Why Military History Prior to 1939 is Important

by Scott Manning on January 29, 2013

I am making my way through Jeremy Black’s Rethinking Military History (2004). Now that I can own a copy that costs less $89, I am ready to rethink.

In it, Black sees a problem among American leaders in that if they do study history, they rarely venture further back than World War II.

Indeed, despite efforts to teach military history to officers, the historical memory of the American military establishment and of policy makers in the American government extends no further back in time than World War Two. Faith in technology is so strong and pervasive that earlier history is seen as irrelevant and there is a lack of interest in earlier historical parallels.1

By sticking to wars such as World War II, it becomes easy to rely on the dominance of technology, as the predominate narrative focuses on comparisons between tanks, planes, and ships, as well as the evolution of assault rifles, rockets, and of course, the atomic bomb. Hence, American leaders become shocked when governments and armies crumble in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan under our military might, yet wars continue for a decade.

There are plenty of historical parallels to lengthy wars. For starters, the Philippine-American War (1899-1913) gave us a taste of fighting an insurgency, something our military has gained significant experience doing over the past 10 years. I cannot recall how many times I have heard commentators refer to Afghanistan (2001-?) as our longest war, which would be true if we pretend as if we did not have American troops fighting in the Philippines for 14 years.

Edward IIn the medieval period, English King Edward I’s (r. 1272-1307) wars against the Welsh and the Scottish offer more parallels.2 He was able to subdue the Welsh through a series of campaigns, battles, and extensive castle building.

However, he could subdue the Scottish, even after overwhelming victories at the battles of Dunbar (1296) and Falkirk (1298), and several conquests in the highlands. At Dunbar, the English destroyed the Scottish army and captured their king. At Falkirk, the English again destroyed the Scottish army and sent its new leaders in permanent hiding. Yet, the Scottish continued to resist for more than a decade, eventually winning their independence from England.

History raises more questions than it answers. In this instance, the following come to mind.

  • Why was Edward able to subdue the Welsh and not the Scottish?
  • Why was America able to handily remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, but spend another decade of war there?
  • Why was American able to handily conquer Iraq and capture Saddam, but still spend nearly a decade there?

Leaders should spend time pondering these questions.


  1. Jeremy Black, Rethinking Military History (London: Routledge, 2004), 6. []
  2. One of the better books on Edward is Michael Prestwich, Edward I (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). []

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brian W. Schoeneman January 29, 2013 at 2:12 PM

I agree that too few folks in Washington spend time reading military history. I’m one of the rare few. I think you bring up a good point reminding folks about the Philippines, because all too often we try to pretend that the US was not engaged in those smaller conflicts throughout our history, and critics try to act like what we’re seeing now is somehow unprecedented. It isn’t.


2 Ralph Hitchens March 20, 2013 at 11:49 AM

I don’t think Edward I really subdued the Welsh; weren’t the castles more of a defensive line? Henry V, as crown prince, cut his teeth in suppressing Welsh resistance for several years, if I recall correctly.

As to the other two questions, the Taliban was both a regime — easy to remove — and a movement with strong local roots, not so easy to extirpate. And the disbanding of the Iraqi Army in 2003 (and the “de-Baathisizing” of the Iraqi civil government) has been widely viewed as possibly our most serious error — every bit as bad as the original decision to invade.


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