Secrecy News

The Urgency of Military History

The task of the military historian differs from that of the academic historian because military history has an operational dimension. It is supposed to help inform current military operations with the lessons and the perspectives of the past.

“The historian must always bear in mind that the whole purpose of the history office is to help the warfighter by serving as an advisor and presenting critical documentation when needed,” according to a new US Air Force Handbook on the subject. “The mission drives what is important for the historian, not the historian’s particular interest. ”

The military historian also is responsible for identifying and assembling the raw materials of future scholarship. Contrary to what “many new historians may incorrectly assume, documentation will not automatically arrive in the office. The historian must seek it.” See Aerospace Historian Operations in Peace and War, Air Force Handbook 84-106, April 2, 2020.

But operationally, history can only do so much.

“Military history does not produce solutions for problems and does [not] guarantee success on the battlefield,” an Army manual on the subject explains. “An approach with these goals leads to frustration and biased or inaccurate history.”

“Rather, military history affords an understanding of the dynamics to shape the present and enables Soldiers the perspective of viewing current and future problems with ideas of how similar challenges were confronted in the past. . .  If history rarely provides concrete answers, it offers insight and understanding.”

“Historians know that Army history records triumphs, challenges, and failures. Army historians do not judge operations and actions; they seek to tell the full story so that others learn from it.” See Military History Operations, ATP 1-20, US Army, June 2014.

2 thoughts on “The Urgency of Military History

  1. Seeking is indeed a critical element of the endeavor. The Intelligence Officer employs a collection plan and the Historian would do well to construct one. The plan must evolve as new sources arise and others are changed or discontinued. Inquiries to the History Office may reveal gaps in the plan.

  2. Steven,
    You have many quotes comparing the Air Force manual with the Army techniques guide. But, I don’t see your thesis, as it were. Is your point that historians should never judge, or that military historians are essential, or that the Service’s historians should never judge? Or that operational history is of limited value? Which can only be true if you assume that it is something that it was never intended to be. Comparing the apples of the Air Force and oranges of the Army history programs suggests this may be the case. However, just because they share the word “history” does not make them similar.

    Frequently, misunderstanding happens when someone asks when can “history” be written. This is something debated in the literature over the last 40+ years more times than, I think, anyone has ever counted. Likewise, the value of “Applied History” has been hotly debated since the 1990s. The debate continues within both services. Most recently, I think, with the Army’s writing/publication of the 2003 OIF books outside of CMH. Too soon to be History, their director said on LinkedIn some time back.

    The critical difference between the two programs is the intended outcome—most of the techniques, training, and practices are the same—and size. The Army has the Center of Military History that focuses on academic writing, ‘capital H’ History telling the Army story. This is supported by Military History Companies and detachments that deploy into combat zones to capture information and data. Then there are separate but like organizations (e.g., the fantastic Army History and Education Center) in the Soldier history ecosystem.

    The Air Force has a much, much smaller and decentralized “applied history” program with a much different job. You can see this in its goals to help the organization learn. Their historians don’t write history just to put a book on the shelf—give them 80 more people, and I’m sure they would love to do that too. The Air Force deploys individual civilian historians from its wings and centers. They go, document operations, send it to the archive, and rotate home to catch up with their own organization’s history.

    AFPD 84-1 is the place to start to understand that, for the Air Force, the essential role of the historian is to help their organization be better at what they do. The techniques of history to preserve institutional memory are key, which is why aerospace historians are out of their office, in the meetings, and out where the mission is accomplished. They are there, first and foremost, to help improve decision making by pushing information fused with historical context back to the leaders making those decisions. These are not intended to be solutions for problems but data and context from how others handled similar situations and the results of those efforts. Better information = better, more informed decisions = improved combat effectiveness.

    Aerospace historians are there, primarily, to help improve the organization. Especially in highly focused STEM organizations full of problem-solving, fix-it-now type-A personalities, historians provide the voice of the past to guide the present towards a better future. They are the catalyst for organizational learning.

    At the same time, their work saves a record for the future, enabling the work of future historians. If we accept the argument that sufficient time is needed to gain perspective before ‘capital H’ History can be written (20, 50, or more years), then an archive of curated, preserved primary source and key secondary source documents (the good, the bad, and the ugly) is essential. That is what aerospace historians are out there seeking and organizing every day while they work to support their commander improve the unit. I celebrate these military historians and think they need more resources to keep doing the essential role of preserving what the military is doing for the American public for the American public.

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