The Lessons of History

E1 of Collected Articles



At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962, President Kennedy commented on his recent reading of Barbara Tuchman’s ‘Guns of August’1 that “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time, ‘The Missiles of October’ “2

President Kennedy was giving here an example of applying “the lessons of history” to
aid his decision-making. The withdrawal of Soviet missiles ended a confrontation which could have lead to nuclear war.

Why should this incorporation be thought important?

As this example shows, the importance of this question comes from the need to understand the way states make decisions about their governance. Central to this process is their wish to maintain the security both of their governments and territories. Their official histories assist them ‘….to master the present, to legitimize dominion and justify legal claims,’3 Without the ultimate guarantee offered by their military forces, the social and economic relationships valued by their citizens would suffer. In this essay, the case will be presented that incorporating constructively “the lessons of history” into our thinking of ‘military affairs’ demands great care to avoid false conclusions being drawn. France’s reliance in 1940 on the retractable gun cupolas of the defensive Maginot Line in the aftermath of the 1916 battle of Verdun is an infamous example.4

States no longer exist in isolation, the ages of Wilderness separating them being long gone.5 Their proximity to and need of other states means they have relations with both neighbouring and more distant states. Over periods of sometimes centuries, they have formed out of groups of people, the citizens, who give them their loyalty in exchange for personal security from aggression and fear. To keep this loyalty, the rulers of the states, whether autocrats or representative governments, offer policies which they expect to implement in the future. But the dilemma they face is whether these policies will be accepted, particularly where the citizens have the right to replace governments through elections. So those developing policies draw upon past experiences for guidance, as President Truman did in framing American policies for dealing with the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Second World War.6

These experiences are contained within the study of History which describes past events and the circumstances surrounding them – the branch of history dealing with security matters being covered by the term ‘military affairs’. From their analysis, conclusions may be drawn. This essay shows how states can use these conclusions to cope with the pressures for change they experience, both internally from their citizens and externally from other states, and to assist in planning for the future of their military affairs.7

What does the term “The Lessons of History” mean?

These conclusions often become “the lessons of history”. This term is loosely applied to suggest that what has happened in the past can be used to guide later decision making. For instance, laymen have blamed the failure of the German Armies after invading the Soviet Union in 19418 upon Hitler not absorbing what happened to Napoleon9 whose French Army invaded Russia in 1812.10

But nowadays, writers about history are raising issues which question the meaning of what is popularly taken to be a simple term. What is meant by ‘lessons’? More gravely, what is ‘history’?11 This comes from Ferro’s statement

‘Universal history is dead; it died from being a European mirage, which reflected
Europe’s own illusions as to her own destiny.’12

The history pioneered by European scholars tends to glorify the nation and legitimise the state, often by giving heroic status to certain people such as Joan of Arc, Sir Francis Drake, and Peter the Great. How useful it is for understanding the histories of African and Asian states is debatable.

‘Lessons’, the widespread method for communicating information

In academia, lessons are periods of time when information is transferred from the teacher to the pupil. As their knowledge increases, they gain an understanding of the principles which appear to govern events. In the scientific subjects, these principles are reinforced by repeatable observations, such as the Earth rotating once a day.

In management education, lessons are drawn from similar organizations being examined to find out what happens to them. The differences observed are checked against the different external factors impacting on them. Carefully teasing away their impact helps reveal general management principles. These may lack the rigour of scientific observations, nonetheless they are the basis of decision-making. In their most highly developed form, the case study, the recording of ‘time lines’13 within the chosen organization is used to understand the ‘time-streams’14 within which events occur. Even military plans such as the German Schlieffen Plan and the French Plan XVII, both implemented in 1914, have served as case studies applicable to the study of competitive strategy.15

The two problems of uniqueness and transferability

But in observing and recording past events as ‘history’, the ability to confirm what happened through repetition is limited. For instance, an exact rerunning of the First of July on the Somme is impossible. Exploiting these events as sources for developing general principles has to remain affected by the problem of uniqueness.

Problems even arise over the passage of time. Dates are important for historians and most historical records depend on them. But dating systems vary; for example to Muslim scholars the Christian AD1997 is 1390. In the Judeo-Christian culture time is regarded as being linear – yet to the Athenian Thucydides, time was a circle.16

Taking actions as having their roots in previous events, historians can consider them as being influenced by these events. Hence the military tensions between the France and Germany of 1939 were framed by the events of 1914, which in turn were framed by the events of 1870-71. But how to decide what information can usefully be transferred from 1870 to 1939 becomes problematical – because the environments and belief systems of these periods were different. The misjudged military policy implemented from conclusions drawn about the efficacy of the Verdun fortresses has already been mentioned.4 And in the 1950s, even after the experience of the Fall of France, French planners created forts in Indo-China including the ill-fated Dien Bien Phu.17

Historical military events as the basis of understanding ‘military affairs’

For much of recorded history, perhaps up to the 17th century, military events based on wars, uprisings, armed rebellions, and the use of military force to change leaders are commonly used as ‘marker posts’ in charting the passage of time. ‘Military affairs’ can be taken as being extensions of them. Whereas the former exploits battles and their dates, such as the Battle of Hastings 1066, military affairs can be considered as seeking to understand the multitude of factors which created these events, and their aftermath. This means taking into account the political, social, economic, legal, environmental, and technological aspects. However the historical records, say, as written during the Hundred Years War, rarely documented the external environments of the warring states to the standards expected today.

Nowadays it is easier to understand the German divisions of 1945 having cadets from the Hitler Youth too young to have been taken into the SS divisions of the 1941 German Army. The demographic consequences of high casualty rates meant that to refit these divisions these youths had to fight. To equate the 1945 divisions with those of 1941 is unacceptable; in terms of their training and equipment they were merely shells of the divisions which began Operation Barbarossa.18

By way of contrast, in science the problem created by different external environments is overcome by the use of experimental controls. In business management, the organizations being studied operate at periods of time which are similar or whose external environments, being relatively recent, are readily understood.

The reliability of the records – and its impact on providing ‘lessons’

When Horne mentions that French instructors admit Verdun ‘….had absolutely no relevance to modern warfare’,19 nevertheless the battle of Cannae won by Hannibal’s Carthage over two millennia before still excites military historians20 – even though it did not lead to outstanding strategic success. The recording of such events raises the issue of the competence of individual historians. Inevitably the quality of the writing reflects their education, hence in Britain these writers were often monks. The modern understanding provided by economics, medicine, science, the study of politics, and sociology among many other subjects developed during the recent past was not available to them. Even the technology available to record events was limited, so usually only major events were dealt with to any depth. The invention of paper capable of being produced in large quantities, coupled with the invention of printing, began to open up the amount of information which could be recorded about such matters as the external environment. Only with the development of archaeology and logistics management have academic disciplines such as sociology begin to expand knowledge of the living framework within which these events took place.

Additionally, these historians were usually on the side of the victor – simply because in a brutish world the price of failure was exile, imprisonment or death. Understandably their writings tended to flatter the conqueror and defame the conquered, a charge laid against the playwright William Shakespeare in describing Richard III, defeated by the Tudor grandfather of Queen Elizabeth I – a queen sensitive to challenges about the legitimacy of her right to reign. This example illustrates the possibility that the official histories of many states may only be promoting their dogmas, ideologies or regimes.21 However there may be parallel ‘histories’, which seek to right what citizens see as wrong in the official histories, and also societies’ memories expressed by word of mouth through songs, plays and festivals and through other media such as paintings.12

This leaves the modern historian having to judge the validity of what was written at the time. Ancient authors such as Xenophon and the Plinys give recording of events which appear stripped of mythology. The campaign to destroy the city of Troy described by Homer is filled with mythology, nevertheless it has a nucleus of what today can be taken to be ‘facts’.22 When Schliemann excavated a mound where Troy was described to be, he found evidence of a city destroyed by fire. But was it the result of military conquest, or simply the outcome of fires which so easily swept through cities even up to the 17th century?

If it is felt worthwhile for ‘lessons’ of ancient events to be incorporated constructively, a view on the veracity of the ‘facts’ has to be formed. A careful assumption has to be made. The information passed down should be taken as being reliable, provided that it conforms with that is considered to be reasonable, employing the intellectual rigour available in 1997. For otherwise, all history up to recent times, unless defined by visual recordings, such as photographs, film, and sound recordings, would have to be disregarded. And as Robert Capa’s photographs of the death of a soldier during the Spanish Civil War demonstrated, even visual recordings can be challenged as being fakes.

However even recent history can be misleading, as vividly shown by the analysis of the ‘live and let live’ policy in the trench warfare of the Great War which surprisingly showed that often ‘….it was not nearly as bad as some would have one believe.’23

This assumption makes it acceptable to draw general conclusions from past military events and to use them to develop general principles for incorporation into our understanding of military affairs. But when attempting to forecast what might happen in the future, they should not be dogmatically promoted as though ‘laws of physics’. Military strategists must recognise that new evidence may require their modification or even replacement, the ‘Alexander’s question’ posed by Neustadt and May, when making plans.24

The limitations of modern historians and their methodologies

As Fischer shows in ‘Historians’ Fallacies’,11 the interpretation of historical events is heavily subject to the personal prejudices and intellectual capability of the individual historian. He gave evidence of historians deviating from objectivity, perhaps because of distaste when writing about a particular event, or its players. For example, the controversy surrounding General Haig’s leadership of the British Empire’s Armies between 1916 and 1918 still reduces to being For or Against Haig.25 The strength of response to his leadership is somehow accorded the test of the historian’s virility – not the ideal basis upon which to attempt a rational and objective analysis of his personal contribution to the outcome of the Great War.

When the prejudice is based on a strong ideological belief, the basis of Marxian scholarship, 26 inevitably counter-claims of abuse of accuracy arise – even though Marx himself considered history to be a science.27 Hence some Marxist regimes such as the former Soviet Union sought to create a universal history which hid unpleasant facts such as the massacre of Polish officers at Katyn and the contribution of Trotsky who later fell out of favour with Stalin. Besides the Soviets, the Nazis also had a strong ideology, and both saw history as a way of educating their young to accept their regimes.

Compounding the search for veracity is the minefield of methodology. Ultimately it is for modern historians to argue about the tools used in their ‘trade’ – the fallacies presented by Fischer ranging from question-framing to substantive distraction suggest that even eminent historians can err at times. Though this essay raises issues about the accuracy of historical facts, it cannot but conclude that it is best to accept that this is a continuing problem facing all military historians and analysts.

So where does this leave such people trying to assess the worth of “the lessons of history”? Whilst agreeing that these lessons are based on what are generally accepted as facts, they should be careful not to reject information challenging them.21 They should accept that history is the interpretation of the information currently available and that this is often based on probability rather than certainty. Nevertheless, despite this limitation, they can prepare logical analyses of historical events which can contribute towards problem-solving. From this can flow military principles to be used constructively in forecasting. However it is crucial they accept that these lessons have weaknesses and be sufficiently flexible to change the forecasts if they begin to mislead.

The rise of the factional genre – a warning to all historians

Although not a military event, the historical event of the Hillsborough football tragedy in 1989 serves as a warning as to how easily facts can be distorted. The day after a play televised on 5 December 1996 the Daily Mail reviewer remarked,

There lies the insidious weakness of the factional genre. Of the facts on which
McGovern was basing his argument, we had only a partial view, We couldn’t
test them. We couldn’t hear the other side of the argument. We had to take
them on trust….
I am saying that the notion, embedded in the script and repeated like a
mantra, that the play was telling the “truth” about Hillsborough was wishful
thinking at its worst.28

The ability of film and television today to distort events can easily lead to myths being claimed as ‘truths’. Unless this process is vigorously resisted, history as an accurate record will become little more than a fable or a morality play, giving no insights to guide future or modify current decision making. In the context of military events, history will revert to being mythological accounts of valour and cowardice, becoming the Metaphorical explanations promoted by Nietzsche.29

For the purpose of testing the possibility of constructive incorporation in problem-solving, it remains necessary to make historical facts the best fit to what actually did happen, but recognising that new evidence may require their modification or even replacement in using “the lessons of history” for making decisions.

Even the greatest of military masters can err

When basing future campaigns upon past events, even great military masters need to take great care in applying lessons. For example, Napoleon sought battle at Borodino believing that victory would leave the Russians suing for peace. In his strategic planning before the battle, Chandler notes Napoleon as having

….reason to doubt that the Russians would be unduly worried if a French force
appeared in their rear. His studies of the campaigns of Frederick the Great had
convinced him that Russian armies were not particularly sensitive about their
communications when it came to the actual fighting of a full-scale battle;
Frederick’s experiences at both Zorndorf and Kunersdorf were particularly
relevant in this context.30

In order to disperse the fog of war, Napoleon believed strongly in the need to ‘Study attentively the campaigns of the great masters.’31 His use of a lesson of Prussian history is an example of Fischer’s statement ‘….to clarify contexts in which contemporary problems exist’.32 Through the logic of problem-solving, Napoleon was deceived into believing that victory would bring peace on his terms. Although his plans did open the road to Moscow, the later Retreat from Moscow suggests that he erred by becoming ‘….trapped in the confines of a single analogy….’. Like other decision-makers, he needed a ‘….clearer understanding of the history that so often imprisons them.’33

Modern states and the future of incorporation

In modern states, such as the European countries and the United States of America, the relationship between state and citizen gives great stability. From this have evolved collective security arrangements such as NATO which guarantee a security umbrella to protect multiple states.

But the political, economic and resource changes taking place globally are creating great turbulence in international relations as other states modernise. Although collective security does give comfort, it cannot be taken for granted. Matters of vital interest can arise rapidly and threaten stability, such as the invasion of Kuwait and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Therefore the strategists must continue examining their security plans to make sure they are still relevant. Through recognising and controlling the limitations of “the lessons of history”, they can be incorporated constructively into these plans.


1) Barbara W. Tuckman, Guns of August, titled in the UK August 1914, (London, Constable and Co., 1962).
2) quoted in Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking In Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (New York, The Free Press, 1986), p.15.
3) Marc Ferro, The Use and Abuse of History or How the Past is Taught (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981) p.vii.
4) Alistair Horne, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 (London, Macmillan & Co, 1962) pp. 337-8.
5) quoted by Dr. BA Paskins, MA in War Studies Philosophy lecture, 30/1/97.
6) Ernest R. May, “Lessons” of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy (London, Oxford University Press, 1973), p.82.
7) Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking In Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (New York, The Free Press, 1986), pp.273-5.
8) Geoffrey Regan, The Guinness Book of Military Blunders (Enfield, Guinness Publishing, 1991) pp. 173-6.
9) Michael Howard, The Causes Of War and other essays (London, Temple Smith, 1983), p.191.
10) David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966).
11) David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Towards a Logic of Historical Thought (New York, Harper & Row, 1970).
12) Ferro, The Use and Abuse of History, p. 235.
13) Neustadt and May, Thinking In Time, p.274.
14) Neustadt and May, Thinking In Time, pp.246-270.
15) Bob De Wit, and Ron Meyer, Strategy, Process, Content Context: An International Perspective ( Minneapolis, West Publishing Company, 1994) pp. 606-618.
16) Neustadt and May, Thinking In Time, p.232.
17) Horne, The Price of Glory, p. 348.

18) Alan Clark, Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-1945 (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995).
19) Horne, The Price of Glory, p.348.
20) Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, Watchwords (London, Skeffington and Son, 1944), p.116.
21) Michael Howard, The Lessons of History (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1991), p.19.
22) Homer, The Iliad (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1950, translated by E.V. Rieu).
23) Tony Ashworth, Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System (Basingstoke, Macmillan Press, 1980), p.226.
24) Neustadt and May, Thinking In Time, pp.152-6.
25) Major the Hon. Gerald French, D.S.O., French Replies To Haig (London, Hutchinson and Co., 1936).
26) Hayden White, The Historical Imagination In Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press, 1973) p.281-330.
27) White, The Historical Imagination, p.279.
28) Max Davidson, ‘Dangerous cocktail of ‘truth”, Daily Mail, London, (6 December 1996).
29) White, The Historical Imagination, p.372.
30) Chandler, The Campaigns, p.798.
31) Carol Reardon, Soldiers And Scholars: The U.S. Army and the Uses of Military History, 1865-1920 (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 1990) p.49.
32) Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies, p.315.
33) May, “Lessons”, p.190.