Joan of Arc monument in Philadelphia

What is the Value of Studying Military History?

Military history is a valuable field of study to both professional soldiers and civilians. As historian John Keegan said, “[t]he written history of the world is largely a history of warfare.” ((John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 386.)) Yet one may argue if someone is not preparing for war, what is the point of studying the military past? This shortsighted view ignores much of human history, where “civilian life has always been affected by warfare.” ((Field-Marshal Viscount Montgomery, A History of Warfare, (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1968), 16.)) Most warfare through the ages featured not only professional soldiers, but also everyday civilians who, before the wars, made their living as teachers, businessmen, and actors, among many other professions. These professions have long traditions, but in recorded history, none is as ancient as the profession of soldiery. The earliest historians were often recording wars – making them as much military historians as historians in the traditional sense. War is such a dominant feature of human history that most modern nation-states and the nation-state system itself came into existence either through or because of war. Those national leaders whom historians have dubbed “great” often became great through warfare. Surprisingly, few of today’s world leaders have any military experience on their resumes. Thus, military history provides one of the only avenues for them to understand past, current, and present conflicts in context. This understanding affects their ability to prevent, start, fight, and end wars. This understanding can hold the future of the world in the balance. Given the role war and conflict has played and continues to play in modern human civilization, it is hard to understate the value of studying military history.

War predates recorded history. Before humans learned to write, “[T]hey already had wars–and warriors–to write about.” ((Arther Ferrill, “The Second-Oldest Profession,” Military History Quarterly 3, no. 1 (1990): 24.)) Fortifications “dated back to the 8th millennium BC,” ((Konstantin S. Nossov, Hittite Fortifications c.1650-700 BC (Oxford: Osprey, 2008), 13.)) reveal the existence of organized warfare centuries before the invention of writing. When humans finally started writing, they often wrote about military conflicts. An ivory knife handle, dated from 3400 BC and featuring Egyptians and Mesopotamians engaged in battle, is believed to be “the earliest known representation of conflict between nations.” ((Ferrill 1990, 26.)) From the 31st century BC, a palette depicts Narmer, pharaoh of a united Egypt, holding a captive by the hair with his left hand while his right hand is poised with a mace, ready to strike his victim. ((Ibid., 24)) Narmer, the earliest identifiable figure in recorded history, was a conqueror, a man of war. These are the stories and people the earliest writers–military historians–wrote about.

War, however, is not just a prehistoric phenomenon. All civilizations have war in their cultures and “the states within which we live came into existence largely through conquest, civil strife or struggles for independence.” ((Keegan 1994, 386.)) Consider the United States, a nation forged by the Revolutionary War, reforged by the Civil War, and expanded through wars with Native Americans, Mexico, and Spain. France became a kingdom after being unified under the generalship of Charlemagne, and was saved from extinction when Joan of Arc led the French to victories over the English. Numerous German states formed into the German Empire–closely resembling the borders of modern-day Germany–after waging two wars against France in the late 19th century. These are dated examples, but the influence of war on the modern political map is still clear. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and India began to recognize their national identity apart from the British Empire after their troops fought valiantly in the First World War. Communism took hold in Russia because of the same war and would dominate a third of the world’s population for years after the Second World War. Mao established the People’s Republic of China after his military victories over the Nationalists and his conquests of Tibet and Xinjiang. Sixty years later, the country has virtually the same borders. The study of history, politics and culture over the last millennia of human history would be impossible without a study of military history. Without military history, placing these massive changes in their proper context would be impossible.

From these conflicts, arise some of the greatest figures in history. Consider the men on Mount Rushmore: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Washington fought in the Revolutionary War after Jefferson penned the document that sparked the conflict. When war broke out between the United States and Spain in 1898, Roosevelt raised a cavalry regiment and personally fought in the war, earning the Medal of Honor. Lincoln’s entire presidency and legacy is derived from his role in the war between the States. Today, Americans know him as the man who freed the slaves and preserved the Union, but he was a war president. The Emancipation Proclamation freed only the slaves in most Southern States. While it did give the North’s war greater purpose, its goal was to hinder the South’s ability to fight. Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, his most famous speech, after the three-day bloody battle marking the turning point in the war. Lincoln’s election as president was itself a major catalyst that began the war, and a little over a month after taking office, America was engaged in conflict. Lincoln did not stop fighting for more than four years, until his assassination on April 15, 1865. One of the most famous monuments in Washington DC today is the memorial to Abraham Lincoln. These are only a handful of key figures in American history. In Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and throughout the rest of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, there are similar figures. The Duke of Wellington, one of Britain’s greatest generals, made his name by defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. He rode this fame all the way to 10 Downing Street, becoming prime minister. Winston Churchill served more than 62 years in the British Parliament and held virtually every major cabinet position in government. Yet, his “finest hour” was during the Second World War when he led his country against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. These figures in history “understood the use of violence and did not shrink to use it for their ends.” ((Ibid.))

While warfare is a regular occurrence in history, its frequency alone does not fully answer why military history is valuable to the everyday citizen who does not plan to serve in the military. The simple answer is this: not everyone who ended up in a war ever planned to be in one. Today’s civilized man would prefer diplomatic measures to military ones. Still, leaders with the most peaceful intentions have found themselves in war. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran on campaign platforms promising to keep the United States out of conflict, yet these were America’s leaders during the world wars. Neville Chamberlain did all he could to peacefully deal with Adolf Hitler, but still found himself in war. This is why understanding war, even if one does not intend to fight one, is important. Most of today’s militaries are not led by those with a strong military background. In fact, save for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s experience in the French Foreign Legion, the leaders of the G8 community of nations lack any military experience whatsoever. ((The other G8 leaders include Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev, Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and the United States’ President Barack Obama.)) Without experience, these leaders must rely on military history and on their generals–all of whom, by virtue of their experience and education must have a firm grasp of military history–to guide them in the event that diplomacy fails. These men, elected by a populace with generally little military experience, control some of the most powerful armies in the world. Their need to understand the history of warfare is crucial. Granted, understanding how the English dominated the French with the longbow during most of the Hundred Years War may not be important, but understanding the importance of technology, tactics, and strategy is key. President Barack Obama need not look any further than Abraham Lincoln, a figure he is often compared to, to understand how decisions made by the Commander in Chief can determine the success and length of a war. For example, why did President Lincoln go through four different generals before he found Ulysses S. Grant, a man who could win battles? How did the decisions made by Grant’s predecessors mount losses by the North and prolong the war? Knowing where his predecessors have failed gives the President a greater understanding and recognition of how not to repeat their mistakes.

Military history’s value is hard to understate. The professional soldier can obviously extract plenty of value, but the civilian can gain much as well. The history of warfare is the oldest of histories. It is important to understanding the world we live in today. More importantly, most voters lack any military experience, yet elect leaders–with predominately the same lack of experience–to control the most powerful armies in the world. These leaders will determine if and how their countries will wage wars. These decisions will affect the future of civilizations. Military history fills in the gap where personal experience is sorely lacking. As warfare continues to influence our world today, we who study military history must continue to learn, and to teach, the lessons demonstrated in history.