Just what does that phrase mean? What kind of intellectual background does it take to even make that statement?

Those who have raised children in the last three decades know the state of history education in our schools. We also know that our centers of higher education have more or less purged their history departments of military historians. Required history courses – where there are some – more often than not do not cover military actions in any kind of context or depth. When you fold in the fact that the Navy has an institutional bias towards technical fields of education – then it is no surprise that historical illiteracy runs rampant from E1-O10. Is this a bad thing, or just a nuisance?

From $100 dollar questions such as, “Which nation is younger, Belgium or the USA?” to $1,000 questions such as, “What is the source of the border conflicts between Bolivia, Chile, and Peru?”, we simply do not do history well. As a result, when we work with our partners we regularly embarrass ourselves from ISAF to UNITAS as we demonstrate our ignorance of not only our history – but that of the rest of the world.

Even when we narrow the scope down to naval history – historical blindness has had real, definable costs. When you look back at some of the Navy’s worst errors in the last decade from LCS, DDG-1000, and the influence of the Transformationalist Cult – they all derive from a poor understanding of the lessons of history; i.e. – Battle Cruisers and Patrol Hydrofoils proved decades ago the seduction of speed is not worth the tradeoffs; regardless of technology the MK-1 Mod-0 eyeball is the primary sensor in the littorals; every successful shipbuilding program has been the result of evolutionary instead of revolutionary change. The examples are legion when you expand the relearned basics during this war by the Army and USMC.

There are notable exceptions though. Ironically, two of the best leaders of this war, Gen. Petraeus, USA and Gen Mattis, USMC – are both men seeped in history. Especially Gen Mattis, his love of good books and fine history are well known. There is a lesson there, but let’s move on.

How do we fill the knowledge gap in our profession when it comes to having a sound history-based foundation? Does the present system work? I think the answer clearly is, no.

To gain a historical perspective, it is either pushed to you via academics – or you can pull it to you through traditional media, museums, and online.

Where do our new leaders learn of our past? Most are not getting it in their middle and high schools – college is hit or miss. Except for a lucky few, most are too busy fighting through differential equations and mind bending electrical engineering classes to reflect and ponder. Once they hit the Fleet – too busy getting qualified and leading Sailors and Marines to wander down to the book store or library.

Sure, some will – but most won’t. Where will they find their history when they have a few minutes to chase down something that sparks their interest? Where most of their generation gets their information; online.

In the last few years, some great things have come online in the realm of naval history online. The Navy History and Heritage Command has always had a great site – USNI is expanding its offerings as well to include the drive to put the entire Proceedings and Naval History magazine archive online, and our sister blog, Naval History. Museum offerings are starting to come online more and more. It is easier to find and order good books now, and great books continue to come out that tell the story right; Toll’s Six Frigates is one example. But are we fully utilizing technology to get history in the heads of more people?

Back in Feb on Midrats, we discussed the place of blogs in the Navy media ecosystem. That topic was general in nature, but many of the themes we hit on relate to the telling of history as well.

What role does new media have in history? At first blush, one would think that established historians would welcome the expanded discussion – but in line with the reaction we have seen in other areas – the reaction has been, well, reactionary.

A funny thing happened – the Empire of the Dead Tree is fighting back. Many professional historians don’t seem to like what new media is doing WRT history. OK, let’s look at that.

With a mixture of disgust and fainting spells, over the years I have been on the receiving end of various forms of, “Who are you to say this? Why, this isn’t even peer reviewed!” Fair, I guess. I am not alone – this happens to others in new media – and even old media – who opine about history and its lessons. It seems for many that new media is just a step too far. If one finger is pointing at new media, then lets look at where the other three are pointing.

Who is a “historian?” What is their mission? Are they succeeding or failing? Some of the worst damage to the field of history education (see all the fetid mass of post-modernism for examples) has been done by those with a PhD – though of course there are wonderful history PhDs out there. Those three letters do not make the holder a gatekeeper to what is or is not a proper way to distribute the lessons of history. History belongs to all who wish to find it – and the place to find it for tomorrow’s leaders is online.

You really cannot replace the tremendous depth and value of receiving an academic background in history, and books, magazines, and museums provide a more rounded picture than online …. but in the 21st Century they cannot do it all. When most never get a chance for one-on-one instruction – much less dialogue – on history, then to rely on traditional methods and gatekeepers alone is folly.

The past isn’t to be forgotten or tightly controlled within defined walls and limitations, no – it is a treasured resource that should be open to all who can reach her and as a bonus can never be depleted. You can dip in to it over, and over, and over, and over. Each month, more and more primary sources become available online that you can access. No gatekeepers with agendas or egos to tell you what is or is not worth your time. Lessons are there to be found written in blood, heros to be honored once forgotten – and more importantly – those new leaders coming online need to see, read, and hear these things. Some things may be old news to some – but are as new as a sunrise to others joining the profession of arms.

Write a book, publish an article – put a post up on a blog. Get the conversation going. Expand the network nodes. Each part should reinforce the other – but don’t look backwards and hide behind the walls of academia.

History is not something to be kept up on a shelf; it isn’t something that belongs to only a select few; it isn’t something that should be tightly held like some Masonic esoterica.

No, when history is stilted, and dusty – left as a footnote in some peer-reviewed publication – it is nothing but a self-licking ice cream cone.

The history profession has failed and/or been locked out of doing its job in the classroom in all but a very few places. I would offer to those who think that the study of history is too important to leave to the amateurs, too dignified to be put on a, ahem, “blog,” that they should follow the diktat of a well worn phrase,

“Lead, follow, or get the h311 out of the way.”

Posted by CDRSalamander in History, Training & Education

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  • Corbin Williamson

    Do you think there is a potential following/interest in a naval history blog?

    Are there are active naval history blogs besides the ones you mentioned?

  • A failure in the study of history(1 believe) is a serious
    look into the minds and thinking of those who made a mark.

  • Andy (JADAA)

    Amen. I read History for my undergraduate degree. For over 30 years I was utterly appalled, on a near-daily basis, at the willful ignorance of naval, military, aviation, American and world history shown by my peers, seniors and juniors. There were a few who either were very well read or at least knew some of the rich text and subtexts that weave through those threads, but they were few and far between. A literal boots-on-the-ground tour of Corregidor helped for some, and others were willing to walk through time in Israel, Greece and Venice.

    I notice that our co-DON members, the Marines, require knowledge of the Marine Corps’ history of at least their officers and senior NCO’s. That’d be a good start, IMHO.


  • ‘Phib:
    Recall our off- and online discussions a couple of years back as Navy twisted itself into knots over what constitutes an ethos? I seem to recall part of that discussion entailed an assertion that an ahistorical climate was one of the root causes.

    Not that it seemed to have had much effect on the ethos-by-committee that was eventually released…

    w/r, SJS

  • Heh. Tell me about it. I taught military history at the Field Artillery school to young men who would rather repeat the mistakes of their fathers than skip a quarter of football to read a book.

    The fetish of speed is endemic to the futurist.

    Why then, did the light tank, darling of the 30’s, go the way of the dinosaur when the slugfest started in 1939?

    As I concluded in an FCS study… when the situation does not allow you to trade space for time, being in a tank, rather than a tin can, is very nice.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    I am sitting in the National Security Course, listening to speaker after speaker proclaim that “it’s a new world” and that we have to “forget old ways”, because “nothing like this has ever happened before”.

    Let’s see. A Muslim incursion on Europe? Nope, never. A Russia that is perceived as too internally weak still managing to alarm its neighbors with its territorial aspirations? Unprecedented.

    Oh, and a Pacific Rim power eyeing oil and raw material resources from Indonesia and elsewhere, in a direct challenge to the United States and her shrinking Navy? Never heard of such a thing.

    “A culture that does not learn its past is like a small child lost and wandering, who knows not from whence he comes, nor whither he goes.”

  • A.J. Chance

    As a reviewer if military books I can honestly say that most are not written in a manner that engrosses the reader. They are boring unless you are already interested in the subject. Even most military fiction is written in a less than interesting manner.

    If you want military history to compete with TV football or Hollywood it has to be conveyed in a way that compels the readers and students to become involved.

    Grousing about how lousy our youth is will not change the problem.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “Grousing about how lousy our youth is will not change the problem.”

    No, but it’s convenient.

  • Keith B. Rosenberg

    I am an amateur, but I know of Nimitz and Nelson, of Coral Sea and Copenhagen, of Bing, Mahan and Cape St. George. Some of my colleages at work even make jokes about my passion for history, mostly WWII.

    Amateurs should be embraced if they are passionate about History and it brings more awareness. Abraham Lincoln did not study law or math after he became President, he studied warfare and history. Amateur though he was seen in those subjects, he became as knowledgeable as some of his Generals and his performance was outstanding because of it.

  • A.J.,
    I am not grousing about the youth. The youth are not the problem – as a matter of fact I have a feeling of greatest hope when I work with them. They swim in the sea they are born in.

    The problem are those in power. You want to pick a generation that is a problem – it isn’t the young today – it is the Boomers who hold the power.

  • RickWilmes

    Powell History offers an alternative interesting approach to history.


    Welcome to Powell History! Now you don’t have to scour massive, incoherent–and boring!–textbooks to tortuously piece together the story of Western civilization on your own! POWELL HISTORY brings history within reach.


  • Spade

    “The problem are those in power. You want to pick a generation that is a problem – it isn’t the young today – it is the Boomers who hold the power.”

    This is spot on, I think.

    When I was in college 5-6 years ago I was a History major. Naturally, I loved military history. It was the whole reason I switched from MechE to History (the fact I enjoyed reading Case Studies in the Achievement of Air Superiority more than Statics). So, one day when debating my grad school options I went and spoke to my school’s military historian (who was fantastic).

    I was told that a fair number of schools wouldn’t hire me with that as my speciality. Some would, but the other faculty would hate me unless I had a ‘let’s talk about how much the military sucks’ bent. Odds are I wouldn’t get tenure at the places that would (unless I totally followed the Party Line). The departments that actually liked it were few, and jobs were scarce.

    I decided to do something else.


    With regard to the unprecedented events URR mentions, it’s amazing how we seem to be headed for the Islamic Conquests, the re-establishment of the Soviet Union, and the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere all over again, and, as an added bonus, at the same time! Yet, I know that if I were to mention it to the vast majority of the people I know, I would get a blank look. But I believe that all of them could tell me of Tiger Wood’s troubles, or whether Bret Farve is actually going to retire, or what Jennifer Aniston is up to.

    We have seemingly become a people more interested in the unimportant, that in what we must pay attention to, in order to survive. Our compatriots lack of knowlege of the mistakes of the past has enabled the Current Administration to be elected, and quadruple down on the mistakes of the New Deal, which I will even grant that the New Dealers at least had good intentions, rather than the power grab of the current bunch.

    We have people who the media listen to, that have zero grasp of hitory. America is portrayed as an Evil country, out to build an Empire. Yet what other country has conqoured both Westrn Europe, and the entire Pacific Basin, and then afterwards, has rebuilt the nations that we conqoured, told them to please behave, and left them to get on with thier lives. The only parts of the American Empire that remain, are those that have asked to remain, or, in the case of the Northern Marians, have asked if they could have Commonwealth Status. When did any of us hear of anyone asking to become part of the Soviet Union, or the PRC? History shows that we are an exeptional, albiet, rather odd country.

    We are living in a a much more dangerous world than we were even in 1946, when between the Battle Carriers, Fleet Carriers, Light Carriers, and Escort Carriers, we had ovet 150 carriers, and literally hundreds of Gator Frieghters of various types. In WWII, a Task Force was made up of 3 task Groups, of 2 Fleet and 2 Light carriers. With ships being en roue in and out of theater, and in the Yard for overhaul, do we even have the ability to form a Task Group? And soon we will have only 10 CVNs.

    We can’t fund the military to deal with the threats that we know are out there, and have been out there for decades, if not centuries, in the case of Islam. No one wants to hear of the threats of the past, nor that they are returning. But we can write ACORN almost a blank check. When ACORN, and the socialism that they repersent, are part of the threat! Perhaps we have allowed our willingness to grasp history to slip to the point where we deserve to come to an end, as a nation. How sad for us, that live here now, and even more sad for the generations to come.

  • Paul Withington

    With one son at Annapolis and the other at West Point, I have seen a difference between the two services. The Army has career paths that place a premium on advanced education including history. Most WP instructors are O-4s, who were sent to schools like Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth and Chicago, to obtain their masters and doctorates prior to reporting to West Point. If you read “Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army” you will learn how valued these major can become.

    Let me also add that my younger son, as a history major at WP, will walk the battlefields of Northern Europe this summer and I expect see the crosses of those who made history there. I think he will not forget that history lesson.

  • JAV

    Our kids know nothing of history because most of their parents and teachers don’t. The average high school teacher has not been prepared to teach history in any depth, and the college profs and grad students have become too specialized in their outlook. Perhaps some will be interested in my experience, although I’m sure the others here can relate similar experiences.

    I have been a military history buff since I was seven. I took honors history classes throughout high school, and found none of my teachers even knew the term blitzkreig, even though their parents were probably veterans of that war. We spent 2 weeks of class on the civil rights movement and less than an hour on WWII. I graduated high school with the intention of acquiring a teaching degree, with a social science major, enroute to an OCS commission in the Corps. The university I attended, Eastern Michigan, had a reputation as the premier teacher’s college in the state at the time (late 80s). I looked forward eagerly to in depth discussion of history, and was sorely disappointed.

    A military history course was listed in the EMU course catalog. I was told I could place myself on the waiting list, but it was only offered every 2 years and always filled up quickly with seniors, who had priority. I asked why, if there was a waiting list, they didn’t offer it more often. I was told “lack of interest in the subject”. So why was there a waiting list?

    The American history class I took was supposed to cover the founding of the first colonies through the Civil War. The Revolution was covered in one lecture, which concentrated on the Declaration of Independence, the “celebrity” of Washington, and the Constitution, with no mention of any of the strategies, tactics, or battles. The Barbary pirates, the Indian wars, and many lesser conflicts were never mentioned in lecture and barely mentioned in the text. The War of 1812 and the Mexican War were not discussed. The semester ended before we could fit in the Civil War, although we did spend the last week on slavery and the underground railroad.

    So I took a class titled “Germany, from 1815 to the Present”. Despite the published syllabus that implied wide ranging study through the Cold War, the whole semester concentrated on the political career of Bismarck and the unification of Germany. Somehow the wars fought during Bismarck’s career were never discussed in class.

    Given these standards, most people learn more about war from movies and TV.

    “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” – Winston Churchill

  • Best damn analysis of where we are on this matter I’ve read in a long time. Outstanding!

  • James

    I have read this thread with a great deal of interest from the other side of the pond. When I went up to university to read for an undergraduate degree in History and a desire to concentrate on military history (much the same as any other young man from a service family and intent on his own career in HM Armed Forces), I discovered much the same state of affairs as seems to be the case for you, our cousins. Namely, a concentration on ‘the history of Celtic runes’, ‘the rise of women’s power’ and other such topics. Fine, if that is your interest. Not so good if you grew up reading Biggles, Hornblower, Sharpe etc.

    However, it turned out during freshers’ week (first week of the new year, copious amounts of alcohol, parties, standard stuff) that my university had a course that I had never heard of; International Politics and Strategic Studies. Within that program were courses on ‘National Policy and Espionage’, ‘the Cuban Missile Crisis and Power Politics’, ‘The British Army and Operational Doctrine Since 1945’ and so on.

    In other words, for undergradute studies in such topics, you have to think outside the box and consider where else they might have found a more accepting home.

    As an aside, I was also delighted to discover recently that at least one British university has courses on Naval History and the surrounding domain. They even do distance learning postgraduate courses in it, although they are reasonably expensive. Now then, which mattress did I put all my savings under?!

  • Old Air Force Sarge

    Amen, amen, amen.

    I have loved history since I began reading in grade school. Once I thought that it was only Americans who were, for the most part, content to remain ignorant of history. Until I was assigned to Germany. Not that Germans don’t appreciate history, they just ignore that bit of history from 1933 to 1945. (When I mentioned to a German colleague that Erich Hartmann had just died, his response was “Who?” Just the top-scoring ace of all time, and a Luftwaffe pilot at that!)

    And when you think about it, we use history every day, only we call it memory. (As in “Oh I better not go down that road, yesterday at this time the traffic was horrible.”) If we as humans had no memory of what went before in our personal experiences, our species would have died off long ago.

    Now extend that to the national level, if we can’t or refuse to apply past experience (because we ignore it or can’t be bothered to learn it) how on earth will the United States survive?

    History (especially military history) is so vitally important to the nation that I am often appalled at what I see going on at the highest levels of government and the military.

    If you keep doing the same thing that was done before and expect different results than how are you not insane? If you don’t know what was done before, how the heck can you avoid repeating mistakes?

    Who do we hold up as heroes to our youth if not the men and women who gave up their futures so we could have ours? And where do you learn about them, history, history, history!

  • corvus

    CDR Salamander, great post! You raise a number of issues that are near and dear to my heart, especially the institutional issues related to the fleet’s stubborn indiferrence to it’s own history and barriers to the study of military history in the history academy. It is by no means monolithic in either case, but widespread enough to be a major concern.

    I would like to comment on the institutional issue of military history in the academy just because I am a recent grad of a well regarded West Coast public univiersity MA history program. While this is only a single data point, it still represents time on the front-lines of academic history.

    By way of back ground, I am a former naval aviator, have an undergrad in physical science, an MBA, and now an MA in history. I walked into the history program at West Coast U with a uniquely varied world view that was both a blessing and a curse.

    My very first class was in the fall of 2004, while the Iraq War was morphing into a increasingly intense insurgency. My first class was on the theory and practice of history and we were talking about the variuous sub-fields. My prof, who was very smart and UCLA educated, opined that military history as a field of historical inquiry was dead. I raised my hand and offered my opinion that seemed odd state of affairs when our country was in a war, that there were many historical antecedants to that war, that the consequences of our invlovement could have substantial long-term impact, surely there might have been maybe more historical analyis before committing to the war, and that there would certainly be much grist for the historical mill going forward. Blank stare.

    To be fair, military history has been going through a termendous re-working of its analytical frameworks, connections to other fields of inquiry, and a re-imagining of its role within and outside of the academy; it needed to. The last two or three decades have seen a much needed process of creative destruction within the field. The problem is that the word about the “new military history” has not reached enough history departments and truly sunk in.

    But that should not be a surprise. My general experience in my program was that there is a tremendous amount of intellectual inertia when it comes to thinking outside of some fairly well defined boundaries. I mean how long has it been since Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) shattered some deeply help notions about historical inquiry being limited to only working with documentary evidence and within one’s own discipline (who would want to talk with biologists, or economists, or anthroplogists when trying to understand the past). And yet, those two notions were pretty prevalent in many profs perspectives and how historical inquiry was taught in my program. Again, in fairness, I learned a great deal in my program and just about all of my profs were very smart and creative, but within fairly narrow boundaries. I repeatedly suggested that the academy needed to re-imagine its role in this new world of not only electronic media, but collaborative teams that can share insights and knowledge across disciplinary boundaries.

    The problem is cultural. The history acedemy is creating and dissemintating historical knowledge in much the same way, at least based on my data single data point as they have since the early 20th century. My classroom seminars involved talking for three hours at a pop. No use of visual learning tools. No use of case study approaches to learning. I saw little or no cross disciplinary methods of inquiry or evidence. By the time we ended talking there was little effort to connect the many differnt strands of our discussions to construct a “whole” understading of what we discussed that evening.

    So, I guess what I am trying to say is that the history academy, in general, certainly has a many blind spots. Military history, is only one of them, but the new military historians are trying to shrink it. The history academy often suffers from a broader myopia. Re-imagining the roles and methods of academic historians is to overcome a culture that is deeply rooted and will take both internal and external pressure before there is change.

    So to loop all the way back to the beginning, I think that much has to be done to change how historical knowledge is created and disseminated externally, to facilitate internal change of attitudes towards history within the Navy. A dedicated few are trying, and this blog is a welcome channel of communication to help foster the institutional transformations that will open the doors to better use of historical knowledge.

  • Big D

    I’ll second all of the complaints, and I concur that at least a healthy slice of the problem is due to the lack of interest in the Boomers in what their parents, much less their ancestors, did.

    That said… what about solutions? Online learning has been mentioned, and those of us who have a tendency to look up a battle in Wikipedia and suddenly discover that 2 hours and a dozen topics have passed by certainly have it better than in my childhood. But, that only seems to work for those who are already history geeks. For the larger, less interested public, we need something to encourage them to become at least mild history geeks, or at the very least to drill some knowledge into their heads despite the maintained lack of interest.

    Shows like Band of Brothers or The Pacific help raise general awareness and interest. So do, I believe, the History Channel “light” shows, particularly ones like Dogfights or the 360 series that effectively add eye candy to pique interest and provide a visual context that words on a page or a screen cannot match.

    So, here’s a thought. Would it be possible for one or more bastions of historical scholarship to work with the web programmers and A/V and production experts to come up with some sort of a mix between HistoryAnimated.com, Decisive Battles, Dogfights/Shootout/360, and the like, on a shoestring budget, using off-the-shelf technology (Decisive Battles, for example, made good use of Rome Total War for all of its recreations–no custom animation was needed), posted to a website and backed by mountains of hyperlinks to the same site, to Wikipedia, or to other blogs and websites (such as Naval History or some of SJS’s posts)? If such a monster could be brought to life, would it prove capable of drawing the attention of the less interested, or would it only preach to the choir?


  • LT Joel Holwitt

    I found this post to be very interesting because it strikes so close to home for me. I am a submarine officer who holds Ph.D. in military and naval history, and I continue to believe it’s essential to reconcile our history & heritage with our technical prowess.

    The reaction of academic historians to accessible history is not new. For reasons that seem inexplicable, many academic historians view popular history with contempt. I once read that James McPherson’s one-volume history of the Civil War, BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM, not only earned him a Pulitzer Prize, but also the enmity of many of his Princeton colleagues, who were irked by his popular success. And, as if in reaction to this feeling, many academic historians have wrapped their work in layers of unreadability, particularly by using mysterious concepts like post-modernism and post-structuralism that usually confuse the lay reader. This leads to academic history being, in the words of one of my best history professors, “culturally irrelevant,” with the result that our national history education system is woefully inadequate to inspire or educate our people.

    The Navy’s problems with history stem from this problem and also from the constraints of time. Make no question about it, the great sailors I’ve been fortunate to serve with have all enjoyed learning about history and had a significant interest in their naval heritage. As a submarine JO, I gave history GMTs to the crew, which were voluntary in attendance. Even though it’s hard to pack a lot of people into crew’s mess, I always had a full house. Sailors love this stuff and we should tap that interest to improve their job satisfaction. The problem is that there is always so much to do and so little time. My history GMTs were always the first to be cut off the Plan of the Day for other events, which was completely understandable given the heavy schedule of training, drills, and operations we had to carry out. But the expendability of history extends across the Navy as a whole. Although the Sailor’s Creed and Navy Ethos all speak of the importance and rich heritage of those who came before us, sailors are not immersed in their heritage at RTC and they don’t get much exposure to it afterwards.

    There are no easy solutions to these problems. We will not overcome the problems of the national historical education system any time soon. Things we can do, however, are:

    – Make Naval History training an important phase of Boot Camp to generate esprit de corps.

    – Assign the NHHC to find excerpts from accessible and enjoyable books, or even primary sources, that we can distribute to our sailors instead of a large reading list.

    – Encourage graduate degrees in the humanities for our officers and fund studies at schools like OSU, Duke, and UNC that are strong in military history. These opportunities should be made available to officers who have completed their JO or Department Head tours. At the very least, these officers must earn a Master’s. When I attended OSU for my graduate degrees, this was the Army’s policy with some of their more promising officers who had completed a company command tour. These officers had to earn a M.A., and West Point made it clear that they wanted these officers to complete all of the coursework for a Ph.D. These officers could then complete their dissertations while teaching for 2 years at USMA. The Navy does not have to follow the Ph.D. track, but it certainly can be very rewarding.

    I want to make one last point: there is a place for historical gatekeepers (not necessarily academic). Regrettably, there is a lot of bad history out there, and a lot of it is accepted by our people, from the bogus “Qualifications of a Naval Officer”, which was NOT written by John Paul Jones, to the First Navy Jack, which may be anything but. Our new media presents a significantly greater challenge to find and prevent bogus history, while allowing those who would make up fake quotes to support their arguments even greater access to trusting readers.

    I am frequently surprised by those who believe that history is not important for the military professional. To anyone who doubts the importance of history to our profession, I strongly recommend Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich’s terrific collection of essays, THE PAST AS PROLOGUE: THE IMPORTANCE OF HISTORY TO THE MILITARY PROFESSION.

    Sir, thanks for generating this very interesting post.

  • Commander Salamander,

    You’re a sage sir. You have synthesized the arguments of Linn, Hanson and company into a masterful analysis of how far history, particularly military history has fallen from grace.
    Here is one voice from the the halls of Annapolis that echo that buttress your sentiments.


  • Mike M.

    What galls me particularly is that history is one of the more useful fields. Learning from the triumphs and failures of others is cheap. Learning from your own mistakes is expensive.

    I think part of the problem is the “new broom sweeps clean” mindset. After nearly 30 years working for the Navy, I have been appalled at the nearly total waste of human intellectual capital. Become an expert in a field, and you are almost certain to be shoved aside by the next Johnny-Come-Lately.

    Because real expertise doesn’t fit with a three-year rotation cycle or promotion checklists.

  • YNSN

    History is really only something someone can teach themselves.
    You can memorize dates, names and places. But, to learn history you need to learn the lessons from it (often subjective).

    As a species we learn more and more, and continue to add to the pile of things we ‘know’ (if you graph the technological progress of the human race, it shows exponential growth), it becomes apparent that the only way to make a person sufficiently educated is to teach them to be autodidactic. As 12 years is not enough to have anything more than an absolute minimum baseline of knowledge, 16 years is enough to make one socially competent. and 20 years is enough to make one ready for an internship towards working at many universities. To get a job at the bleeding edge of technology, one really never stops learning and devotes much company time to learning about everything else that is going on in their field.

    Teach a student to derive their own subjective lesson from history, teach them how to think critically about what their history books says to them. Once you’ve given them those two abilities there is no limit to what they can learn. I’d hope this would lead them to be more willing to learn as much as they could, as well.

    I do not want to touch the issues of what is, and is not correct history. Or, what is the better history to teach. Obviously, some of the books being used in Texas classrooms, and material from schools in Virginia cross the line with their absurdity. But, on the whole, I would say that most any history text book is as bland and generic as any other. Coming back to my original point, the only real way to combat this is by showing the student how to find any material they want, and how to cut through the BS–at least, what they think is BS.

  • YNSN

    One last thing.

    MCPON West is the biggest proponent of Naval History and Blk 39 material that I am aware of ever wearing three starts over an anchor.

    I cannot say enough good about what I think he does towards making enlisted aware of their history.

    Facebook is replete with postings from him and his PAO putting up old pictures and asking everyone where and when it was.

  • RickWilmes

    The link to Victor Davis Hanson’s ‘Why Study War?’ is a good one.  I would like to add a book that he recently commented on. 

    “John David Lewis offers a superb appraisal of how ancient and modern wars start and finish. This chronicle of some 2,500 years of Western history is replete with a philosophical analysis of why nations fight, win–and lose. His insights and conclusions are original and fearless–as well as timely and welcome in the confused war-making of the present age.”–Victor Davis Hanson, author of Carnage and Culture

    Nothing Less Than Victory


  • Ink-StainedWretch

    The following is a true story that may help explain what’s happening in our educational system, in which a few are making crucial and many times mystifying decisions–and they’re often not the teachers. Names are not used to protect the innocent, and unfortunately in this case, the guilty, too.
    Years ago, I attended a national convention of secondary school history and social studies for which I had made arrangements to have the military history magazine I was editing distributed to all attendees. The public affairs person, being a retired Marine, thought it was a great idea. The shipment went straight from the printer to the convention hall. On my arrival, no magazines were to be found. I was told that the person in charge of displaying the free copies was offended at offering military history publications to the educators and hid them in a separate room. When the public affairs ex-Marine got to the bottom of the situation, he demanded that I be given a booth on the exhibit floor to distribute my magazines. This conference took place soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, so much hand-wringing was going on in the panel discussions over racial and religious tolerance and diversity. A well-known Civil Rights activist was a featured speaker as was a popular movie star who was volunteering herself as a special United Nations ambassador. In the midst of all this, my magazines were gone in 45 minutes, distributed to the very people who were actually teaching the youth of the nation. The culprits here were not teachers.

  • virgil xenophon

    Don’t get me started. As part of the “war baby” cohort (b.1944) who learned to read pre-TV we must acknowledge that TV and subsequent technologies have mush to do with the “illiteracy” rate among even the most intelligent and well-off children–children whose ability to maintain a train of thought for over five minutes let alone read at the rate of 50pages/hr and maintain interest and comprehension is near legendary. THESE facts are the foundation of our problem. Add to this the PC dumbing-down of text-books in general and the capture of the educational process K-16 by the post-modern, post-colonial multi-culti PC ideologues and anyone wonders why the dearth of knowledge about military history?

    Add to the above is the fact that the far left has infiltrated the military educational process and the problem is immeasurably worse. Robert Farley, PhD at the Univ.of Ky who blogs@”Lawyers, Guns & Money” and “Information Dissemination” and who gets invited to LOTS of military-sponsored seminars and invited to formal speaking engagements sponsored by the military officialdom is a CLASSIC case in point. Additionally, until quite recently, as the late sociologist Charles Moskos took great pains to point out and document, the formal educational process by which officers are groomed for higher command traditionally, actively DISCOURAGED thinking “outside-the-box” thinking and questioning of “the school solution” as well as maintaining a stodgy, out-of-date reading list VERY limited in scope. One personal example. I purchased Martin Russ’ work about the Korean War–“The Last Parallel”–in the original in paperback in Jr HS for 35-cents, recognizing it for what it was. It took almost 40 years for the super-smart “big kids” in the Army/Marines to recognize its worth, put it on its required reading lists and belatedly lionize Russ in the process. What did I know as a Jr high student that took flag officers some 35+ years to recognize? Simply put: An outside perspective not wedded to tradition. The armed services are often its own worst enemies here–as if they didn’t have enough on the outside.

  • Jim Valle

    Technically History is a Humanities and Social Science discipline. Its scope of interest is very broad but its overarching theme is the progression of humankind from pre civilized cultures to the contemporary World via progressive improvements in the arts, letters, science, law, religion, ethics, politics, government and philosophy. It also addresses the many setbacks, crimes, misfortunes, lapses of judgement and egregious mistakes that punctuate the grand drama of human experience. Given this brief, Military History seems to many professional historians to be simple antiquarianism,”salvo trading”, is what they call it, meaning it is steeped in arcane detail and interests only the narrowly focused military maven.
    This naturally puts the academic historical community at odds with most of the commentators contributing to the current blog. Our bloggers see History, and particularly Military History in very practical terms. They appear to view it as a vehicle for inculcating esprit de corps, promoting national awareness and partiotism, preserving the memory of our valiant veterans living and dead, and informing military professionals relative to past policies that have stood the test of time thereby improving their grasp of their chosen profession.
    And then there are the military history buffs. Often they can’t explain just why they love reading and learning about battles, campaigns and leaders in the crucible of combat, they just do. They relish every detail from the thickness of the Bismarck’s armor to the heft of the Colt Army Model ’61 revolver.
    This stuff is great and a lot of fun, too. But, is it really “History” in the sence of leading to a deep understanding of the Human condition in the Modern World. That’s what the professional academic historians are trying to get at and that’s why Military History seems of little use to them. It could well be they’re wrong about that but at least it explains why they’re so indifferent.

  • Bill Wells

    “Who is a “historian?” What is their mission? Are they succeeding or failing? Some of the worst damage to the field of history education (see all the fetid mass of post-modernism for examples) has been done by those with a PhD – though of course there are wonderful history PhDs out there. Those three letters do not make the holder a gatekeeper to what is or is not a proper way to distribute the lessons of history. History belongs to all who wish to find it – and the place to find it for tomorrow’s leaders is online.”

    I would say that the services themselves also contribute to “fetid mass.” History may belong to everyone but not everyone has the ability to research and present military and naval history in a cogent manner. Nor does it require first hand experience. We’ve seen what those too close to the topic can, and do, to history.

    If a service has a reluctance to ensure all materials are available for research then that PhD will only have a narrow view especially if that PhD, or any group of them, is not among the favored few. Then again not all authors who publish books a PhD equipped and as such make no claims that their work is history. Yet, these works will reside on the same shelves. One book Deborah Nelson’s The War Behind Me (about war crimes in Vietnam) will certainly be included. Nelson is a journalist and a professor, not a historian. How many journalists are included in the historical pile?

    There is also a tendency to claim that official histories are naturally biased toward a particular service. This may be true. Before anyone sets out to write an official history, he should read the preface to the U. S. Army’s WWII series. This 100+ volume work was done with honesty in mind and to designed to be a training tool for future officers.

    The largest roadblock to any “gatekeeper” is publication. People may ramble all they wish in blogs and other discussion groups but it doan mean nuthin’ if it ain’t in print. This leads to the problem of a finite number of periodicals, journals or publishers willing to publish anything military or naval that somehow does not fit the editorial boards requirements. Books are more difficult still. Commercial book book publishers want things that sell and if some New Left social history (which can be found in military and naval history) is in vogue it may get printed before others that may have greater academic and military value. That is just the way of business. The GPO is another source but that means one of the services has to approve the book and the circle begins again.

    Even if the service approves a book, how will that affect the publication of another book on the same or similar topic? Just how many ways may the operations at Gettysburg or the attack on Pearl Harbor be published?

    The “mission” of a historian is not to present a truth or an analysis but rather stimulate further inquiry. Any author who purports to have created the definitive work is self-delusional and need to return and read Theodore Roosevelt’s preface to his book on the War of 1812. These are works that the researcher, PhD or not, should use as a continual guide.

    I would say far worse damage to military and naval history have been done by the hacks and those others with a mission or a cause just to prove a point.

  • Sean

    I taught Naval Military History when I was a ‘C’ School instructor during my enlistment in the US Navy. I was given an hour a week on Fridays and a pre-packaged curriculum with approximately 10 slides in it…it was a sideshow to the 9 month course on the Fire Control System electronic maintenance course we taught.

    I promptly tripled the number of slides, crafting them myself and asked my Senior Chief (who was a history buff, luckily) for an extra hour with a 10 minute break to cover more material. It was approved once he and my division officer looked over my materials.

    I made it entertaining and illuminated some of the more colorful actions and events…I even included some things considered apocryphal after first explaining they were just that.

    The students went from being bored to asking questions and we wound up staying a little after with them attempting to pick my brain. I showed them where they came from, the bluejackets who had gone before them and covered themselves in glory and they ate it up. The painting, pictures and images of sailors dressed much like them achieving these things were a revelation. They had no idea in many cases of how glorious and awe-inspiring the history of our service was. They could tell how passionate I was about it and that I wanted to be there telling them…it does make a difference to those being taught in my opinion.

    One of my favorite subjects was the Battle Off Samar during the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf and the desperate and insanely brave sailors of Taffy 3 throwing themselves against Kurita and Center Force. I used scale to effect, showing how many and how large the forces arrayed against them were and although a terrible price was paid those little tin cans and the crazy aviators turned the tide.

    I will never forget when one young man said (mostly to himself), “Why didn’t we hear about stuff like this before? Why didn’t we know this? Those guys were bada–es!”

    Say what you will, but the USMC does a fantastic job of distilling and instilling the history of their service. I always thought we failed our own sailors by not doing the same for them.


  • JD

    I’ve been enjoying this thread greatly, and I have to toss something in. I’m currently on ESPN360.com and watching Aussie Rules Football while waiting for OKC and LA to come back from halftime. It’s Anzac Day in Australia, and their pre-game coverage in the last ten minutes has included a live interview with Mark Donaldson, VC; documentary clips narrated by Gen. Peter Cosgrove, and a brief history of Victoria Cross winners narrated by the sports commentators themselves. The Aussies never fail to amaze me with their reverence for their military history, not to mention the seriousness with which they treat Anzac Day. This sort of thing will occasionally work its way into US sports coverage for a few minutes at a time, but I’ve never seen anything on the scale of what I’m watching right now.

  • Sim


    Yes, but unfortunately the Bombers lost, bloody Collingwood.

    There were a few Danes with me at the game (I go every year I’m home) and they were impressed. Nothing on the Dawn Service though.

  • Sim

    Most of you would like the Dawn Service I think, 50,000 people in silence for an hour, get there about 0530 and before the service starts there’s a narrator that talks, picking stories of battles and individual heroism. Rats of Tobruk, Gallipoli, Kapyong, whatever.

  • Sim

    Actually someone mentioned the TV show The Pacific earlier. In episode two they were billeted in a stadium, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the MCG or just the G. That’s the same place that game you were watching was played on. If you get someone to take you to the MCC members stand there’s a display on one of the pillars with a US flag, a few other things and a list of the USMC units that lived and trained there for a while.

  • Paul

    As a teacher I hope I can offer some insight here as well. I went to get my masters in History right after undergraduate. The professors were offended at my literary style of writing saying that it wasn’t “academic” enough. God forbid I use adjectives in writing, or perhaps interesting verbs. One was really offended that the data I found didn’t match his preconceived ideas about Haiti so I got a bad grade for pointing out the problems of development in that country with Papa and Baby Doc in charge. Wouldn’t knowledge of that be relevant today.?

    I got my masters in English instead, and taught both subjects for years. Many of my colleagues were social studies majors, not history majors, so they focused on more thematic approaches rather than important ideas. The concept of actually discussing “history” was foreign to them, as well as actually applying lessons from the past to today and the future.

    Add to the fact that our culture is “forward thinking” meaning that the lessons of the past are not applicable in our context. Not a good thing in my perspective. The current media environment also does not encourage dialogue and discussion– it prefers assaults and anger.

    Besides, it seems that one thing many of us refuse to do is consider that there are multiple angles at approaching a problem, or a historical idea. I wasn’t a fan of Max Hastings– felt he was too pro-Germany in his books about WWII in Europe, but then I read his book, “Retribution” where he pointed out that MacArthur’s command was smaller than most armies in Europe yet he was a four star general. He also, according to Hastings, didn’t prepare through training his troops for the battles on the ground in the Philippines. I never considered evaluating him through that lens.

    • 1 CONTEN SPELLING SHOULD NOT BE FROZEN by WEBSTER and writing by nitpikers…ala TWAIN

  • Suean Deal Anderson

    Online foraging allows me to find out about books I would never know of otherwise. If there’s no other reason to love the internet and history, that’s it.

    I have a graduate education in historiography, the study of written history. We studied the biases of language and culture of those that write history and how the world in influenced by the language of a relatively small number of writers. (BTW, my love for military history made me nothing short of an outcast in the post-modern, ultra-feminism, let’s talk about “the genius of Michelet” psuedo-intellectual world of academic history.) I can guarantee these people are bitching about online history, they were threatened by anything that wasn’t revisionist. And how can one revise today’s history written in real-time to make it into whatever the political correctness of the day is. They don’t get to shape events when they’re documented by so many participants and witnesses as they happen. Hence the discord.

    So now that everyone (computer-literate “everyone”) is writing their own real-time history, my course of study may not even exist anymore. I can only imagine what the historian of 2075 is going to do with all this info. It’s both daunting and exciting.

    While your suggestion that academic historians blog is a good one, it may not be the best fit for those who study source after source and carefully craft their words. Blogging seems more immediate, more geared towards commentary than traditional historians are comfortable. If they live in the “publish or perish” world, they have to save their words for journals. I like bloggers who comment on things worth reading more about in the traditional manner of page-turning. (No kindle here.)

    Now I’m off to read “Flash Point North Korea: The Pueblo and EC-121 Crises,” a book I never would have heard of if it wasn’t for Facebook.

  • David B. Coleman, Sr.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your article. When in junior high and high school, history was a dreaded subject at best. My high school history teacher did his best, but understanding history in a two-dimensional view was lacking at best.

    In my 20+ years of active duty, I have travelled around the world four times, and visited 45 different countries. This was where I ‘discovered’ my love of history. To see places where I could put things in their true context completely opened my eyes to the value of not only our naval/military history, but the way that history was shaped by the famous battle sites around the world. To see these places first hand, and to listen to tour guides with their own explanation of what happened there (which was very often fascinating when compared to what I had learned in school or from other ‘resources’)and to then put it together with other happenings going on around the world at the same time (putting things together in a total historical perspective) continued to feed my desire to learn more.

    In college, the history that I received was basic at best – though through no fault of my history professors. It was the typical ‘Western Civ’ and ‘US History’ that is most likely taught in many other universities and colleges across the country. Yet, as you describe so well in your article, there was a tremendous gap in the military history of our country as well as that of the military history of the rest of the world.

    For example, in a discussion of the War of 1812, I posited some questions about what the outcome may have been without the exploits of John Paul Jones, and the turn of some of the naval battles that took place in that era. My professor was completely without comment. He had ‘heard’ of Capt. Jones, but other than that knew absolutely nothing of his career or his tremendous contribution to this country.

    Classes on the civil war focused primarily on the political, economical and racial aspects of the war, with only a cursory overview of the battles, mainly land (no mention of the naval battles that took place – ‘damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead’)and then, of course, turned to the carpet baggers and the post-war/anti-bellum collapse of the south following the assasination of President Lincoln.

    I thought then, as I do now, that it was a real travesity that my fellow classmates were to continue their education without ever knowing the complete picture of America’s great, albeit stormy, history.

    Concerning using blogs as a means of communicating something as rich as history, I heartily welcome it. History has taught me that when it comes to new technology, I have, essentially two choices: embrace it and run with it, or be swamped by it as it rushes over my head. The very arguments that some people use to denegrate new technology in favor of keeping the old are the same arguments that were used when the “old” technology was first introduced. “It’s a passing fad,” or “It will never catch on,” etc.

    To you and the other bloggers, I say, “Well Done!” It is the others who will eventually discover what they have missed out on by coming into the 21st century after the rest of us have enjoyed it for some time. Thanks again for a most intriguing article.

  • Bill Wells

    Mr. Coleman wrote,

    “Classes on the civil war focused primarily on the political, economical and racial aspects of the war, with only a cursory overview of the battles, . . . .”

    I would say that teaching battle per se is not all that important to a near the disinterested, filling a slot student who is just getting through his or her core classes.

    The teaching of war is a specialized matter. It is not enough to say the blue army attacked the red army. No, wars are periods of transition from one large historical era to the next. They seem to come at times, or develop at times, when needed to jerk a nation, or the world, into the next phase of historical evolution.

    Stuff happens but not without a reason.

    One of the difficulties in teaching survey United States history classes at the high school or the college it the format that has been handed down to us all from the 19th century. Just look at John Fiske’s 1894 (or so) U. S. History textbook. On a lark, I taught from it while the students used their more modern version and no one knew the difference. I do not believe the multiple authors of the textbooks do either. Well, most do have a anti-Southern bias but that is a topic for another blog.

    What is presented today comes at two levels. Part 1 is the time from around 1492 (with some early anthropology thrown in) to the end of the U. S. Civil War or Reconstruction. Part 2 involves everything else. This is why the end of the book is never reached. Stop along the way to fight the battle at Cowpens and you’ve lost most of the end of the book.

    If more is wanted in the college or high school classroom then a rethinking is needed of the process. Why not five or ten segments of U. S. History? This way the student will be completely indoctrinated in information that will make him or her a true Jeopardy champion.

    The reason there are not more is because of money. Just how much money is a student going to shell out for multiple history courses if they are just getting their ticket punched in the first place. Then school administrators would have to hire more faculty and that is a serious no-no. Faculty cost money and history is not on the top of the heap.

    I’ve not taught since late 2008 because of developing non-Hodgkins lymphoma from Agent Orange exposure. However, during the treatments I thought about how to get around the two segment, over illustrated and expensive text books that are being written by those schooled in the era of the New Left. I thought that perhaps we should return to the principle and let the students, once again, attached themselves to the sleeves of Plato and learn history from case studies. Why not pick out your own material? Most colleges and universities have some sort of system to provide articles on line with access limited to the class members. The anthology approach would give you as the instructor the freedom to intermingle significant battles into the larger context of the political, economic and social understanding. Why not teach the Battle of Atlanta was to scatter the Confederate forces so W. T. Sherman could get to Savannah, Ga., and loot all the cotton laying there.

    I, like Mr. Coleman, have been in many many countries. One of the benefits of being a young sailor interested in history was that visiting historic places during the day and partying at night was a wonderful non-traditional education. I do recall a 70-something Italian tour guide at Pompeii. His explanation of the pornographic mosaics was classic. I’ve used it many times since.

    Want history the way you want it? Think differently how to do it.

  • Paul

    My graduate degree is in English, not History despite a BA in History. I got that advanced degree from an admittedly “liberal” school but even in English students were encouraged to read outside of class reading lists and bring challenging ideas to the class discussion just so long as you could back them up. For instance, judgement of Hamlet is clouded by the line “this is a story of a man who could not make up his mind…” but, with discussion and reasoning– he is a man that did make up his mind; but he wanted to get away with it as well.

    Mr. Wells comments are well taken. Using outside materials to bring fresh approaches to the class discussion, open minded professors who see education as a learning experience for both the student and the teacher and the wide range of sources only enhances education.

    Trouble is most of the run of the mill professors I run into are captured by the system and a belief that the way they learned is infallible. Most of them don’t understand pedagogy and what is out there to make the experience more real and fresh.

  • Great post! Loads to think of!

    Since my husband pulled us screeching into the military (some would say past, I prefer smack dab) in middle age, I’ve been absolutely scrambling for more information.

    Maybe this is where my situation is different. I’m almost done raising the kids. We’ve been through the 20, 30 and 40 year scramble. I’m not interested in FRGs, learning how to be a military wife. I’m interested in history, culture, learning where the field playing is, who is playing, why, what’s going on, and also keeping an eye to the future.

    So send me your reading lists. Like they did when I first started to study creative writing. A 140 book list, eventually, I got to them all.