The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession

Authors: Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (May 2006)
ISBN-10: 0521619637

In 2003, ‘Past Futures', an Anglo-American conference on military history, sponsored by the Directorate of Ground Development and Doctrine, was held at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and later repeated at the Marine Corps University, Quantico, Virginia. Now its papers are available in The Past as Prologue: the importance of history to the military profession, edited by Williamson Murray and R. H. Sinnreich and published in affordable paperback by Cambridge University Press. The contributors are American and British, civilians and officers: the latter, army and marines but no navy or air force. There are fourteen chapters, all footnoted.

The book's message can be briefly summarised: that the study of history and of Clausewitz continue essential to military decision-makers. Sir Michael Howard states that ‘past wars provide the only database from which the military learn how to conduct their profession'. There is also much more, including the fluctuating fortunes of history in American military education and the impact on it of the Vietnam War. Three chapters, all British, are historical case studies: Andrew Gordon's on the nineteenth and twentieth century Royal Navy, Jonathan Bailey's on the lessons of the Russo-Japanese War, and Paul Harris's on the interwar British army. Major General Bailey's ‘Military history and the pathology of lessons learned: the Russo-Japanese War, a case study' is a fascinating and relevant account of how British and continental military authorities ignored or distorted the much observed and reported evidence of the Russo-Japanese War - including on indirect fire - with disastrous results in the Great War.

Perhaps inevitably in such a book, there are some errors and questionable statements. For example, Roberts did not resign as commander-in-chief; his office was abolished and he was, in effect, sacked. Also the nineteenth-century Royal Navy campaigned not against slavery but the slave trade. Its campaign was mostly not ‘in international terms, technically illegal' but based on treaties though sometimes, most notably in the latter campaign against the Brazilian slave trade, the British put morality before law. One oddity is that while Andrew Gordon's chapter is based on his deservedly much-praised The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (1996), that book is nowhere mentioned. Nevertheless, The Past as Prologue is a perceptive, stimulating and informative work, well worth reading.

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