H. R. McMaster: I think the study of military history has been the most important preparation for every position I’ve had in the last 12 years or so. It’s important to study and understand your responsibilities within any profession, but it’s particularly important for military officers to read, think, discuss, and write about the problem of war and warfare so they can understand not just the changes in the character of warfare but also the continuities. That type of understanding is what helps you adapt.
I think the American tendency—and I’m sure this is often the case in business as well—is to emphasize change over continuity. We’re so enamored of technological advancements that we fail to think about how to best apply those technologies to what we’re trying to achieve. This can mask some very important continuities in the nature of war and their implications for our responsibilities as officers.
The study of military history helps identify not only these continuities but also their application to the current and future problems of war and warfare. This type of study helps us make a grounded projection into the future based on an understanding of the past. It helps us reason by historical analogy while also understanding the complexity and uniqueness of historical events and circumstances. This is what Carl von Clausewitz believed: that military theory will serve its purpose when it allows us to take what seems fused and break it down into its constituent elements.
As one of my favorite military historians, Sir Michael Howard, suggested, you have to study history to get its analytic power in width, in depth, and in context: in width, to see change over time; in depth, by looking at specific campaigns and battles to understand the complex causality of events that created them; and then in the context of politics, policy, and diplomacy. Studying history is invaluable in preparing our officers for their future responsibilities.V/R