The Merits of Military History

By Maj Terrence P Murray

At Chancellorsville in May 1863, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, outnumbered two to one, deployed two divisions defensively abreast the Rappahannock River to thwart the advance of the Army of the Potomac, while Gen Stonewall Jackson’s corps flanked the Federal Army and conducted a devastating attack on the Federal rear. It was a classic exhibition of the philosophy of defensive maneuver, wherein the outnumbered and outgunned Confederate commander balanced his offensive and defensive dispositions to maximize his mass at the point of decisive action, at a selected time and place on the battlefield. This historic battle offers one of innumerable examples of the importance of maneuver in war.

Mr. Lind’s article, “Defining Maneuver Warfare . . .”, which appeared in the Mar80 GAZETTE and his follow-on commentaries in Apr81 and SepSl concerning the Corps’ need to shun the concept of attrition warfare and embrace and master the concept of maneuver should be a stimulus for Marines to adapt the current instruments of war to the looming high-tech battlefield of tomorrow. Reactions to his insights in defining maneuver manifest the impact of his timely observations. These reactions also demonstrate the shallow understanding that Marines, in general, have of the concept of maneuver.

Maneuver is as timeless as conflict itself. Mr. Lind is attempting simply to apply it to the present conditions, technology, and potential missions of the Corps. The basis of his application, however, is more adaptation than innovation. The wide-eyed response to Mr. Lind’s observations suggests our seeming ignorance of this and underlies a greater problem at the center of this ignorance. Marines, and military men in general, would be more comfortable with concepts, new or old, if their knowledge of military history were better founded. “Read and re-read the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar . . . and Frederick,” advised Napoleon, “take them as your model; that is the only way of becoming a good captain, to obtain the secrets of the art of war.” The scarcity of training in military history strikes at the heart of our military education.

It is insufficient that our Marine Corps schools merely teach principles of war without rooting them thoroughly-even exhaustively-in historical examples. As Napoleon and the other recognized masters of strategy and tactics have attested, even the most practiced combat veteran suffers from insufficient exposure to the varied, capricious, often confounding circumstances which battle can present. Detailed and intensive studies of great battles would, in part, serve to alleviate the limits of personal experience. As Napoleon observed:

. . . tactics, evolutions, the techniques of engineers and artillery can be learned from textbooks, but a knowledge of the higher elements of war can only be acquired through a study of military history and through experience itself.

Today, there is but a modicum of historical study imbued in our primary Marine officer education institutions. The Basic School offers some historical examples in defining the principles of war and expounding the tenets of company tactics. Amphibious Warfare School strikes at the periphery in elective studies and in its research requirements, and Command and Staff gets a bit closer in similar curricula. None of these schools, however, makes the study of military history integral to the officer development process, and therein lies the critical deficiency.

Can we be so presumptuous, so indolent, as to suggest by the scant presence or total omission of historical analysis from our military educations that we can do without drawing on the experience and insights of past masters-Jomini, Lee, Frederick the Great . . . This is not to say that their thinking should go unquestioned, for Mr. Lind, through Boyd’s’ thesis, has, himself, attacked them mightily. Yet it is uncontestable what the great captains achieved. Moreover, as Willoughby observed in his brilliant Maneuver In War, the great captains themselves-Clausewitz, Moltke, and Foch:

did not consider the tactical schooling of leaders as the most important item of their professional equipment; they esteemed above all an intellectual training derived from a comparative study of the past.

How can we, then, rely on one FMF tour every four to six years, particularly in an age of rapidly expanding technology, without compensating with intense and pervasive analyses of the great or small-yet-significant battles of past wars at all our military schools, recognizing that the principles of war, to large measure, remain constant and only the implements of war and the scenarios change. As the Army’s Chief of Staff in 1935, MacArthur noted:

. . . the military student does not seek to learn from history the minutia of method and technique. In every age, these are decisively influenced by the characteristics of weapons currently available and by the means at hand, for maneuvering, supplying and controlling combat forces. But research does bring to light those fundamental principles and their combination and application which in the past have been productive of success. These principles know no limitation of time.

Familiarity with the writings of notable strategists of the past and case studies of history at every level of officer education would make us, for want of a better example, less awestruck by the newly bandied about concept of maneuver warfare, which is far less revolutionary in many respects than current authors would lead us to believe. This is not to say that present commentary is not necessary to stimulate creative minds not to suggest that we, as Marines are already intrinsic masters of maneuver doctrine. I submit, however, that military history proves that maneuver theory reaches decades, even centuries back in time, and yet so many of us seem ignorant of it. In the Civil War alone, as Chancellorsville denotes, evidence of maneuver warfare is replete: Jackson’s Valley Campaign; on a lesser scale Longstreet in the Wilderness; and in the final days of the South’s decline, painfully long after the last legitimate Confederate offensive, Lee fending off a host of Federal thrusts at Richmond-all examples of maneuver warfare with the South fighting at incredible odds and surviving through maneuver on a grand and often brilliant scale. Unquestionably, attrition warfare was in evidence in the defense of trenches during the Civil War, but there was maneuver also.

It is time for Marine planners to rethink the education process, to formulate additional means to teach doctrine and ensure it remains current during the interminable voids between FMF tours and in the absence of actual combat experience itself. Correspondence training, for example, should be expanded to encompass military history, perhaps to include separate courses or case studies at company-battalion, regiment-division, and corps-army level. Such training would enhance career development and give continuity to officer education while countering the inefficiency, from a combat readiness standpoint, of normal officer career patterns.

Dr. Luttwak’s profound retrospective of our Vietnam involvement in the Ju181 GAZETTE and his attendant critique of military education identifies the lack of practical training provided by Service academies and other military schools and particularly the void in studies of military history, which inherently denies a diversified perspective of war. In Dr. Luttwak’s words military schools:

treat military history as if it were a marginal embellishment instead of being recognized as the very core of military education, the record of trial and error on which today’s methods can be based.

Military thinkers who have exerted a pivotal influence on what has broadly evolved as contemporary tactical and strategic theory forged their doctrine, in part, through the study of history. Napoleon’s application of the principles of war, including his theories on mobility and maneuver, which he formulated from detailed studies of principles and concepts of his legendary predecessors, were instrumental in his transforming a demoralized French Army into a near unbeatable force during his stunning campaign in northern Italy in 1796 and 1797. Guderian’s brilliant success in World War II, as the architect of the Third Reich’s blitzkrieg lightning war of movement, was developed through his exhaustive studies of maneuver in previous wars and by his firsthand observations of the debilitating nature and strategic futility of trench warfare in World War I. And the list goes on and on.

The road is clear for Marine leaders to add a vital component-the study of military history-to the intellectual development of the officer corps. In a cogent essay, S. L. A. Marshall once provided an elemental formula for officers’ education:

The basic requirement is a continuing study, first of the nature of men, second of the techniques that produce unified action, and last, of the history of past operations, which are covered by abundant literature.

The material is readily available. The need is evident. It is time to act.