Learning the Right Lessons from Military History

Military minds study military history to learn timeless principles and tactics. We just need to be sure that we don’t fight the last war.

By Mark D. Harris

Leaders generally know and follow more recent examples than distant ones. This makes sense since the technology and social mores of the near past resemble the present more than those of the distant past. However, taking the wrong lessons from the past can lead current decision makers astray. Further, the recent past is not always the best guide to present action.

The Problem

The West Point class of 1846 was taught the tactics of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), including short range musket fire and massed bayonet charges. Backed by the awe-inspiring name of the Emperor of France, these tactics produced doctrinal rigidity in the Union and Confederate armies and carnage in the early days of the American Civil War. Long-range fire from rifled muskets and railroad mobility characterized the Civil War (“strategic offensives from railroad mobility coupled with tactical defenses”). Perhaps Major General Richard Delafield (1798-1873), superintendent of West Point from 1838-1845, should have added a little more on the Mongols, with their high strategic maneuverability and long-range missile fire, to the curriculum.

France suffered terribly in the static trench warfare of World War I. After the armistice in 1918, French leaders determined that a similar fate would never befall their nation again. In the 1930s they spent three billion francs to construct a line of fortifications (the Maginot Line) which was 10 to 16 miles deep and 450 miles long, stretching from the Swiss to the Belgian border. The purpose of the line was to prevent a German surprise attack, delaying them long enough to mobilize the French Army, and to keep war off French soil. The Maginot Line was a marvel of then-modern technology, but stopped at the Ardennes Forest between Belgium and France, which was thought to be impenetrable to modern armies. When the Germans in 1940 attacked through the Ardennes, conquering France in six weeks, the Maginot Line was inconsequential.

World War I was largely static, but even then, no territory was impassible. Captain Erwin Rommel proved that the Alps were not impassible in the Battle of Caporetto (1917). World War II was mobile, with modern armor, aviation, communications, and command and control, Today the blockhouses and forts of the Maginot Line host restaurants, private dwellings, and a discotheque. What would have happened if that same three billion francs had been invested in aircraft and armor?

British generals who planned the defense of Singapore in the 1930s sited their heavy guns in concrete bunkers to face the sea and armed them with armor piercing ammunition to attack ships because they considered the jungles on the Malay peninsula to be impenetrable. They made the same mistake as the French in World War II, and also paid a high price.

Aircraft were a novelty in World War I but a game-changer in World War II. The Japanese Zero may have been the best fighter in the world early in the war. It could win a dogfight against any other plane in 1942, and the British, flying their already obsolete F2A Buffalo died in droves. Only when the American P-40s of the Flying Tigers changed their tactics did they prevail.

Royal Navy admirals sent their top-of-the-line capital ships, the HMS Repulse and the HMS Prince of Wales, unescorted by fighter aircraft, to attack the Japanese fleet in December 1941. The jungle may have been impenetrable to large military forces in 1919 when the Singapore Strategy was devised but was not in 1941. Capital ships may have been able to hold their own in fights against swarms of aircraft in 1918, but not in 1941. Singapore fell, and the pride of the British Navy went to the bottom of the sea.

During the transition from the wind-driven era of sailing ships to the coal-driven steamers of the late 19th century, naval thinkers focused on the tactical flexibility of steamers since they were able to sail against the wind. Rowed Greek and Roman galleys could move against the wind and ancient navies used rams to crash into enemy ships and sink them by knocking a hole in their hulls below the waterline. In the Battle of Hampton Roads (March 1862), the CSS Virginia was able to ram and sink the USS Cumberland. Rams figured prominently in the Union Mississippi River fleet in the battle of Memphis (June 1862). As a result, many steamers were fitted with rams on their bows. However, long range and effective naval guns had already ended the days of close naval combat. By focusing only on the ability of steam ships to sail against the wind, and not balancing this fact with the advances in naval gunfire, planners invested resources into projects that were obsolete before they were finished.

What are some principles that we can use to draw the right lessons from past conflicts?

  1. Know history – Americans, more than any other national group in my experience, care little and know nothing about history – even the history of their own field. Military officers are often equally ignorant.
  2. Know your strategic and tactical goals – We find what we are looking for, and if we know what we want, we are more likely to find it. The British goals in Singapore started out as protecting trade in its Empire and opposing potential Japanese aggression. Leaders lost sight of these goals, and Singapore was hopelessly weak when war came.
  3. Know the technology in your field – Both Britain and France relied on the “impassibility” of terrain to protect them in World War II. Because of this misplaced confidence, Britain lost a city and France lost a nation.
  4. Constantly innovate – Experiment with how historical precedent and technology can be used to achieve your clearer defined goals.
  5. Practice, practice, practice – Japan practiced with their shallow diving torpedoes for months prior to Pearl Harbor to perfect their techniques and their pilots’ skills. Conversely, the Japanese wargames prior to the Battle of Midway predicted Japanese defeat. The rules were changed, and Japan won the games, but lost the battle.
  6. Know the enemy, including his tactics, his technology, and his temper. His capabilities are more important than intentions.


Knowledge of the past can contribute to prudent, or imprudent, action in the future. Leaders should examine all pertinent factors, not just a few of them, to guide their actions. Second, taking lessons from the past can be as good, or better, than focusing only on recent conflicts. There are things that leaders can do to get the right lessons from history.


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