WHAT HAS PASSED for the study of war in the service academies in recent decades give some cause for alarm. Increasingly since the end of World War II, the curriculum has been slanted in a manner that has produced an office corps overconfident -- nay, arrogant -- about its ability to direct, manage and control that most awesome and unpredictable of human experiences, the clash of arms and men on a battlefield.
The service academies have had their share of pulic attention during the past few years, what with the cheating scandals, the admission of women and the "liberalization" of curricula. Practically no note has been taken, however, of what has happened at the very core of military education, in the subject area that distinguishes West Point, Annapolis and Colorado Springs from the liberal arts campus -- the study of armed conflict. The salient development here has been the decline of the study of war's history as the foundation stone of the military curriculum.
History is a victim of an increasing disposition of military educators -- many of whom are not professional students of war but rather touring officers getting "tickets punched" on the way up the promotion ladder -- to treat war as a science. The empirical record of the past has given way to war technology and techniques of command as objects of inquiry. The focus is on tactics, strategy, logistics, the marchaling of hardware and the organization of ever-unfolding technology (e.g., the "electronic battlefield").
This rationalization of warfare breeds a disconcerting hubris in its practitioners because it deemphasizes, if it does not altogether deny, the role of what Frederick the Great called "His Sacred Majesty Chance" in shaping victory or defeat on a battlefield. It is a hubris that disregards the elder Moltke's wise caution that "no plan of operations can look with any certainty beyond the first meeting with the . . . enemy," because it cannot govern "the independent will of the opposing commander." The study of history is a humbling experience; the historical record bulges with one aborted attempt after another by the best and brightest to identify, assembly and manipulate the ingredients of military triumph.
Inattention to the history of warfare is perhaps the greatest weakness in the training of American military officers. The lack of all but a cursory familiarity with the object of their chosen profession has encouraged a mentality characterized by unwarranted confidence in the malleability of war, and by a faith that most, if not all, problems on the battlefield are susceptible to technological or administrative solutions.
West Point, Annapolis and Colorado Springs provide their charges with only momentary glimpses of the history of war. Of the 373 course of instruction that make up West Point's academic program, 17 are offered in electrical engineering, of which one at most is required; 26 in mathematics (two required), and five courses in what is boldly labled "Military Science." In comparison, the academic program provides about 16 courses in military history, of which at most two are required. Moreover, both required courses focus mainly on warfare in the 20th century. (But then, what did Clausewitz or Alfred T. Mahan know about semiconductors, electromagnetics and microprocessors?)
A cadet at the Air Force Academy receives even less exposure to military history: five courses (one required) out of 394 offered, including 22 in electrical engineering and 16 in the techniques of management.
At Annapolis, would-be Farraguts, Deweys and Nimitzes may graduate with a knowledge of what happened at Mobile, Manila and Midway, but not at Actium, Trafalgar and Jutland: the Naval Academy's sole required course in military history is "American Naval Heritage."
Our military academies produce some gifted students of war (both MacArthur and Patton were exceptionally well read in the history of their profession), but for the most part the schools grind out officers captivated by the idea that a science of war exists and that this most complex, uncontrollable and least understood of all human activities can be "managed" given the proper tools and requisite faith in its manageability. It is an officer corps, as historian Edward N. Luttwak has noted, that treats the enemy "as a mere inventory of targets" and warfare as little more than "the orderly administration of firepower."
If cadets and midshipmen at our professional military schools spent less time practicing close-order drill and memorizing meaningless axioms and more time exploring the true nature of the object of their profession, they might gain the profound respect for Fortuna that every great captain has exhibited.
For example, they might learn that the success of Hannibal's generalship at Cannae hinged precisely on rigid Roman adherence to the discipline that characterized Roman legions; that the Spanish conquest of the Aztec and Inca empires was due not to the superior arms the conquistadores carried in their hands but to the far more deadly viruses they carried in their bodies; that the Spanish Armada was destroyed less by Drake's "sea dogs" than by wind; that Frederick the Great's famous order of march was the product primarily of the propensity of his troops to desert; that the success of the American War of Independence was clinched by a French king's unwise political decision; that Napoleon's Grand Army was destroyed in Russia not by the wily tactics of Kutuzov but by subzero temperatures, and that Wellington's victory at Waterloo was gained only through flagrant disobedience of orders.
They might learn that the freezing of Lake Ladoga prevented the Germans from capturing Leningrad during World War II; that the Allied strategic bombing campaign during the same conflict probably prolonged rather than shortened German resistance; that Rommel was beaten in North Africa less by Montgomery than by distance; that "Market Garden," the great Allied airborn assault on Holland in 1944, was crushed as much by fog in England as it was by German forces in drop zones; and that the foundation of Israeli military prowess is a social structure vastly superior to that from which Arab armies are drawn.
By assiduous probing of the historical record, cadets and midshipment also might develop a healthy respect for the difficulties of translating technological advances into battlefield successes. They might learn, for example, that new technologies are virtually worthless if unaccompanied by appropriate changes in force structure and tactics, and that such changes are usually long in coming; that some 500 years separated the introduction of gunpowder and its full exploitation in war; and that the horror of World War I was to a large extent the product of a deadly combination of 20th century weapons and 19th century tactics.
They might learn that the consequences of new technologies are not easily predictable in advance; that the substitution of steam propulsion for sail during the 19th centruy several restricted the global reach of many navies; that the first tanks were designed primarily as barbed-wire crushers; that what came to be the most effective antitank weapon of World War II -- the German 88-millimeter gun -- was designed to shoot down aircraft, and that the mechnization of infantry has had little appreciable effect on the pace at which it can advance into enemy territory.
Finally, the future officer corps might learn that even profound technological superiority is no guarantee of success in combat; that history is littered with battles and wars -- Little Big Horn, the Chinese civil war, Vietnam -- in which the loser enjoyed vast technological advantage; that true grit and not the Welsh longbow destroyed the French feudal array at Crecy; that low Russian moral and not superior Japanese gunnery proved decisive in the great naval engagement off Tsushima in 1905; that France in 1940 had more and better tanks than the Germans; that Russian manpower and not the superior quality of Allied arms defeated the Third Reich, and that hand-to-hand fighting on Iwo Jima and Okinawa rather that the atomic bomb sealed the fate of Japan in 1945.
These observations should not be misconstrued as a conclusion that command and technology are irrelevant in war. On the contrary, generalship and weaponry have always ecerted a significant influce on the battlefield, and in many instances that influence has been decisive.
Generalship and technology, however, are but two of the major influences at play on the battlefied. Significantly, most of the major determinants -- weather, terrain, troop morale, lack of complete information about the enemy -- are beyond the immediate control of the commancer. Great commanders are invariably lucky men.
A historically illiterate officer corps could lead this country into disaster by its overconfidence. Ignorance of history is dangerous.