Military History

Blogging about the Battlefield since 2005

Why Teach Military History?

Posted by T. Kunikov on November 8, 2007

This was recently posted (about three weeks ago) on the discussion group “H-War,” thought it was worth reading.


by Jeremy Black

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.

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

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

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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