The distinguished historian Sir Michael Howard once admitted that the past, which he aptly referred to as an “inexhaustible storehouse of events,” could be used to “prove anything or its contrary.”1 Howard’s admission exposes an underlying problem with history that most historians prefer not to acknowledge. The past has indeed served many masters and conflicting purposes over time; its storehouse of events has been used to validate or discredit practically every major theory, precept, or principle. While historians are aware of this, few of them have actually taken the pains to examine what it is about history that permits the past to be used in such contradictory ways.Despite this, he believes there is value in history because it teaches military leaders critical thinking skills.
Their reluctance stems, at least in part, from a fundamental concern that the rigorous scrutiny necessary to arrive at the root of the problem might, at the same time, reveal the limits of history—limits that might in turn undermine the purported value that history and, thus, historians bring to education, especially military education.
Historians thus perform a valuable service in education in general, and professional military education in particular, by facilitating the development of critical and creative thinking skills, that is, by equipping students to examine historical interpretations rigorously and then by holding them to a high standard when developing their own, all the while stressing that definitive answers may forever remain out of reach. Taking the historian out of history amounts to taking interpretation out of the past, leaving the reader with little more than sterile chronicles of names, dates, and events—a solution that would likely please neither the person who chronicles the events nor the person who must read about them. For their part, historians are after what Jack Hexter, one of the more famous and controversial of historians, once called that “elusive entity—the Truth.” They want to understand what really happened, whether or not it is actually possible to do so, and then to explain why it happened. Institutions of higher learning need professionals possessed of just such a “determination to find things out,” whether they succeed or not. Thus, the most valuable contribution that history and historians can make—and why they should remain integral to higher education—is that they attempt to understand things that lie outside the realm of certainty. Their answers may be flawed, but it would be unsatisfactory for the human species to limit itself to knowing only those things that can be verified by the scientific method.To that, I'd add that all students would benefit from such an education. But then, I am biased.
Similarly, professional military education must equip students to understand the difference between historical reality (which, like the reality of the present, we may never fully know) and attempts to describe it. It must refrain from reinforcing the tendency among military students to regard history as, in Liddell Hart’s term, a “sentimental treasure.” Military professionals are better served by learning to be critical of the history that historians write, by building a habit of rigorously scrutinizing facts and sources, and of detecting biases and specious arguments, and by developing an eye for penetrating the myths that surround the past. They should regard the history they read, as Gaddis advises, as something between art and science. They must learn that a prerequisite to building a strong argument is the ability to recognize a weak one.