Maneuver Self Study Program

Why is the Study of Military History Important for Maneuver Leaders?

Today's Army leaders should follow Washington's example of self study. History does not provide a blueprint or a roadmap, but it provides a context that helps equip an agile mind to make informed decisions. History provides context as maneuver leaders reflect on personal experience in training and combat. The study of history should be, as Clausewitz suggested, "meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield; just as a wise teacher guides and stimulates a young man's intellectual development, but is careful not to lead him by the hand for the rest of his life." Although there are clear practical applications of the study of war and warfare, such as understanding the fundamentals of combined arms operations, the purpose of studying war through the lens of history would be as Sir Michael Howard observed, not to, "make us cleverer for the next time," but instead to help make maneuver leaders "wise forever."

Studying past battles helps leaders understand their responsibilities. In particular they will appreciate the importance of discipline and the need to build confident, cohesive teams that are resilient to the debilitating effects of combat trauma and the corrosive effects of persistent danger. It is difficult to improve upon John Keegan's observation that:

What battles have in common is human: the behaviour of men struggling to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation, their sense of honour and the achievement of some aim over which other men are ready to kill them. The study of battle is therefore always a study of fear and usually of courage; always of leadership, usually of obedience; always of compulsion, sometimes of insubordination; always of anxiety, sometimes of elation or catharsis; always of uncertainty and doubt, misinformation and misapprehension, usually also of faith and sometimes of vision; always of violence, sometimes also of cruelty, self-sacrifice, compassion; above all, it is always a study of solidarity and usually also of disintegration – for it is toward the disintegration of human groups that battle is directed."[1]

Maneuver leaders must steel their soldiers and units against "disintegration" and how they prepare their soldiers and units for battle will depend, in large measure, on their own vision of future combat, a vision that Keegan argued requires a "long historical perspective." If leaders are not able to think about and understand war and warfare, they will be less effective at the tactical as well as the strategic levels.

Study and Use of Military History

"Learning is not attained by chance; it must be sought for with ardour and attended to with diligence."

~ Abigail Adams to John Quincy Adams, May 10, 1780

In 1775, the Second Continental Congress nominated George Washington to take command of the soon-to-be-formed Continental Army. Even though he served at various command and staff positions during the Seven Years' War, his experience alone had not prepared him for the task he was about to undertake. To put this sudden transition into perspective, this would be the equivalent of a battalion commander suddenly becoming the Chief of Staff of the Army. What he lacked in experience, however he made up for in self-study. Washington took his military education seriously, grasping every opportunity to increase his knowledge in the art of war. He bought every military science and history book he could find, taking notes in the margins and eventually producing orders from them. In short, Washington was self-taught in the art of generalship.

An Approach to the Study of Military History:

History is most useful when it is studied in three dimensions: First, study in width: Observe how warfare has developed over a long historical period. Next, study in depth: Take one campaign or battle and examine it in minute detail. Read letters, memoirs, diaries, and even historical fiction. This is important, Sir Michael Howard 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. Warfare must be understood it's social, cultural, economic, human, moral, political, and psychological contexts because, as Howard observed, "the roots of victory and defeat often have to be sought far from the battlefield." Failure to study wars in context, leads to a superficial view of war with lessons and conclusions divorced from their proper context,

Studying military history in width, depth, and context is a life-long effort and should be approached systematically over the course of a career. To begin your study of this topic, select an article like Military History and the Study of Operational Art or a book like The Past is Prologue: the Importance History to the Military Profession to mature your understanding of the connection between the study of history and the military profession. Next, select a book from one of the conflicts listed below to study a war in width. Then, select a campaign or battle within that war and by using the end notes or bibliography, you will find additional reading that will allow you to study in depth. Finally, take the opportunity to determine the causes and root of that conflict, by studying it in context.

[1] Keegan, The Face of Battle, p. 83.


  1. How are strategy, operations, and tactics connected? What are some examples of when the three were disconnected? What were the results?
  2. What are principal or recurring causes of military success or failure?
  3. How did other leaders learn and apply military history to their duties and responsibilities?
  4. What are the elements of the American military experience and how do they help us think about the Army's role in national security today?
  5. What are some of the continuities in warfare? What are some of the changes?
Study and Use of Military History Discussion Linkedin Page


Overview of History of European Wars:

War in European History by Michael Howard
War in European History by Michael Howard