of the future. We can no more predict the future than we can know with certainty what had happened in the past. And despite all the flaws, historiography does offer certain tools to somewhat reduce the uncertainty and confusion stemming from the unavoidable lack of knowledge, at least in part. History can teach about the complexity, chaos and untidiness of war. It can show how decisions were made, it can explain both rational and irrational sides of the decision-making process, and thus help deal with them. And this is extremely important. Humans are not rational beings – no matter how much we pretend to be. All decisions are influenced by emotion, by personal experiences and other factors that are not an element of rational thought process. Yet despite the common view that irrationality is something that should be eliminated, history shows that intiuitive decision making was always a key skill for successful commanders. The ability to intuitively “read” a battlefield or a situation is a vital asset for commanders at every level, and what separated the outstanding commanders from their “merely good enough” counterparts was precisely this willingness to listen to instinct. Ignoring the irrational and intiutive elements, friction and chance, fog of war and the mental impact it has, is to reduce the war to a game of chess – something it never was, never will be, and never can be.

And with the exception of actual battlefield experience, such intuitive understanding can only come from hard thinking and exercises. Few pages in manuals are nowhere near enough; thinking and inquisition are crucial, and this means studying the past and asking questions, in particular the 5W1H of journalism:

  • who
  • what
  • when
  • where
  • why
  • how

This also means that history follows another rule of journalism: truth is crucial. If historians are to contribute to improving battlefield performance, they need to have access to all data from the battlefield. Military will not be able to learn from battlefield failures if it is busy covering them up, distorting them or downplaying their importance. Unfortunately, military is also a bureaucracy, and to any bureaucracy, reality is the main enemy that has to be fought against. Distortions of history and unclear view of past events cannot be avoided even when historical procedures are followed and everything done in good faith. Deliberate distortions, then, can easily destroy the value of history as a learning tool. As Liddel Hart wrote:

Camouflaged history not only conceals faults and deficiencies that could otherwise be remedied, but engenders false confidence—and false confidence underlies most of the failures that military history records. It is the dry rot of armies.”


There will however always be constraints in the study of military history. Military is influenced by various actors: military, civilian, political, cultural and so on, and this is likewise true for the art of military history. Historical research can easily produce results that oppose the “party line”, or at least the propaganda produced for public consumption, and this can easily create tensions with both military and political establishment.

Those historians that work closely with the military itself are also obliged not to reveal military secrets. This is a reasonable constraint, especially when it comes to ongoing military operations, yet it can produce consequences that are unfortunate for historical research, and can also quite easily be abused. A significant failure can easily be a cause for censorship. Not only does this harm the academic research, but is also often detrimental to the military in question as mistakes cannot be fixed if they are not acknowledged. And much like other bureaucracies, militaries have a tendency of fixing only the immediately obvious problems – that is, the problems that are impeding currently ongoing operations. No matter how obvious vulnerability may be, it is unlikely to be fixed unless it is actively harming the operation, and in some cases not even then. This bureaucratic nature of the military sharply limits the real utility of military history.


Military historian Michael Howard summarized the relevance of military history to the military profession, noting that it would make “both professions wiser forever.”. This piece of wisdom goes not only against the military and academic grain, but also against the modern(ist) mentality which is inclined to believe that new is inherently superior to the old in all aspects, and therefore that the past has no lessons to offer. This has changed, to an extent, in recent times, but the tendency to overestimate impact of advancement and potential offered by technological solutions is still there.

Human aspect is crucial for war, and humans have not changed much in last 10 000 years. Mankind has always relied on the use of force as instrument of policy, sometimes to the extent that use of force became the policy. And because this reliance continues even today, as seen from the current events, military history is always relevant. As George Santayana has said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war”. This more than enough explains why knowledge of military history is absolutely crucial.

Further reading

XII. Why Study Military History? (tandfonline.com)

George T. Dennis – Three Byzantine Military Treatises

3 thoughts on “Why Military History is Important

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s