Why we Remember

Often I am faced with the argument of the practicality of military history, and history as a whole. Why do we devote so much time to its study, when it teaches us so little about modern times they say?

Military history especially has a great deal of roots in the past, every tactic and strategy is built upon those that have come before, and mistakes made by generals of the past can be easily repeated by those of the future without careful study.

We point to the battle of Cannae even now, two thousand years later after Hannibal. It demonstrates the basic principles of using mobility to flank and surround your enemy. It forms the basis of the Blitzkrieg pincer attacks for the German armour doctrine of the Second World War, and is frequently referred to by scholars. The Kesselschlact (cauldron battle), or double envelopment tradition of German Panzer attacks during the war is frequently referred to as a Cannae-Style attack.

Those who do not remember the lessons are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past. During the German 1941 campaign in the Soviet Union, General Von Kluge could be seen standing in front of the map, his face twisted into a frown while he held Caulaincourt's account of Napoleon's 1812 campaign for Moscow under his arm, wondering if the Wehrmacht was doomed as were the French 150 years before. The Germans failed to provide even the basic winter clothing to their men, despite numerous requests from Guderian and other generals who knew Napoleon's folly well. It is almost incomprehensible to have such a glaring failure in the operational planning, especially when it is so well known to historians.

We also see what might have been. What if the Germans had succeeded in mastering Russia and all of Europe in 1941? What if the Normans had never invaded England, and the sun set on the british empire? As faux pas as the subject of military force is in modern times, we must remind the advocates of political correctness that for much of history (including today) military conflict has shaped our world. Great civilizations were built either on the use of force, or they suffered defeat at the hands of more bellicose enemies. Any study of history cannot ignore the impact of militaries, ancient or modern.

Mark Twain once said that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. We as humans learn from past mistakes, and to quote the great Roman Cicero, one who does not understand history is destined to be a child forever.

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