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The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession.

The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession. Edited by Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 287 pages. $75.00 ($23.99 paper).

In the Summer 2005 issue of Parameters, Antulio Echevarria argued in "The Trouble with History" that soldiers expect too much from the discipline. Instead of trying to draw lessons or gain vicarious experience from what are really just interpretations of the past, military professionals should instead primarily use history as another tool to develop higher-level thinking skills. Echevarria emphasized the limits of history and the dubious foundation it supplies for any factual analysis.

This book would seem to offer a counter to those arguments. Distinguished military historian Williamson Murray and noted defense analyst Richard Hart Sinnreich have assembled a diverse and impressive array of authors to help soldiers and Marines "confront the future with a firm understanding of war's continuities." The editors espouse that modern leaders too often disconnect their thinking from the past, and military professionals are often too focused on immediate pressures to properly utilize history in any critical analysis. The essays were first presented at conferences at Sandhurst, England, and Quantico, Virginia, and then assembled in this volume with an aim to show why the study of history is important to military leaders, and also why it is so difficult and challenging to apply.

An opening selection is the conference keynote address by Sir Michael Howard, who was also quoted in the Echevarria piece. Amodel and mentor for many in the historical profession, Howard discusses in his essay the problems with parochialism in military history, and disturbing trends toward the study of "War and Society" that neglect "the central activity of the armed forces, that is, fighting."

Following Howard's typically eloquent offering, the remainder of the essays is organized in two groups. The first discusses the influence of history on the military profession. All four articles in this section are critical of current military attitudes and how we educate individuals about history. British Lieutenant General John Kiszely presents a paradox that the costs of a poor understanding of history increase with rank, while the time available for proper study considerably decreases. He argues for more history in military curricula, as well as more emphasis on a life long program of self-education. Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, USMC Ret., follows with an essay that is particularly useful because of his thoughtful recommendations regarding books military professionals should read. He describes the virtual elimination of history from military education in the 1950s and 1960s, and how an undue emphasis on the science of war over the art of war hurt subsequent American military performance. He explains his own efforts to restore balance in Marine education, and closes with fears that a current emphasis on scientific planning techniques such as operational net assessment or effects-based operations might endanger efforts to keep history at the core of professional military education where it belongs.

The editors conclude the first part of the book. Sinnreich provides a rather depressing overview of the role of history in professional military education, emphasizing that the discipline has too often been ignored, and even today is not adequately a part of war college curricula. He agrees with Echevarria on the utility of history, saying that soldiers prefer simplicity and precision in learning that can produce a dismaying reductionism or Jominian search for universal principles. Sinnreich favors Clausewitz's view of the purpose of studying war, "to hone judgment before battle, not dictate decisions during it." Murray decries contemporary trends in the American military toward anti-intellectualism and inflated expectations about technology. While he also echoes Echevarria's concerns, Murray argues that "only history can give the professional some sense of the interactions that occur on the battlefield, no matter how imperfect and ambiguous those lessons might appear." Nothing prepares soldiers and Marines to deal with uncertainty better than a study of history.

The second part of the book is titled "The Past as Illuminator of the Future." Paul Rahe from the University of Tulsa opens with a discussion of Thucydides that is a good summary of his work, but could have been structured to be more relevant to broader issues. Colin Gray follows with a discussion of the continuing relevance of Clausewitz to modern warfare. John Gooch from the University of Leeds uses many historical examples to draw insights about the development of strategy at various levels. His excellent piece is followed by three case studies by British authors regarding military failures to properly understand or use history: Andrew Gordon on the Victorian Royal Navy; Major General Jonathan Bailey, British Army Ret., on European lessons learned from the Russo-Japanese War; and J. Paul Harris on the British Army between the world wars. The book then concludes with two attempts by Americans associated with the Marine Corps University to use the past to project the future; Christopher Harmon on terrorism, and Frank Hoffman on civil-military relations.

The paperback version of this book is well worth the price for its insightful essays, which will appeal to anyone interested in military history or military education. But despite the editors' intent to demonstrate the importance of history to military leaders, the end result of this collection also reinforces Echevarria's cautions. The second part has numerous examples related to the costs of ignoring or misinterpreting history. But the collection would have benefited from a couple of detailed case studies regarding nations and leaders who properly applied historical analysis. This would have further buttressed arguments about changing and strengthening the role of military history in professional military education. This collection leaves the reader with the impression that history is a dangerous tool that is perilous to ignore or use. That may be another reason the discipline needs to be emphasized more in the war colleges.

Reviewed by Dr. Conrad Crane, Director of the US Army Military History Institute.
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Author:Crane, Conrad
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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