Argumentative Essay Study Military History

West Point cadets departing for a two month-long trip to study European Great War battlefields in the summer of 1919.

Note: We’re revisiting some of our most popular material from the past 10 months for our newer readers; this was originally posted June 4, 2014. Enjoy!

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

My last essay – on a representative list of questions West Point does not emphasize – generated some  strong feedback.  In the spirit of discussion, I feel obligated to address some of these criticisms. For example, via email I received a message with this question:

“Is the reason why war fighting and academic education are stove piped, is because the Army doesn’t want officers to have to ‘think’ during combat operations?” 

There are clearly times when officers must respond reflexively and times where they ought to pause and consider the strategic effect of their tactical actions.  This is akin to the two systems of thinking Daniel Kahneman describes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Officers should always be thinking – the type of thinking will differ according to the military situation they find themselves in.

The argument I advance is a simple one: West Point does not currently offer any regular study of modern war that is relevant to the needs of soon-to-be junior Army officers.  It should.  In fact, as I’ll describe at the end of this essay, and as the picture above depicts, this is an old idea that ought to return to cadet education.  To develop this idea, what will follow is a list of my responses to the comments (which can be viewed here) from the original essay.

1. Measuring Effectiveness in COIN:

James highlighted some challenges with measuring effectiveness in counterinsurgency warfare, particularly the “development and reliable measures of effectiveness as opposed to simplistic measures of performance.”   His comment proposed dropping the word “tactical,” so the question would read: “How should we measure effectiveness in counterinsurgency operations?”  I agree with the amendment; my original phrasing was simply more specific to junior officer concerns.

2. On Suitability for Cadets:

In Michael’s comments, there are two statements with which I’d disagree. The first is that, “cadets and junior officers are not necessarily equipped or expected to deal with these weighty issues.”  I’d counter that the information-heavy (You Tube, etc.) operating environment, current organizational imperatives (i.e. U.S. Army’s Regional Alignment of Forces), and the profession itself – all demand junior leaders with a sense of strategic understanding.  Ready or not, lieutenants must possess a base knowledge of military strategy. Second, on the point that “these questions would be better suited for the captains’ career course [or a master’s program].”  While I agree that these questions should be consulted continually (i.e. lifelong, evolving study), the challenge with CCC is that it lacks qualified faculty.  This is West Point’s institutional advantage – it has both the academic firepower and the military faculty to bring to bear on these issues.

3. On Whether the 10 Questions are Already Addressed in the Curriculum:

Three comments (from Gregory, Tanner, and Jim) all hit on a similar thread: that these questions are already being effectively responded to in the curriculum at West Point. Tanner: “strategic level concepts and problem solving are not left out of the West Point curricular equation.”  Gregory: “These questions…were all debated and discussed extensively when I was there from 2002-2006…Not sure what has changed.”  Jim: “I think a lot of this was dealt with in my day (and still is) in the core History of the Military Art course and an elective I took, History of Revolutionary Warfare…[As an adjunct faculty member, I observed] many of these types of questions are dealt with in capstone seminars for the [senior Social Science] majors.  I think #3 doesn’t get answered until Ranger School, which does a fine job with 2LT’s.”

Consolidated Response: Though there are opportunities for cadets to engage with military strategy and the academic study of modern war – these are limited, scattered, ad hoc, and most importantly, not required.  It is not one of the Dean’s 31 “Domains of Knowledge” which form the individual objectives across all academic programs.  As baseline strategic education is not an organizational priority, it simply follows that what is available is unresourced and inconsistent.  It sits in the canyon between the Dean and the Commandant; both programs graze the surface of the list of ten questions, but fall short of directly addressing them.  Military tactics focuses on the practical and tactical; building platoon leaders as solid as oak trees, while what I describe is more about seeing the “forest” of modern combat.  International relations and political science provide logic and theory at the broadest level – but John Mearsheimer’s offensive realism isn’t all that relevant to a platoon leader in Afghanistan.  In my opinion, we incorrectly assume that all cadets have a firm grasp of this in-exhaustive list of questions based on the sum total of the parts of their education. They don’t. Which brings me to military history.

I tread carefully here because I respect historians so much.  I consider history both foundational and necessary (see “When Warfare Rhymes”)  – yet still not sufficient for the modern junior officer.  To take two examples provided in the comments: first, Gregory mentioned that my question #8 regarding logistics was at least partially addressed by employing the historical example of the “operational logistics necessary to carry out the Napoleonic campaigns.”  Though important, there is clearly more to the story for a modern American junior officer.  The sheer distances involved, the speed with which requests are filled – just think of the changes that have taken place in the past 20 years, let alone the last 200.  Lieutenant General “Gus” Pagonis (Gulf War general in charge of logistics) wrote a book about “moving mountains” for Desert Storm.  Today, just-in-time processes ensure that there are no “mountains” which pile up at any point on the supply chain.

Another example comes from Jim, and the elective he took while at the Academy in the early 1980s on the “History of Revolutionary Warfare.” To demonstrate the insufficiency of this for a modern junior officer, we should consider the recent example of Osama bin Laden.  As David Kilcullen observed, “If bin Laden didn’t have access to global media, satellite communications, and the Internet, he’d just be a cranky guy in a cave.”  Moreover, journalist George Packer interviewed Kilcullen in 2006 on the same point:

“After Kilcullen returned from Afghanistan last month, he stayed up late one Saturday night (‘because I have no social life’) and calculated how many sources of information existed for a Vietnamese villager in 1966 and for an Afghan villager in 2006. He concluded that the former had ten, almost half under government control, such as Saigon radio and local officials; the latter has twenty-five (counting the Internet as only one), of which just five are controlled by the government.”

All this is not to deny history’s importance.  Just that it is not enough.  This is not the first time the idea has been advanced.  In 1961, Sir Michael Howard famously wrote on “The Use and Abuse of Military History,” which offered “three general rules of study” for “the officer who studies military history as a guide in his profession and who wishes to avoid its pitfalls.”  He advised study in “depth,” “width,” and “context.”  Though history is well equipped to provide both depth and width – a crucial background – it cannot traverse the last mile to the study of today’s warfighting context.  And this is what is lacking. Optimally, when cadets study both military history (depth and width) and modern war (context) as Sir Michael counseled, they can draw comparisons and separate the character of conflict from the stable continuities in war across time.

4. On West Point’s Graduates Preparedness:

On Jim’s point that “[West Point] does an excellent job of…graduating 2LT’s who are more than ready to assume their roles as Army officers.”  Although I’m also a graduate, and deeply proud of my cadets, I have to ask a question a social scientist might: by what metric?  I’m not sure what measure we would use; the data is not entirely encouraging. For evidence, see Fiasco, Chapters 8 and 9 (“How to Create an Insurgency, I” and “II”) and Chapter 12 (“Descent Into Abuse”). They document a junior and mid-career officer corps that forgot how to identify, describe, and diagnose an insurgency.  Though there is ample place to criticize Mr. Ricks, these chapters are largely based on legal and courtroom testimony, which are very hard to refute. West Point Professor Emeritus, Colonel (Ret.) Don Snider, drew the same conclusions from the performance of the officer corps in Iraq:

“Baghdad 2003, a brilliant campaign…decapitated the capital, occupied the capital. The same kind of expert knowledge displayed in that armor offensive that was displayed in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, when we kicked Iraq out of Kuwait. The same kind – brilliant.

And what happened for the next year and a half? An insurgency developed, and our soldiers on the ground and their uniformed leaders on the ground could not even recognize the insurgency let alone fight it. Why? One of the most embarrassing periods in the United States Army’s history, what happened? The United States Army had lost the expert knowledge of counterinsurgency. It had atrophied. We had no doctrine. We hadn’t been teaching it at our schools. There was not hardly an officer serving in Iraq at that time in the whole corps that had marched that had ever studied seriously counterinsurgency.”

This isn’t to suggest that West Point is failing to produce great graduates – it is, and will continue to do so. In my estimation, these cadets succeed in spite of this missing component of their education.  West Point is not perfect; there is room for improvement.

5. On West Point’s Educational Priorities:

On Jim’s statement, “You’ve got your list of what you think are the most important things they should learn. I guarantee every department head has a similar list and wishes he or she had more cadet time to teach that department’s priorities. It’s hard to say yours are more important…”

Not more important, but certainly as important – a course dedicated to the study of modern war merits at least some time in the curriculum.  Cadets currently take four semesters of math, history, and in an engineering sequence – do we not have room to teach a basic survey course in military strategy to all of West Point’s cadets?  When I tell family members and other civilians that military strategy is not required at West Point – they are shocked.  Even more so if I take the time to mention that the U.S. Air Force Academy requires two such courses.

I’ll finish by making good on my promise from the beginning of the essay.  As labeled, the photo is of cadets departing in June 1919 to study still-warm Great War European battlefields for two months. This strategic battlefield assessment is exactly the kind of study we ought to bring to our cadets.  Perhaps we should look to our traditions for guidance.  This post-WWI generation of officers did so and it worked out well for them. To paraphrase General MacArthur, “Studying the fields of current strife sows the seeds that on other days, on other fields, will bear the fruits of victory.”

**Note: All this is by way of friendly discussion – I greatly appreciate the back-and-forth.  Many of the comments indicated the same.  I’d also be remiss if I didn’t extend the invitation to all those that took the time to comment to write something to be published on the site.  The site will only survive if it is fueled with ideas and quality writing – something these comments exemplified in spades.

The usual criticism against the teaching of military history is that it in some way encourages bellicosity, that it is somehow morally questionable and actually undesirable in the academy at any level. However, war, though undesirable in many of its attributes, and while it involves people killing and being willing or prepared to be killed, can in fact serve purposes which we regard as necessary–for example, liberty, civic patriotism, and international order. Indeed, nobody, including the UN, doubts that just war properly conceived is an appropriate recourse in international law and the maintenance of international order. War cannot be wished away. It has played a major role in the formation of individual states and societies and in maintaining international order.

Historical Undeterminism

Too often history is taught as if it were a clear linear process in which we know what is going to happen, we know the way the world was going to be, and in some respects there is an inevitability about it. But people at the time had no sense of inevitability about it. The Allies who went out in 1917-18 were unsure what the consequences would be for them of the collapse of Russia, the communist revolution, Russia’s leaving the war, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between Russia and the Central Powers that permitted the Germans to move all their divisions from the eastern front back to the western front. When two powers start a war, generally both sides think they can win, and at least one of them is usually wrong. Understanding the conditionality of it is very important, that the activities of those who take part in war–civilians on the home front, the troops themselves, commanders trying to plan options and strategies—are all important, because the future is in no way predictable and determined. A very important moral aspect of education is that all of us in any scenario–military or civil society–are part of a process in which what happens is not determined. All of us have a role to play.

Historical Memory 

One frequently hears observations such as, for example, “counterinsurgency struggles are bound to fail.” Well, some of them do fail. Equally, since 1945, many of them succeeded. There is no deterministic viewpoint that tells you that any given stage is bound to happen. It is good to introduce students to the uncertainty of the past, because it helps them begin to think about the uncertainty of both the present and the future, an uncertainty that demands their attention, which suggests that history, present politics, the future, are not things one sits back and watches like a spectator, but in which one’s own actions or choices not to act can influence the process.

Of course, one can pull out analogies from the past that help people think but also ones that are not carefully thought through. But it is nonetheless important for any society to have some sense of focus on the past. If one has no sense of focus on the past for judgment, then from where are people to get their ideas? The argument could be made that one responds to every circumstance in the immediate present by judging one’s interests and concerns at that moment, that there’s nothing from the past one needs to conceive of because the past is in some way dead, history cannot be repeated. In terms of war, one might argue that, because all of the weaponry of earlier wars is as outdated as the mammoth or the catapult.

In practical terms, however, no matter how strongly societies believe that they can reject the past, the only way they can do so is by a quasi-genocidal destruction of every attribute of it. In modern times, the only society that has sought to completely reject the past is the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, and it did not work. It was also astonishingly vicious. But the general postulate is more important, that people look to the past when they’re trying to understand the present. They have a group of common memories that in part frame national identity, a sense of patriotism. So the way people use remarks about issues from the past in order to discuss policy today may be flawed–for example, the Munich analogy of appeasement of dictators in 1938 applied subsequently in other contexts–but it reflects the sense that there is a possibility, a need, to explain things with reference to a common memory.

In the case of war, this is even more acutely the need. In waging war, one is asking people to do what they understandably do not want to do, which is to endure great sacrifices and even death. It is therefore important to look to some sense of continuity in order to draw on historical memories that help to make people feel that however difficult this is, it is in some way a necessary purpose.

All of us can justifiably deplore the rather crude sort of blood-and-earth patriotism that was seen in, say, Europe in 1914, which was naive, foolish, and atavistic. But in order to exist in a community, you have to have some willingness to give up things for the greater whole. Ordinarily, the social civility and order required for membership in the community does not involve terrible constraints upon people. But of course, military confrontation and war are very different.

How to Teach Military History

There is an extensive body of material one can use in teaching students of every age about military affairs, the conduct of war, the nature of military institutions, and what war means for individual participants, both soldiers and civilians. Museums such as the First Division’s have enormous collections of the material culture of war, and for the last 150 years there are extensive photographic archives. We now also have extensive film archives going back for nearly a century of war and extensive interviews, both filmed and taped, more recently. Students can also meet and interview people who lived through World War II, to record living history. All these sources can interact to give the student a vivid sense of what war means.

It is more difficult to look at the other side of the hill, but still a worthwhile exercise for students in the upper high school grades. This means that if you are, for example, talking about the Civil War, look at both the Confederate and Union viewpoints of the war. If you’re looking at international conflicts, try to understand the experience of war from the other side, without necessarily sympathizing with that viewpoint. This is particularly useful for students who might end up serving in the military, because one can only know how best to wage war by understanding how one’s opponents are likely to perceive one’s actions.

Military history encompasses a wide range of sub-subjects. There is the operational history that is understood to be military history on the History Channel, the doings and campaigns and battles of military formation, but there is much more than that. Let’s look at a few.

First, there is the relationship between war and the development of states. After all, it is through war that states developed. The U.S. bears the origins it has because it arose as a result of a successful war of independence. Through war again, the U.S. expanded from the Atlantic to the Pacific: conflicts with Native Americans, war with the Mexicans, the occupation of Florida. The development of the American state, finally and most traumatically with the Civil War, would have been totally different without war.

A second major aspect of military history is war and the international order. It is through war that the relationships among states have been molded and influenced. States that do well economically tend to demand a role and place in the international order that accords with their views, and until very recently they have pursued this through violence. It is entirely possible that military preparedness will also play a role in how they pursue it in the future. Some have argued on the obsolescence of war, which may be true at the level of great powers, since no one wants to engage in a nuclear conflict. But it is equally possible that military confrontation short of war will be an important aspect of the military history of the future, and we need to understand what will and will not be achieved through such processes.

A third aspect is what is known as “war and society,” what used to be called “new military history.” War and society covers an enormous range of topics, such as the experience of women in war and war and environment. One can also look at the military itself as a society. If you think for example of the First Division in World War I, the world it came from, you’re talking about large numbers of men taken away or volunteering to leave their home communities and forming a new social order in which one had to rapidly introduce ways of behavior that fulfilled the tasks of the military. All of those are important aspects of war and society, and in order to understand military effectiveness, you have to understand how armies work as societies–what hierarchy, deference, order, independence, and autonomy mean in a military context.

A fourth concerns war and culture. War has had an enormously important impact on culture. The triumphant display of power through conflict was long a major theme of cultural output, and more recently one sees criticism of the horrors of war. Both cultural themes can be seen in the arts. One can juxtapose to upper-level high school students images of the triumphalist account of the culture of war and the critical account. One can contrast Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, an astonishing piece written to commemorate Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Victoria over the French, with perhaps Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (1962) or Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960); or Picasso’s Guernica (1937) with an account from the Times of the bombing, then a German propaganda piece claiming that Guernica was never bombed. Doing so makes for an interesting lesson in how war is open to different accounts, and how those different accounts are sometimes heavily propagandist.

As one moves into looking at the experience since World War II, there are some wars of course of which the records are relatively dim. For the war in which the largest number of people–over 5 million–were killed in the last fifteen years, the Congo war, we have very few reliable sources and very little by way of good film material suitable to show students. But for other wars there is a great amount of material from which teachers can draw to help students understand (a) the experience of war, (b) the purpose of war, and (c) the fact that war means different things around the world. It’s tremendously valuable for Western students to understand that most war in the world is not a matter of Western powers; much of the war in the world is in South Asia or subsaharan Africa, and it is often an aspect of conflict that responds to and reflects the natures of those societies. Students need to understand what terms like tribalism and ethnic conflict mean if they are to understand the world in which they live. Through looking at recent war, one is helping to unlock students to understand that the world in which they live involves complex issues, that these issues are divisive, that the divisions involve enormous sacrifices on the part of many of the people involved, and that these pose real questions for the U.S., as for other powers, as to how to respond and whether or not a response will be successful.


Teaching military history is a key element of civic education, which is an important dimension of society. It is a key element of patriotism, encouraging people to understand their own country in the context of a world in which they have their own values, in which their own country is important and central, but their country is not in isolation, it interacts with others. Any healthy society must encourage a mature debate about values and rights and responsibility, especially that responsibility covered by military history–namely, those occasions when citizens must risk their lives for their beliefs.

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