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The Value of History for the Field Grade Officer

by Travis Zahnow 

As the US military continues its transition from counterinsurgency focused warfare to Large-Scale Combat Operations (LSCO), Army field grades find themselves immersed in strategic competition. But many in the current generation of field grade officers know little but the last few decades of small-scale operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The transition to something new could be painful, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. Field grade officers have a guide to the future found within military history books. The study and application of military history is still a field worthy of a field grade’s time, and considering the Army’s refocus, more important than ever to the future success of our Army. 

The study of military history is imperfect, but, as historian John Keegan argues, if you study the history of warfare, you study the history of the world. Studying military history arms the field grade officer with the lessons of the past, present, and future of warfare. The study of history equally prepares leaders to think critically, solve problems, ask the right questions, and impart insight. Additionally, studying the campaigns of the past exposes the astute field grade officer to the history, traditions, innovations, and lessons of prominent leaders before them. And, of most importance, a well-developed understanding of history teaches the value of a general survey of the past.

While history affords lessons from other’s experience, it does not give its reader all the answers. If we, as field grade leaders, are not careful in our study, we may fall into the trap of believing we have discovered a checklist for warfare success or fostered self-delusion concerning the challenges of warfare. While either of these pitfalls is possible, they are also avoidable by the careful study of history within context. However, a historically educated field grade officer is better prepared to confront the challenges that war continues to play in modern times, more so than the one that did not study the writings and lessons of the past. 

Studying military history offers field grade officers the tools of critical thinking and problem-solving, among others. As General Mattis reminds us, a grounding in military history offers the reader the “opportunity to not be caught flat-footed by any situation” they may face on the battlefield. A well-read professional cannot possibly have lived through every military conflict or campaign, but they may have experienced many military problems through others’ experience; the deep study of military history can grant that opportunity. A field grade officer grounded in history has had the fortune of reading, often without the risks and stress of the modern battlefield, the stories and exploits of others in similar situations. 

Reading won’t, as Mattis warned, give its reader all the answers, but it will allow its practitioner to think critically about the battlefield stressors they may face in the future.

A field grade officer does not have to have a degree in history to be historically minded, though that surely would help. Neither should field grade officers rely on Command and General Staff College (CGSC) to teach them everything they need to know about history. While the Department of Military History faculty at CGSC are superb, there just isn’t enough time or emphasis in the curriculum to cover the necessarily wide breadth of history needed for a correct survey of the literature. Instead, field grade officers should undertake their own lifelong self-study of the field. This study would ground military professionals in the nature of conflict, deepening their understanding of war, its outcome, and its impact on the profession. Historical study lends a framework for what leaders may encounter outside the classroom, when battlefield decisions must occur under stress and carry greater consequence. 

A grounding in a broad historiography of military lessons also offers a field grade leader the value of insight. As military professionals, field grade leaders should not undertake the study of military history to learn the exact tactics of a particular military leader in hopes of replication. Doing so would folly into assuming the character of warfare has not inextricably changed over time. Instead, it is to learn why leaders made the decisions they did, to get into the mind of the commanders on the ground, to understand how logistics shaped their operation, or how the weather changed their plans. Military professionals, who immerse themselves in the history of warfare through the works of theory by Clausewitz, Jomini, Douhet, to better understand the nuances of past wars impact on future conflict 

However, It does not have to all be theory. Want to understand deep operations? Read Tukhachevskii’s elaboration of the principles of the tactical and operational phases of deep battle. Want to understand the American way of war? Read Weigley’s American Way of War, or Nolan’s The Allure of Battle, or even Echevarria’s Reconsidering the American War of War. 

Studying history to inform the future does not always mean reading old books. 

The study of history can better prepare officers to trace the common threads of military operations through history while challenging conceptions of the American way of war. These well-read field grades can better realize how the massive changes of history’s pivotal events, interspersed with war, offer potential insight into the conflicts of both today and the future. 

The study of military history brings with it two issues that should remain at the forefront of any field grades mind during their studies. First, military history should only serve as a broad guide since it never offers precise details applicable to every situation. As B. H. Liddell Hart tells us in Why Don’t We Learn from History, history’s real lessons come from its negative value, learning what to avoid versus what to emulate. Great military leaders often draw on the lessons of history when tackling their contemporary problems. There is no reason field grade officers should learn only from personal experience, since there is so much military history to draw from.

Second, the danger of a military professional studying only military history is that it can create self-delusion. History can appear neat in a book, yet it was anything but that in person. Military action is rarely as easy as the books make it seem. It is important to not forget the context of the event, including the mood, morale, and emotion of the people that played a central role in the historical events that are studied. War is a human endeavor that is complicated, dirty, and uncertain. The professional soldier, wary of falling into the pitfalls of the study of history, can elicit value from historical themes and lessons on what to avoid as they go forward in their profession. 

To be valuable, a military professional must study military history and learn its lessons. Warfare has plagued the world since time immemorial and field grade officers must continue to extract value and lessons from the past. The well-read has lived through a hundred battles before ever setting foot on their own. 

From history, military professionals can understand the abstract challenges they will face in warfare’s future. A historical understanding can fill in the gaps of personal experience, lend context to critical problems, and offer certainty in the face of ambiguity while also teaching the value of critical thinking, problem solving, and insight. The alternative to field grades using history to inform future decision making isn’t to not use history, it is to use history poorly and out of context. To deal with the future of military conflict, the military professional must turn to the lessons of the past for a guide, lest they falter in historically similar ways.


Travis Zahnow is a US Army Strategist and Art of War Scholar at the Command and General Staff College. He holds degrees from both the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and the United States Military Academy

These views are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the CGSC, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.




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