James Wolfe was a great advocate of using military history to help inform his understanding of new situations and challenges he faced throughout his career. ‘The more a soldier thinks of the false steps of those that have gone before him, the more likely is he to avoid them’, he wrote after visiting the battlefield of Culloden in 1751. ‘On the other hand, The Examples worthiest of imitation should never be lost sight of, as they will be the best & truest guides in every undertaking.’
Wolfe had fought at Culloden, but he found a visit to the field highlighted errors which in the heat of the moment had not been apparent to him on the day itself. A few years later, he wrote to the father of a newly commissioned officer with his advice on what to read to get a better understanding of his profession. ‘In general, the lives of all the great Commanders and all the good Histories of Warlike Nations, will be very instructive’, Wolfe advised. ‘In these days of scarcity & in these unlucky times, it is much to be wish’d that all our young soldiers of birth & education, would follow our brothers, steps, and as they will have their turn to command, that they would try to make themselves fit for that important trust.’
Half a century later, a young Rifleman named Thomas Mitchell, was deployed to the Peninsula as part of Wellington’s Army. Like Wolfe, Mitchell had an abiding interest in military history. ‘Rivers, woods, ravines, mountains etc etc together form the great book of war;’ Mitchell had noted, ‘and he who cannot read it must for ever be content with the title of a brave soldier, and never repair to that of a great general.’ A skilled draftsman, Mitchell was spotted by Wellington’s QMG, and appointed a mapmaker. Mitchell’s sketches identified the roots along which the British Army was to advance in its ultimately successful campaign against the French in 1813.
Even more recently, a senior general in the US Marines noted the true value of studying history. ‘The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.’ This quote has had quite an airing in the last few weeks. The general’s name: James Mattis.
Let’s assume, then, that the study of military history is a useful way of learning about modern military planning and campaigns. One way of creating a linkage between the past and the present is using modern doctrine to analyse the challenges and obstacles facing historical commanders. Modern doctrine is, in part, based on the lessons of history: a distillation of what worked in the past, updated to fit within the contemporary context.
The term ‘Centre of Gravity’ means something very particular in modern doctrinal terminology, but let’s take the concept more broadly, and apply the original Clausewitzian definition: ‘The hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed.’ It becomes somewhat easier to identify and debate what the centre of gravity of any power, of any military, fighting at any point in history.
Take another doctrinal term, Decisive Conditions. Again, a long and impenetrable definition: ‘A combination of circumstances, effects, or a specific key event, critical factor, or function that when realised allows commanders to gain a marked advantage over an opponent or contribute materially to achieving an operational objective.’ Put another way: ‘The conditions General X needed to achieve in order to execute his operational plan’. Every military campaign occurred in a sequence. Those campaigns might not have been planned using terms such as decisive conditions, but but all of them would have been planned sequentially, with the key decision-maker knowing full well that he would have had to have achieved a number of small-scale objectives before he could focus on the main event.
Nor is such an analysis of use alone to the military practitioner. Military historians frequently overlook the importance of seemingly insignificant details in the planning and execution of campaigns: their focus is on the big picture, the decisive battle. Little do they realise that without a seemingly unimportant detail, the whole operation might have gone awry. Doctrine, then, as a derivation of what has worked in history, might be a little dry, and filled with jargon that renders its meaning almost impenetrable, but cut through that noise and see the concepts defined in broad terms, and they are a useful analytical tool for learning from, and learning about, history.