The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

Creative Thinking and Military History

One of the recent popular books that delves into the subject of critical and creative thinking is Malcolm Gladwell’s best selling Blink:  The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.  This book y is a fairly in depth discussion of intuitive decision making.  What is interesting is that I was not expecting Gladwell to talk about the military, but he does. The following is one excerpt from the book:

“Of all the interviews I conducted while researching Blink, the one that made the most lasting impression on me was my interview with General Paul Van Riper –the hero (or villain) of the Pentagon’s Millennium Challenge war game….  I remember being surprised when he took me on a tour of his house by the number of books in his study.  In retrospect, of course, that’s a silly thing to find surprising.  Why shouldn’t a Marine Corps general have as many books as an English professor?  I suppose that I had blithely assumed that generals were people who charged around and “did” things; that they were men of action, men of the moment.  But one of the things that Van Riper taught me was that being able to act intelligently and instinctively in the moment is possible only after a long and rigorous course of education and experience.    Van Riper beat Blue Team because of what he had learned about waging war in the jungles of Vietnam.  And he also beat Blue Team because of what he had learned in that library of his.  Van Riper was a student of military history.”

So, given the above and the readings for H101, consider the following questions:

Do you agree that military history is a critical tool for the professional officer?  If so, how do you rate the army as an institution, providing and emphasizing that skill?  Why?

If you think its an important skill, is it only important for senior leaders and field grade officers?  Does it  have uses for the company grade officer and NCO as well?

If it is an important skill –what can the Army do to teach the skill better than it does?


August 18, 2009 - Posted by | H100 | , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I absolutely agree that military history is a critical tool for the professional officer of today’s military. As an Air Force officer I can’t comment on the Army’s rating but I can say that the Air Force doesn’t incorporate reading outside of professional military education. They do have a Chief of Staff reading list, however no one follows through on discussing those books within the Air Force or the officer corps. I think it is important to inculcate SNCO’s and Jr officers into the importance of professional reading. As a Squadron Commander I had my Jr officer’s read Phillip Caputo’s “A Rumor of War” just to see how Lt’s can get too close to their troops and not make sound decisions in war based on emotion. I think the importance of this skill set can be hit home with structured discussions. I know I read the book with my officers and we talked on Friday afternoons over beer about what we’d read or similar experiences we had in today’s military in comparison to Mr. Caputo. Overall I got positive feedback from my guys and used it as a mentoring session.

    Comment by MAJ Christopher "Kit" Johnson | August 20, 2009

  2. Is military history a ‘critical tool’ for the professional officer in today’s military? Probably not; it depends on the definition of critical. I would suggest that ‘critical’ implies that it is something that cannot be done without. Clearly the modern military officer can fully perform his duties with no absolutely no knowledge of military history. It is also the case when the study of military history is designed to develop ‘critical thought’ (the model here at CGSC): one can develop ‘critical thought’ without using history as a vehicle.

    None the less the study of military history is a force multiplier for the dedicated, professional army officer. Not only does it develop critical thinking it also helps, in my opinion, develop an officer’s ‘experience base’; we can and should learn practically from the past, but no less valid, lessons of our forebears.

    Comment by Maj SEA Cates | August 21, 2009

  3. I think the study of military history is essential for all officers, but I do not think the Army promotes the study of military history well outside of an educational setting. As a company commander, unfortunately, I contributed to this problem. Between deployments, I tried to institute a professional reading program for the lieutenants of my rifle company. I failed, and I think I failed because I did not make the program an integral part of my training plan, complete with the time allocated on the training schedule to discuss assigned readings. Accordingly, the informal discussions I had planned quickly were overcome by scheduled training. I think this is where the Army fails.

    With today’s operational tempo, we are so overwhelmed by training requirements for the next deployment, we do not take enough time for junior leader development, including the incorporation of the study of military history into leader training. In the future, whether assisting a battalion commander to implement a reading program or implementing a program on my own, I will make professional reading a training event and allocate time on the training schedule for professional discussion, just as I would allocate time on the training schedule for other training priorities.

    Comment by MAJ Christopher Fahrenbach | August 21, 2009

  4. I do agree that military history is a critical tool for the military officer. I do think that we do an excellent job of emphasize its importance. It is required in all our levels of education from pre-commissioning to the Staff College and beyond. Additionally, our senior leaders publish their recommended reading lists to encourage us to read as well. Reserving reading and understanding of history for only our “senior leaders” is foolish and portends that our junior leaders don’t have the capacity for learning that our senior leaders do. It is beneficial for all our Soldiers and potentially creates a positive habit. A point worth mentioning is that several of our “senior leaders” are NCOs. Where I personally think we could improve is going beyond recommending and encouraging and make it part of our professional development at our units when we are removed from the academic arena.

    Comment by Maj Bjorn "SWEDE" Johnson | August 22, 2009

  5. I strongly agree that military history is a critical tool which has uses for all Soldiers. Learning from the past in the spirit of improving the future should always be a goal. Coming from the medical side, there wasn’t a lot of emphasis placed on it during the basic and advanced course. History should be incorporated into the curriculum at all levels of our military education. It can be used as a tool to help solve problems that appear to be “new” problems but may have already played out somewhere in our history.

    Comment by Maj Chad Weddell | August 23, 2009

  6. I also agree that reading military history is an important part of leader development, and like SWEDE mentioned, should not just be enphasized at the senior level. I do not think we emphasize it enough as military organizations, neither Army or AF. The AF Chief of Staff puts out a suggested reading list like someone already mentioned above, but I agree that not very many people take the time to go through the list. From what I gathered from our first history reading by Luvass, it seems as if our military organizations are putting less and less emphasis on it. I also think the major point of his article was that studying history won’t give you a laundry list of schemes or maneuvers to use in a specific situation, but it will build you a comprehensive list of what NOT to do in many situations.

    Comment by Maj Scott "Spyder" Walker | August 23, 2009

  7. The challenge I have with the CSA reading list is finding the time to read the works. Perhaps a partial solution is to incorporate some of the books into the POI of the required education courses. As leaders we should strive to work this list into our professional development programs as well.

    The more we are able to study (forced or not) military history, the more likely we can apply to a problem in our careers.

    I am sure it is easier said than done, but even a methodical approach over time is better than hiding behind the “I’ve got no time” screen. I have determined if I don’t get better at reading over this next 10 months, I may never get better.

    Comment by MAJ Rich Massengale | August 24, 2009

  8. I will be the “Devil’s Advocate” on this one. I am in the Navy, so I can get away with it.

    History is what it is. History. It is good to know history as it pertains to the current operations, but so much changes from decade to decade that a prolonged study on “ancient” history is rendered useless.

    To be certain, there are nuggets of knowledge from history that can be applied to current operations, but is it worth the effort? Should we be placing more emphasis on talking and studying the future instead of history?

    We (Navy) focus on “Lessons Learned” after each major operation and apply those to the next one. Some are published on SIPRNET so that all can see. That is our “history.” However, most of our focus is on planning future operations.

    The current speed of technological developments in weapons systems and the changing makeup of the actual threat make a comprehensive study of history beyond the last one or two conflicts obsolete.

    Comment by LCDR Dave McNutt | August 28, 2009

  9. The study of history would have helped us in Iraq. But the debate is neverending. The administration is studying the history depicted in the book, “Lessons in Disaster” and the military is reading Lewis Sorley’s, “A Better War”. Newsweek published an article by Evan Thomas suggesting that we could learn the ‘right’ lessons from Vietnam and apply them to Afghanistan. Published right after Thomas’s article was an opinion from his eminence John Kerry, who wrote that the only lesson from Vietnam is that it was unwinnable. My view is that we learned how to secure the peace and build civilian capabilities after the civil war, WWI, WWII, and we did it again in Korea and Vietnam. Why did it take so long for Gen Keane, Gen Petraeus, Gen Casey, the SecDef, and the President to figure out how to win in Iraq? Why are we debating this again in regards to Afghanistan? The answer is clear: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes” – Mark Twain

    Comment by MAJ Kevin O'Neil | November 20, 2009

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