THE USE AND ABUSE OF MILITARY HISTORY
by Professor Sir Michael Howard CBE DLITT FBA FRHS
How to beseech Clio without sounding like an old don?
Pursued in this manner, in width, in depth, and in context, the study of military history should not only enable the civilian to understand the nature of war and its part in shaping society, but also directly improve the officer's competence in his profession. But it must never be forgotten that the true use of history, military or civil, is as Jacob Burckhardt once said, not to make men clever for next time; it is to make them wise for ever.
This lecture was given on 18 October 1961 by Professor Howard, who was Reader in War Studies at the University of London at the time.
Hans Delbrueck, perhaps the greatest of modern military historians, shrewdly put his finger on the weak-nesses both of the military man who turns to history and of the academic who turns to military affairs. The latter, he pointed out, 'labours under the danger of subscribing to an incorrect tradition because he cannot discern its technical impossibility'. The former 'transfers phe-nomena from contemporary practice to the past, with-out taking adequate account of the difference in circumstances'.
Like the statesman, the soldier has to steer between the dangers of repeating the errors of the past because he is ignorant that they have been made, and of remaining bound by theories deduced from past history although changes in conditions have rendered these theories obsolete.
We can see, on the one hand, depressingly close analogies between the mistakes made by the British commanders in the Western Desert in their operations against Rommel in 1941 and 1942, and those made by the Austrian commanders against Bonaparte in Italy in 1796 and 1797: experienced, reliable generals commanding courageous and well-equipped troops, but slow in their reactions, obsessed with administrative security, and dispersing their units through fear of run-ning risks.
On the other hand we find the French Gen-eral Staff, both in 1914 and 1939, diligently studying the lessons of 'the last time' and committing appalling strategic and tactical blunders in consequence; conduct-ing operations in 1914! with an offensive ferocity which might have brought victory in 1870 but now resulted in massacre; and in 1939 preparing for the slow, thorough, yard-by-yard offensive which had been effective at the end of the First World War and now was totally outdat-ed. The lessons of history are never clear. Clio is like the Delphic oracle: it is only in restrospect, and usually too late, that we can understand what she was trying to say.