The use of history to think about the present and the future is always difficult for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important difficulty is that to use it successfully one has to have read deeply and widely in it, and even then, its potential lessons are ambiguous and uncertain. As one of the leading historians of Fascist Italy noted a number of years ago, “[t]he owl of history is an evening bird. The past as a whole is unknowable; only at the end of the day do some of its outlines dimly emerge. The future cannot be known at all, and the past suggests that change is often radical and unforeseeable rather than incremental and predictable. Yet despite its many ambiguities, historical experience remains the only available guide both to the present and to the range of alternatives inherent in the future.”1 Or as one of my colleagues in the Defense Department once put it, if you don’t know how you arrived at where you presently stand through some acquaintance with history, then any road to the future will do.
It is interesting to note that the most impressive Anglo-American generals of the Second World War—Bill Slim, Bernard Law Montgomery, George Marshall, and George Patton—were all enthusiastic students of history; the two foremost American generals of the last decade, David Petraeus and Jim Mattis are also students of the past. Unfortunately, they are not typical of the great run-of-the-mill American generals. Moreover, we are increasingly seeing a general ignorance of the past among the American elite and particularly among policy makers. The strategic record of American policy makers and military leaders over the past two decades underlines a depressing record of ignorance about the past. How so? In America’s two most recent lost wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, we managed to repeat virtually every mistake we made during our dismal war against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese.
Do not hold much help for the future. The study of strategy and military history is simply disappearing from all the major universities and colleges in the United States. The academic world has enthusiastically embraced the idea that war, strategy, and diplomacy are disappearing from the world. Given what has transpired over the past two decades, such attitudes represent the comfortable assumptions of those with their heads in the sand. And so, America’s statesmen and military leaders appear to be heading toward the twenty-first century in the immortal words of Kiffin Rockwell, a pilot in the Lafayette Escadrille, “to fly along, blissfully ignorant, hoping for the best.”