"It's an unprecedented situation!"....ummm not really...

History can be a funny thing, especially military history.  As I tell my students (yes, your Grouchy Historian actually teaches...not for $71,000 a year, mind you...and I don't wear a Che T-shirt) but I can read and write...and amazingly enough so can my students!!  Oops, I digress again.  As I tell my students, human nature is very much unchanged since ancient times and I find it both amusing and annoying when I hear talking heads say-"It's an unprecedented situation!"  well, no not really Mcchucklenuts, chances are that situation has occurred in history.  Maybe not exactly the same way, but greed, hatred, and my old friends fear, honor, and interest are the same in Greece, Rome, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, Libya, and Iran..and the DemocRATic National Convention (whoops, was that my outside voice!).

This is my primary issue with much of the modern, post-structuralist Foucaldian drivel that has infected history.  As I posted before, any idiot that thinks Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, or Thucydides have nothing to say to modern military officers or policy makers is a first-class moron.  Now does this mean that everything from these timeless military thinkers is applicable to 21st century conflict?  Of course not.  Context counts and technology has affected warfare, especially warfare in the last 75 years.  Reading about cavalry operations is not really relevant anymore (although some Green Berets in Afghanistan might think differently)  but understanding the importance of mobility and maneuver on the battlefield certainly is...

Here are some of my specific problems with the "new thinking about military history" spouted by some revisionist historians:

  • The idea that history has to be considered as a series of unique, non-interrelated events-> i.e., history is a discontinuous stream if events that have little or no relationship to each other.  This logically makes no sense for military history.  Cause and effect are, in my opinion, the primary drivers in military and really all forms of historical analysis.  Notwithstanding the so-called "Revolutions in Military History" that are in vogue now, (and to be fair, I do buy into this concept...to an extent) a flank attack would be just a recognizable to Hannibal as it would to Napoleon, or Rommel, or Patton.
  •  If there is a continuity of history, then history can still offer lessons to those who chose to study it with care and discretion.  Critical thinking and contextual understanding remain important tools to comprehending history and making useful comparisons and lesson learned.
So, this brings me to a little volume I keep by my desk...YUP, didn't think I was gonna go out on a limb without a book didja?

For  today's blog post we turn to a recently acquired little volume by one of my favorite strategic thinkers- Dr. Colin S. Gray  Dr. Gray, who has written a bazillion book on war and strategy has penned a pithy little book called Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy that has some wonderful lessons on history, strategy and the study of war.

Each of these forty maxims is short, direct and covers some important aspect of strategic thinking with a clarity that even Joe Biden could ALMOST understand.  Most importantly for me, Dr. Gray covers an extensive range of topics.

Here are some of my favorites:
  • Maxim 36:  Nothing of real importance changes:  Modern history is not modern
But the strategic deeds and misdeeds of the ancients, or even the fairly modern, typically are not regarded as a serious source of evidence for strategic instruction.  This attitude is as prevalent as it is a serious error. 
  • Maxim 37:  History can be misused to "prove" anything
In addition, there are strategists who are truly ill-educated historically, but are unaware of the fact and instead are intensely respectful of such nuggets of convenient purported historical truth as they grasped at an impressionable age.
AND my truly favorite maxim from the book
  • Maxim 14:  If Thucydides, Sun Tzu and Clausewitz did not say it, it probably is not worth saying

    Indeed, people cannot be regarded as educated in strategy unless they are familiar, and more, with these books.  There have been many attempts to write strategic theory for today, but the more earnest the effort to modernize the story, the more certain has been its early intellectual demise.
Needless to say, Dr. Gray has a wonderful writing style with the unique British way of saying "and the horse you rode in on" with a grace Americans never seem to master.

 So why this blog post?...well, I am gearing up to do what I hope is some serious military analysis, book reviews and likely more political snark, but thrown in there, I would like to reexamine the state of history education in America.  As this is a topic near and dear to my heart...and if you ask Amazon, my wallet, it seems a good time to bring things up to date from some earlier posts.

The Study and Use of History in 2011

What will our children learn about history..a real battle for the hearts and minds.

So, strap in...as we move through this painful and never ending political season...which I must admit still DOES NOT compare to how our Founding Fathers waged political war...it's time to become more Historian...less Grouchy....at least until the debates....