“Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.” These are the famous words of the philosopher and poet Georges Santayana (1863 – 1952). The study of military history at one time was reserved for the officer cast of many military organizations however with the advent of the Noncommissioned Officer Corps in the American Army, the need to understand past military events are essential. Without comprehensive sturdy of our military past, we as a professional organization will be doomed to fail in any future operations. American Military NCOs provide the backbone of the most powerful military force on the planet. Thus the study of military history only strengthens the support this backbone provides. “To be a successful Soldier, you must know history.” Patton.
There Are No New Strategies
Military strategies have been developing ever since the dawn of mankind. Man’s ability to adapt and learn new strategy has built a diverse collective repertoire of strategy, techniques and procedures (TTP’s) over the last 5000 years. Many of the strategy used by the American Army are nothing more then variation of a common theme passed down from one fighting force to another. Often these techniques prove to be “Darwinian” in nature with the most successful surviving and evolving and the least successful being discarded.
With the advent of the various cultural and technological developments, it is safe to say that many military situations one culture encounters has already been encountered by another culture. Although targeted developments occur in specific cultures such as gun powder with the Chinese or the Bolo and Boomerang with the Aborigines of Australia, employment of these systems follow a parallel course in the aspect of application. No one civilization has a monopoly on military strategic development. Man’s nomadic nature ensured that any military strategy moved and was shared. As one civilization encountered other a merging and sharing diffident strategies occurred. Prior to the printed word these TTPs’ were taught and spread by word of mouth and hands on demonstrations. A comprehensive study of military history will prove a strong base in which today’s NCO can not just adjust to, but to add on and pass to the next generation of NCOs. Consider the basic concept of reward and punishment to motivate Soldiers. Although this concept in it’s self is not a direct military strategy, it’s application effects morale and thus is a combat multiplier to mission accomplishment.
During the Napoleonic Wars the Emperor Napoleon used this concept to not just motivate his Soldiers but to recruit additional forces from concurred armies. With the statement “Give me enough ribbon and I can concur the world” this military leader provided the motivational goal for his troops to aspire for. Napoleons technique for awarding these “little strips of ribbon was with fanfare and as much pomp as the occasion will allow. This made even the lowest ranking foot Soldiers aspire to heights of greatness.
Technology is Just another Tool
Technology is the application of science to war. This accounts for new weapons and the entire range of new equipment. When the American Army was initially started the technology was rudimentary compared to today’s standards. The Industrial Revolution caused whole chains of technological advances in the fields of weapons, transportation, communication, construction and medicine.
Regardless of the technical level of an Army, it’s the implement of that technology that remains the same. For example: flint locks and smooth bore rifles was the standard issue of the day during the Revolutionary War. Up to the development of today’s modern individual weaponry the concept of basic rifle marksmanship has not changed. The same techniques used to send rounds to engage the enemy is the same today as it was in 1775.
Today’s NCOs are the Teacher for the Next Generations of NCOs
When a professional, well educated Noncommissioned Officers encounter situations unfamiliar to them, many try to “feel their way thru” until they come to a solution. I argue that as diverse an organization as the NCO Corps is and with the advent of technology, there is no need for any NCO to be stumped by unusual situations. A simple internet search can provide a wealth of knowledge on a variety of situations based off historical references and precedents. We are then obligated to share this knowledge with our young Soldiers and NCOs thus providing a foundation for their professional development and strong knowledge base when dealing with situations they may encounter. Websites like AKO, NCONET, Center for Army Lessons Learned and may others can an do provide an abundant amount of knowledge and provides a source of networking for not just active duty NCO but retirees as well.
Words without Reference are Meaningless
All too often NCOs hear phrases that are designed to spark motivation not just in their Soldiers but in them. When these leaders act on these words they spark motivation not just in their Soldiers but in themselves. When these leaders act on these words they are engaging form a present day perspective thus without a study in military history a young leader will be hard press to understand the possible outcome of their action. As a point of reference consider the phase “Lead from the front not from the rear”. Leaders NCOs have been hearing this phase for years but few have knowledge of the historical record of its implementation and application. A good example comes from the Napoleonic Wars.
The long artillery column belonging to Marshal Lannes’ V Corps had taken the wrong road up to the plateau where the rest of the V Corps was waiting and was now stuck behind the lead gun, hopelessly jammed between two large rocks. The senior NCOs were disgusted, both because the officers had gotten them all lost, and because they had wandered off to find supper for them leaving the growing problem in their laps. In the time-honored tradition of professional soldiers, they decided to light their pipes.
There was a sudden stir on the ledge above the defile. Startled NCOs looked up from their pipes to notice two men, one holding a lantern. A stern rebuke from a senior marechal des logis chef was choked off in mid-sentence when it was noticed that the man without the lantern wore a simple bicorne and overcoat. The whispered warning of “l’Empereur!” ran down the column like wildfire. A sudden, shocked, and profane shudder ran the length of the stalled column. Intense activity suddenly erupted as the NCOs realized who was present. Sleepy drivers were knocked awake. Horses¹ ears pricked up, unwary drivers being thrown from their saddles as their mounts shook themselves awake; pipes were put out. Cannoneers asleep beside their guns were kicked awake by now-alert sergeants and corporals. From a sleepy mass of horseflesh and humanity the column now became a hub of alert and disciplined activity.
Napoleon, tight-lipped in his fury as he was told the situation from a veteran marechal des logis, gave a few quiet, succinct orders, and once again became a young captain of artillery. The lead gun crew, supervised by the senior NCOs and directed by the Emperor himself, skillfully worked the gun loose from its granite prison. Acting on instructions from Napoleon’s companion, a General Aide-de-Camp, the entire column mounted and lurched forward into motion-alert, motivated gunners pulling alongside straining team horses, leather harness creaking under the strain of guns and caissons, to work together up the crude defile.
Counter Argument and Response
The study of military history is a pointless effort. Many NCOs have very successful careers and have a very limited knowledge of military history. The study of military history is an officers program and is necessary to obtain rank at the senior levels where battlefield decisions must be made. The subject of military history is not instructed in any detail in Basic Combat Training nor is in any Advance Individual Training program of instruction. In most cases the NCO on the ground will have an officer issuing order for him to carry out. If there is any need for a historical analysis and comparison to be made it is already done by the officer issuing the orders. The NCO just needs to execute.
With the development of American culture, today’s NCOs have to deal with situations (both in personnel issues and battlefield engagements) that their predecessors could not have imagined. Many of the situations that do have a historical reference can not be handled in the same manner today as it was in the past based off more humane treatment persons both enemy and friendly.
Although many NCOs have had successful careers with just a rudimentary knowledge of military history; what was the quality of mentorship these NCOs provided to the next generations of NCOs? I submit that many of the situations these NCOs encountered through out their careers have already happened to a counter part from some past event. Imagine the amount of time and energy a NCO can save with this type of knowledge base. Today’s NCOs are not mindless automatons who respond only when an office issues orders. Today’s NCOs are thinking analytic professionals who must be flexible when dealing with tactical situations. As NCOs monitor these situations they may have to adjust there techniques to meet the developing situation. With a historical base of tactic technique and procedure and NCO can pull references from his acquired knowledge and implement like TTP’s (with a different spin in most cases) to achieve the battlefield advantage.
When it comes to the implementation of strategy techniques and procedures there is nothing new under the sun. The same strategy used in Americas past wars are still used to day regardless of the technological advances made in weaponry and communication. As today’s NCOs are required to make rapid decisions on the battlefield, a strong knowledge base with a historical presidents is imperative for them to draw from in order to prevent hesitation, complete the mission and achieve victory.
Elting, John Robert and Vincent J. Esposito. A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars. Revised edition. London: Greenhill, 1999. 400 pages. ISBN# 1853673463.
Elting, John Robert. Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon’s Grande Armée. N.Y.: Da Capo, 1997. 784 pages. ISBN# 030607572.
Fremont-Barnes, Gregory, and Fisher, Todd. The Napoleonic Wars: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. (Essential Histories Special: 4.) Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2004. ISBN# 1841768316
Elder, Daniel K. 2009 The NCO Historical Society. [Online] at: http://www.ncohistory.com