As some of you may know I am fascinated by the history of World War I. I have been since my first semester in graduate school, when I took a seminar entitled, “Europe in the Age of World War I.” This course taught by the formidable professor of European history at James Madison University, Dr. Catherine Boyd sought to guide us to understand why the European powers stumbled, bumbled, and fumbled their way war; and why despite all evidence to contrary continued to fight a war of attrition. Like historians before and since there was no easy answer.
Dr. Margaret MacMillian, a professor of History at Oxford, has written a thought provoking essay entitle “The Rhyme of History: Lessons of the Great War.” Dr. MacMillian comes by her interest in World War naturally, as her grandfather was David Lloyd George, who was the United Kingdom Prime Minster for much of World War I. She has previously written the seminal study of the Treaty of Versailles entitled Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, which seeks to put the results of that six month period in context.
The central thesis of her article is that the world of today is very similar of the world a century ago and that the chances of Strategic miscalculation are immense and could lead quickly to another World War. She notes:
It was not just academic curiosity that drove me, but a sense of urgency as well. If we cannot determine how one of the most momentous conflicts in history happened, how can we hope to avoid another such catastrophe in the future?
She reminds us,
The one-hundredth anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident. So we have good reason to glance over our shoulders even as we look ahead. History, said Mark Twain, never repeats itself but it rhymes. The past cannot provide us with clear blueprints for how to act, for it offers such a multitude of lessons that it leaves us free to pick and choose among them to suit our own political and ideological inclinations. Still, if we can see past our blinders and take note of the telling parallels between then and now, the ways in which our world resembles that of a hundred years ago, history does give us valuable warnings.
She sees many parallels, although I do not share her view that the relationship between the US and China is similar to the multi-nation competition which grip Europe in the early part of the 20th Century. I demure because China is not a Western nation, it has not been shaped by a similar worldview as had the nations of Europe. But I do agree with her assessment that despite sharing a common Western culture, they did not understand each other.
MacMillian is particularly dismissive of the prevailing view, that is dominate in many circles in the U. S. military today, that because of technological superiority we can deliver a quick, precise victory, through shock and awe. She believes that military action alone can not guarantee a proper outcome if it is not integrated with other elements of national power and are executed without understanding, the history, social, and economic factors of the nation we war against.
She cautions against believing that low cost solutions are possible:
Challenging the faith that such low-cost victories are possible, Major General H.R. McMaster, the commanding officer at Fort Benning, Georgia, and something of an iconoclast, recently wrote in the New York Times that many of the assumptions that hadguided the American military before 9/11 and up to and through the early years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were wishful thinking. To view “successful military operations as ends in themselves, rather than just one instrument of power that must be coordinated with others to achieve, and sustain, political goals” is, he believes, a mistake. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, were not just matters of military strength but “contests of will.” Fighting them without an understanding of the social, economic, and historical factors involved will doom us to “the pipe dream of easy war,” as the title of his piece puts it.
MacMillian work should be required reading, as is Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August of every political, military, and diplomatic leader in the United States. As Andrew Bacevich has reminded us the US is increasingly a militaristic nation, a nation that believes in its own exceptionalism. A nation who is tone deaf the aspirations of other nation and is deceived into believing that all nations want to be like us. We forget that what we are today is very different than the nation that was born on the shores of Colony of Virginia in 1607. We too often fail to acknowledge that we are not the City on the Hill that other nations desire to emulate.
The study of history is important. It is just not the mere recitation of facts, dates, and personalities, but rather being able to understand the why events occurred. Understanding the Why something happened. This question is too often missing from our Strategic discussions. In the Army particularly, we lack the patience to understand the Why before we take action. Like our failed beliefs that Iraq was going to emerge in 2003 as a nation of democratic ideals, by not understanding the why of its history, the why of its culture, the why of its society we now see that has become the antithesis of we believed, and has become rather than a stabilizing factor in the struggle between Sh’ia and Sunni; Arab and Persian, it has become a battleground for this struggle. A haven for Islamic militants from Syria and the front lines of the Iranian struggle to become the regional hegemon.
If you truly want to be a strategic thinker, if you truly want to be a member of the profession of arms, you must read. Not just Sports Illustrated and not just military history, and not just what you agree with. Read, think, read some more, contemplate, write, and understand the whys. Then maybe you will be a strategic thinker and not just an professional officers putting on airs.
 Margaret MacMillian, The Rhyme of History: Lessons of the Great War, http://www.brookings.edu/research/essays/2013/rhyme-of-history, page 2.
 Ibid, page 2.
 Ibid, page 9