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The importance of studying military history

What is it about the question, “why should we study military history” that raises such a storm of conversation? In a society that expects education to serve a useful purpose, the functions of history can appear more difficult to define than those of medicine or nuclear physics. History, specifically the study of military history is very useful. In an age of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the old subjects of strategy and tactics can seem obsolete. The importance of the battles of Little Big Horn during the Plains Indian Wars or Kasserine Pass during World War II in North Africa might not be evident if you are thinking only in terms of pushing big red buttons. It is imperative for civilian leaders to understand the military issues before them and the lessons that Soldiers of the past fought so hard to learn in order to prevent new generations of Soldiers from learning them all over again.

It’s no surprise that American civilians tend to lack a basic understanding for military matters, not to mention military history. In a society that expects education to serve a useful purpose, the functions of history can appear more difficult to define than those of medicine or nuclear physics. History, specifically the study of military history is very useful. Today, universities are even less receptive to the subject. This should be profoundly troubling to our society. A democratic nation should fully understand war, especially in an age of weapons of mass destruction and religious radicals attempting to spread their ideals by using terrorism.

Neither most of our citizens nor many of our politicians seem to recall the incompetence and terrible decisions that, in June 1876 and February 1943, led to massive American casualties as well as much public despair. It’s no surprise that many Americans think the violence in Iraq is unprecedented in U.S. history. Nearly 4,000 combat dead in Iraq in four and one-half years of fighting is a terrible thing. The American people still bicker about total withdrawal, defeat, up-armored HMMWVs and proper troop levels. But a previous generation considered Okinawa an overwhelming American victory, despite losing, in a little over two months, four times as many Americans as we have lost in Iraq (Hansen, V. (2007). Why Study War?). It has been stated in many news articles that the current rate of U.S. casualties in Iraq would take 75 years to total the same amount of casualties that we experienced in 10 years of fighting in Vietnam. One American casually is too many, but war is an ugly beast, people die. That is why it is so important that our politicians and public understand what war is really about.

Military history is not a bunch of cookie-cutter answers to each and every problem facing a young military leader or our nation today. Germany’s victory during World War I over Russia in under three years and their failure to take France in four years apparently misled Adolph Hitler into thinking that he could defeat the Soviets with little problem. After all, Germany defeated the historically tougher France in just six months (Thompson, F. (2007). Remember the Past.).

The battle at Little Big Horn in Montana is studied to this day by military leaders. What could possibly be learned from a battle that took place over 130 years ago? The tactics and weapons are antiquated by today’s standards. The Indian wars are the stuff of legends and a few B-grade movies, or are they? What exactly can we learn from Custer’s defeat?

One thing for sure about Custer was that he was arrogant. Custer was a successful commander from his days in the Civil War up until his death on a hot and dusty hilltop in Montana in 1876. The defeat at Little Big Horn, as are most defeats in hindsight, was avoidable. Custer had the best Soldiers and the best equipment of the time period.

The initial plan to force the Indians back to the reservations appeared to be sound if executed properly by the three large columns of Soldiers involved. Communication became a large factor for the participating commanders. Custer, Gibbon, and Crook all had key parts to play for the execution of the plan to work. Timing was a key in order to ensure everything went according to the initial plan. However, General Crook’s column of about 1300 Soldiers was attacked at Rose Bud Creek by almost the same number of Sioux only nine days prior and 30 miles away from the sight of Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn. General Crook’s men were so badly mauled that they were forced to return to the South for supplies and to treat their wounded (Hardy, S. (2004). Custer’s Last Stand.). Crooks column was a key element in the “hammer and anvil” plan that was to be executed. Custer had no idea that Crook had been defeated by such a large number of Indians or that his column would not make the scheduled rendezvous time and location.

After locating the main Indian encampment, Custer was told repeatedly by his scouts that the Indian camp was the largest that they had ever seen and there would be at least 1800 to 2000 warriors in the camp, probably more. Custer ignored this advice. Custer initially made a plan to bed down his command and attack at dawn the next morning. Not only thinking his men would be fresh for the fight but that Crook’s column would be arriving at any time. Custer’s scouts reported that Indian scouts had seen the command and were reporting back to the Indian camp. Actually, the Indian “scouts” were leaving the camp to return to the reservation and they had not seen Custer’s command at all.

Custer’s orders were to locate the Indian camp on the Little Big Horn River and not let them escape. With these orders, the lack of knowledge of Crook’s situation and the then common knowledge that the Plains Indians would not stand and fight but disengage after a short fight, Custer decided to attack. The fact that Custer split his command into three separate battalions is a constant source of debate. This also was a standard practice when fighting the Plains Indians at that time.

What lessons can we learn from Custer’s tragic defeat? Sound intelligence of the enemy situation is a must. Custer had solid, eyes-on intelligence from reliable sources but ignored it. The lack of communication was also a huge factor. Many leaders and historians believe that Custer would not have attacked the Indian village that day if he would have known of Crook’s defeat and the number of Indians that attacked Crook’s column. The Indian tactics had changed. Custer not only did not know this, he completely underestimated the Indians ability and will to fight as well as over estimating the ability of his own men. The chances are pretty good that Custer’s own arrogance very well may have overridden all of the hindsight knowledge that we now have. One of the main lessons to take from Custer is this; it is only a matter of time before an arrogant leader will fail.

Arrogance and underestimating the enemy you face is a lesson that seems to be learned over and over again. In Tunisia during 1943 the American forces were inexperienced and poorly equipped, at least compared to the German forces that they faced. The Kasserine Pass is gap in the Grand Dorsal Mountain chain in central Tunisia. The German Afrika Korps were veteran Nazi forces commanded by the brilliant Erwin Rommel. Rommel was retreating from advancing allied (British) forces. Rommel’s counter attack was aimed directly at the inexperienced American forces and backed them into defensive position in the Dorsal Mountains (M. Haze, (2002). Battle of Kasserine Pass). The American equipment was of no match to the superior German tanks and firepower. The American tanks were riveted together. When hit, the tank’s rivets broke loose and killed and wounded as many men as the German shell that hit the tank. The American tanks and thin armor and the tank’s cannon could not be aimed as effectively as the Germans or penetrate the German armor even if the Americans were lucky enough to hit a German tank.

The battle at Kasserine Pass was a defeat for the “green” Americans. The Americans learned many valuable and expensive lessons from the Kasserine Pass debacle. Leadership and tactics were changed. Equipment was immediately updated. The Germans learned some lessons from Kasserine Pass also. For the rest of the war, the Nazi high command relied on reports sent from Rommel’s men regarding the Americans’ inferior equipment. They apparently never grasped the idea that the U.S. weapons constantly improved throughout the rest of the war. After the battle Rommel was contemptuous of both the U.S. equipment and fighting ability. He basically considered them a non-threat. Based on the knowledge gained at Kasserine Pass the Germans greatly underestimated the skill and resolve of the American Soldier.

War is about killing, pain, and fear, and any attempt to disguise this or portray it otherwise is not only wrong but immoral. War is not only killing, pain and fear. It is the purposeful use of force to achieve political goals. Anyone who thinks that this statement is less than black and white has not spoken with the troops on the ground during one of our wars that was “blessed” by political approval.

Many Americans today believe that anyone who studies war must approve of war as though anyone who drives a car must naturally approve of car wrecks. How much farther from the truth could these people be? There are many reasons to study military history in our schools and colleges. America is once again at war and this time there is really no end in sight. We are fighting for our basic way of life. The study of military history for our civilian wartime leadership is critical. Politicians start wars and politicians lose wars. Today’s young people are tomorrow’s leaders, both in politics and the military. If for no other reason than we want to avoid war whenever possible, universities and public schools should at least offer the option of studying military history.


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