On the Future of Army History: Still Lost in the Woods Looking for a Reflective Belt

I recently read a great article from Foreign Policy citing a lack of critical thinking skills on the part of U.S. Army officers, and it stated that a solution lay in a better groundwork in history. First off, anyone who’s spent time working on staff at any level can agree to the lack of critical thinking. And the resultant madness is proof; how many “fun runs” can be born before staff realizes they are no longer fun, or even a run?

Officers of the 20th ME 2

Even staff in the Civil War were never happy.

While I agree that officers do need additional schooling in history, I would say that the groundwork should be laid at a lower level, with enlisted. Sad as I am to admit it, the Marine Corps is the model for this. Marines know their history, and are willing to share it enthusiastically when asked. Why? Because they’re damn proud of it, that’s why, is usually the response. I’ve never encountered a Marine who didn’t know where Belleau Wood was or what happened on Iwo Jima. This should be the model. Young Soldiers should know what happened on June 6, 1944, or July 2, 1863. They should know and be proud of their history. This can be accomplished through a rigorous and imaginative unit historical program.

Now, the Army does have a historical program, but it is desperately out of date. Army Regulation 870-5 governs the Army’s historical program, from archiving, to unit lineage and honors, to museums. However, like most Army doctrine it is didactic, monotonous, and, well, doctrinal. And like most Army doctrine, it was out of date at the time of publication. Still, it is a basic guide that can be used by Army historians. With one frustrating problem.

“History,” so the adage goes, “is written by the victors.” While this may be true on the broad scale, it is definitely true that history is written by the maneuver elements, or, more aptly, with the maneuver elements in mind. This is logical: the purpose of maneuver units is to close with and destroy the enemy, thereby making them the focal point on the battlefield. This also assumes that the battlefield is the focal point of the history. Historians, like journalists, tend to gravitate where the action is. They do not want to write about a boring patrol that did not turn up anything, even though it was successful.  Rather, they will write about a mission that went awry or about significant shifts on the battlefield. Historians look for changes and trends, and these are easily found in the general metrics of maneuver units: numbers of patrols, fire missions, raids, et cetera. They are easily quantifiable and, like the Vietnam-era body count metric, can be used to determine the success or failure of a mission or unit.  However, like the Vietnam-era body count metric, they can be misleading and lead to overlooking critical metrics that are more applicable, i.e. for stability operations, the number of reports of enemy activity from local communities, and so on.

As any good logistician will exclaim, support drives maneuver.  In a more measured tone, support and maneuver have a symbiotic relationship where neither can do without each other.  In a similar sense, the maneuver support elements share the same relationship, with a few exceptions.  Combat Engineers and Military Police can often bring the same firepower seen in Infantry units, with their own individual twists.

The issue then becomes that we have a system that gravitates towards metrics and combat arms, which has several inherent dangers. One, metrics lie constantly. And can often be changed to reflect the author’s bias. Two, the changing nature of the modern battlefield often places non-combat arms in hostile fire. And additionally, the contributions of support and logistic units dictate the success or failure of combat units. It was refreshing to finally see a logistician’s view of the war in Afghanistan with Jeff Clement’s, The Lieutenant Don’t KnowIn this book, Marine Corps officer Jeff Clement describes his deployment to Helmand and the harrowing logistics patrols that he underwent. His writing brings into stark relief the realities of logistics units in a warzone with no identifiable front lines.

Even though this is the most common view for loggies, it's still an important job.

Even though this is the most common view for loggies, it’s still an important job.

The book also tells the story of an individual. And let’s all be perfectly honest here: that’s way more interesting than metrics, or what general visited which base on what date. The human element is what makes history the most fascinating topic in the world (yeah, I’m a little biased on that). Sadly, official Army history often misses that. As an example, while deployed to Afghanistan, I was the battalion historical officer. I had the requirement to produce three official historical reports. The format for these reports were dictated to me from our higher brigade, and they were fairly similar to the example found in the AR: dry, metrics-based, and lacking the human element. While the report encouraged frequent pictures, maps, and interviews, there was no basic space for personal stories or narratives. There was one section ambiguously labelled, “Heroes.” Requests for guidance on what this title meant were met with silence.

Sadly, most requests for information from the brigade historian were met with silence, which brings me, in a highly circular way, back to my original topic: Army officers don’t know their history. As I experienced in Afghanistan, most battalion and brigade headquarters looked at the additional duty of historical officer as a throw-away title and gave it to the lieutenant with the least responsibility. There’s usually a reason that lieutenant doesn’t have responsibilities. This meant that historical reports were placed on the back burner and only mattered in the sense that they were a suspense that had to be met, on some tracker somewhere. Which is entirely the wrong answer.

Simply put, Army officers need to emulate their Marine Corps cousins (I can’t believe I’m saying this), learn their history, and then teach it through the ranks. Organizational history can be a powerful tool, both for morale and lessons-learned. However, we won’t be able to leverage this tool until someone places more emphasis on history than they do on reflective belts.

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9 thoughts on “On the Future of Army History: Still Lost in the Woods Looking for a Reflective Belt

  1. First off, excellent article. Second, if the end goal of understanding your unit’s/service’s history to increase morale and lessons learned, what do you think a broader reading of history would add to this? Getting outside of history that is influenced by the Army’s culture would, I believe, enable greater critical thinking and adaptability among officers and senior NCO’s. I agree, unit history should be engaging, but it should be a first step towards a more critical reading of that history. Just my two cents, again great article and looking forward to reading more.

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    • Thank you! I really appreciate the feedback! In my opinion, the Army culture is not geared towards history whatsoever. Field grade officers often pontificate on it, company grades profess an interest, but it not a wide-spread institutional understanding. If you look at the British Army for example, you see an organization that takes its history and melds it into everyday life. I think if the officer corps of the US Army, and the NCO corps, has a better broad understanding of history, then it’s one step closer to making it institutional.

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  2. From an actual Marine Corps officer:

    -Minor quibble: Support (which I take to mean logistics) enables maneuver. It doesn’t drive it. Rather, intelligence should drive operations.

    As for Marines knowing their history–yes–it’s been etched into who we are. I’ll definitely grant that.

    But Marines have battalion and squadron historical officers too. I think perhaps a little more latitude is given to writing about particular events that occur, anecdotes, etc., but at the end of the day, they’re the same dry dry documents. I hesitate to call them “history”, as they’re really just bits of written evidence with no argument presented. But nonetheless, if you’re looking for the Great Ideas, you’ll not find them written by the Command Historian.

    Additionally, you won’t find Marines understanding their history in a wider context, generally. Marines may know of Smedley Butler, but they won’t know that he took part occupations of central American countries on behalf of United Fruit Company that lasted literally decades. It’s all “Mom, The Flag, and Apple Pie” kind of history. It might be good for animating the spirit of bravery that binds Marines to their past, but it really doesn’t drive critical thinking for Marines. Not often, anyways.

    I will say that our MAGTF Plans Officers (MOS 0505) who attend the School of Advanced Warfighting (SAW) are steeped in history–the entire course is apparently historical in nature. From my understanding of the Army, Navy, and Air Force versions of that course (SAMS, SAAWS, MAWS), those courses aren’t taught with a basis in history. I’ve heard the Army variant is very process-oriented–as in the MDMP. The Air Force version is steeped in what used to be called EBO. I can’t say what the Navy version is like. And frankly, I’m going completely on hearsay here. I’m not an 0505, although I’ve occasionally thought about going that route, and I may still do so.

    But at the end of the day, if you’re looking for critical thinking, you probably shouldn’t look in the military. They guys who have the easiest time in OCS are the PT studs who are of reasonable moral character–they’re not Peter Orszag, Elon Musk, Joseph Stiglitz, Steve Jobs, or Carl Sagan. We don’t promote people because they can come up with a nice historical argument for why the ISIS is winning, or why China is bucking its historical trends in building a blue water Navy, or whether the Taliban are or are not a Maoist insurgency. The military wants smart people, but not too smart. If you get too smart, you start doing things weirdly out of character with the institution. Still, the Marines to a reasonably good job of keeping alive an intellectual subculture and allowing some mavericks to do their own thing. But it’s just a subculture–a subculture that’s allowed to exist despite the larger service, not because of it. Hell, your Army’s H. R. McMaster was not recommended by the promotion board for promotion to brigadier general, until somebody else saw to it. Had the Organization Men had their way, he would have been retired now as a Bird Colonel, probably writing a book–like MAJ Don Vandegriff, USA (Ret.)

    I’ll end with this: Command and Staff College: It’s only a lot of reading if you do it!

    Semper Fi,
    Nate

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  3. My major quibble with this piece is the idea that the marines understand their history. They don’t. They understand their mythology. Myths have their importance too: they build esprit de corps and provide for easy moral lessons. A marine regurgitating the tired old points about Belleau Wood (which are largely of dubious historical accuracy) does not create adaptive thinkers at all, but it does instill pride to be a marine.

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