US Army Reflections on the Value of Military History

06.12.14 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Far from being a subject of merely antiquarian interest, military history is an essential tool for training of soldiers and for institutional accountability, according to newly updated Army doctrine.

But only if it is done right.

In Military History Operations (ATP 1-20, June 2014), the Army discusses what military history is for, its development over time, and the proper way to produce it. Some excerpts:

“The history of Army operations and activities is not documented or written for public affairs purposes. It is not shaped to reflect particular viewpoints, programmatic goals, or institutional agendas. In the past, military organizations and commands exaggerated achievements of individuals, units, or systems while downplaying setbacks. Army field historians guard against these instances and ensure that historical documents, reports, and official histories reflect a full accounting of operations or institutional developments as they occur. Anything less is a disservice to the Soldiers and Army civilians whose actions are documented, those who must learn from them, and to the integrity of the Army as a whole.”

“History cannot be fabricated. Any fabrication corrupts tradition, professional education, and tradition. The integrity and standing of Army history, gained over nearly a century of recognized excellence, can be permanently damaged. The Army is best served by the careful and unbiased recording and analysis of the past. To prevent any potential damages from occurring, the collection, research, and writing of Army history is based on impartiality, objectivity, and accuracy.”

“Historical writing is clear, concise, organized, and to the point. Some historians fail to communicate well. They confuse rather than clarify, are wordy rather than concise, and hide main ideas rather than getting to the point. Good writers communicate in plain English and choose words with care to convey meaning. They avoid trite or vague phrases; stale figures of speech; jargon; acronyms; and pompous, high-sounding, and self-conscious literary language. Historical narratives are in active voice, use strong nouns and verbs, and include short vignettes to illustrate points or enliven the narrative. However, they should not embellish or glorify events or offer judgments of individuals or actions. The narrative recounts events as each one occurred.”

The new doctrine instructs Army historians to maintain awareness of captured enemy documents, and encourages them to seek out non-traditional and unofficial historical resources (like the private video and photographic images that were recently the subject of a classification complaint):

“Both official and unofficial photographs and video imagery enhances historical document collections and [are] included in historical document collections. Combat camera teams and public affairs photographers take official photographs and video imagery and provide copies to command and unit historians or military history detachments (MHD). Additionally, many Soldiers carry digital cameras, video recorders, or mobile phones with cameras and video capabilities. The field historian searches for unofficial photographs and videos of potential historical value. This search includes accessing social media sites, personal blogs, and photo-sharing sites.”

“Military history does not produce solutions for problems and does not guarantee success on the battlefield. 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 [provides] 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. It promotes how to think and not what to think,” the Army publication said.