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Studying War and Warfare - by Major General H.R. McMaster — WarCouncil.org


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It is hard to improve on the approach to studying war and warfare found in historian Sir Michael Howard’s 1961 seminal essay on how military professionals should develop what Clausewitz described as their own “theory” of war.  First, to study in width: To observe how warfare has developed over a long historical period.  Next to study in depth: To study campaigns and explore them thoroughly, consulting original sources and applying various theories and interdisciplinary approaches.  This is important, Sir Michael observed, because as the “tidy outline dissolves,” we “catch a glimpse of the confusion and horror of real experience.”  And lastly to study in context.  Wars and warfare must be understood in context of their social, cultural, economic, human, moral, political, and psychological dimensions because “the roots of victory and defeat often have to be sought far from the battlefield.” 

To develop understanding in “width, depth, and context,” we must be active learners dedicated to self-study and self-critique.  Discussion and debate with others exposes us to different perspectives and helps us consider how what we learn applies to our responsibilities.  Participative intellectual activity is critical to the “Self-Development Domain” of our Army’s leader development efforts.  And the self-development domain is as important as the Operational Domain (unit training and operational experience) and the Institutional Domain (official Army schools) in helping leaders prepare for the challenges of future war.  This is why forums such as the WarCoucil.org are important.  Discussions on this site should challenge our assumptions and refine our thinking. 

Understanding the Context—and the Continuities—of War

Successful American military leaders supplemented their formal learning through active reading, study, and reflection.  In 1901, the father of the Army War College, Secretary of War Elihu Root, commented on “the great importance of a thorough and broad education for military officers,” due to the “rapid advance of military science; changes of tactics required by the changes in weapons; our own experience in the difficulty of working out problems of transportation, supply, and hygiene; the wide range of responsibilities which we have seen devolving upon officers charged with the civil government of occupied territory; the delicate relations which constantly arise between military and civil authority.” Thus, Root wrote, there was a “manifest necessity that the soldier, above all others, should be familiar with history.”[1]

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