The rapid pace of technological advances and the exponential increases in the complexity of global logistics forestall any naïve comparisons of military logistics in past wars to our current logistics doctrine and practice. However, if logisticians learn and apply the historian’s method of analysis and inquiry, the benefits to individual logistics leaders and the units in which they serve would be a windfall, both immediately and in second and third-order effects. The key facets of historical inquiry that I will focus on here—which is my own prioritization of a much broader field of historiographical topics—are: the dual explanatory frameworks of agency and structure, the related frameworks of contingency and determinism, and the types of historical explanation.
If we accept that we cannot uncritically graft historical logistics lessons learned directly onto our present concerns, we need to understand what kind of inquiries will be of value for practical application today. Logisticians at all levels need to be operational artists to effectively advocate for the serious consideration and integration of logistics principles—rather than merely the data, forecasts, and tables—into operations planning. Unfortunately, too few logisticians (especially in the National Guard) can attend the resident Command and General Staff College, much less the School for Advanced Military Studies, so it becomes our implied task to develop these skills independently.
On the level of leadership, the study of biography is well suited to deepening our understanding of the context in which individuals think and act. By seeing the social, economic, cultural, and political structures and dynamics within which leaders are shaped and must act, we will gain insight into the forces that act on our own personal development. In addition, we will enhance our appreciation for the opportunities and constraints afforded by those structures and dynamics. Such an ability to recognize the “markers” inherent to these across historical periods and cultures enables one to orient to the situation more rapidly and accurately, formulate more adequate courses of action, and act more effectively on sound judgments. Self-awareness and self-development are exponents of agency, while situational awareness of social, political, and economic forces—as they relate to yourself and your field of action—is a factor of structure.
We need to study detailed monographs of battles and campaigns at the tactical and operational levels, with an eye towards logistics dimensions. While there are noteworthy monographs devoted specifically to analyzing logistics, there is also much to be learned from studying the conventional maneuver histories through the lens of logistics. Indeed, when we appraise tactical history from the maneuver perspective, critically applying our trained logistician’s skillset, interrogating the text for logistics problems and implications, we achieve a dual purpose: first, we learn more about how logistics fits into the operational concept, and, second, we broaden our understanding of warfighting functions beyond logistics. To become proficient in operational art and effectively advocate for logistics in operational planning, we need to have a solid foundation of unified land operations across multiple domains.
Although the materiel, technology, tactics, techniques, and procedures of the past may radically differ from ours, the astute reader will recognize that the problems are, often as not, analogous in their germane respects. Through studying in detail the logistical problems of past wars, and the more or less successful courses of action that past logisticians implemented to address them, we can glean general tactical and operational principles that remain relevant today. We can assess past solutions to logistical problems in terms of the principles of logistics (integration, anticipation, responsiveness, simplicity, economy, survivability, continuity, and improvisation), how they were incorporated into battle plans and campaign design (basing, culmination, lines of communication/operation, end state, center of gravity, decisive points, tempo, phasing and transitions, operational reach, and risk), and their effectiveness in support of unified land operations (freedom of action, operational reach, and endurance).
At the strategic level, we need to focus on those corresponding larger themes of the business of war. We gain perspective by studying the relationships between industry/contractors and the War Department/Department of Defense, funding and procurement, distribution networks, organizational culture, inter-service cooperation, research and development, mortuary affairs, and strategic leadership. As stated above, the specifics from one period to another will vary widely, but the fundamental problems persist. And while we cannot use past solutions as blueprints to current problems, we can and should study past military professionals to learn their modes of thought, their approaches to grappling with and resolving impediments, and their successful principles of organization and leadership. I contend that as you ascend the levels of war from the tactical to the strategic, concerns with logistics, materiel, and personnel overtake maneuver in respective prominence. We need to know how our tactical missions are nested in the broader operational and strategic concept to foster shared understanding.
As a serious student of history, I’ve learned that there are myriad “theoretical” issues with which one needs to engage. I recommend, first, that anyone who pursues history in anything beyond a casual way read something about the historical method; that is, how historians ask questions and the techniques they use to find and evaluate evidence to answer those questions. Additionally, it is valuable to study the historiography of the war or period you’re researching. Historiography is the history of the historical writings about a subject, period, event, etc. This allows the student to understand the context of a given book and the overarching questions, themes, problems, and arguments within that field. For example, when studying the Civil War, it is vital to have a grasp of the Lost Cause mythology if you are reading Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants and want to draw sound conclusions from it. Historical understanding fluctuates from one generation to the next, but we can gain valuable knowledge from the best historians of every generation with historiographical context.
Nested within method and historiography are a few other considerations I want to highlight. First, chronology is important. Today, it is common in academia to eschew chronology as pedantic and elevate a more analytical, social scientific approach. But when explaining events, processes, and causes the sequence of things matters a great deal. Likewise, the narrative should not be discounted. History, as it happened in the past, is infinitely complex. The surviving evidence historians use to reconstruct that history is paradoxical. There is a paucity of it relative to the actual complexity of the past, yet there is (depending on the period and subject matter) such an abundance of it that no single historian can read enough of it to capture the whole of any given topic of research. This is partly why historians emphasize the centrality of precise questions to render the enormity of evidence manageable. Since historical reality is so dense and complex, the narrative is very well suited to historical explanation because it affords the kind of thick description, sequencing, and layering of explanatory elements.
Anachronism is one of the principal mental traps to which both amateur and professional historians are susceptible. For most people, the intuitive default is to judge the decisions of historical actors in terms of our own perspective, with the knowledge of how things turn out and a much broader field of view. One way to counter this is to train ourselves to read forward in history, not backward. When we approach history with the sole intention of understanding an outcome and work our way backward to find the key turning points, our judgment will be skewed. If, instead, we first try to understand how the people in that time and place understood their circumstances, their motivations and goals, and how they decided upon and implemented courses of action, we will discover the immutable contingency of events. When we have this kind of appreciation and empathy, we can then combine it with the advantaged position of posterity to juxtapose it with the long-term structures that circumscribed their agency and determined the possible framework.
Finally, I would recommend that we take a long view of our historical studies. In my view, deep immersion in one period or war over an extended time will reap greater benefits than haphazard dabbling without focus. It is the difference between an amateur and a dilettante. By focusing on, say, World War I for a year, the student can read in greater depth, detail, and the context in a manner that consolidates the knowledge gained, facilitates connections between events and actors, and reinforces explanatory insights. Logistics and history are both complex subjects. One way to become a better professional in the former is to become a serious amateur in the latter.
Capt. Derrick Fiedler currently serves as the S-4 for the 1-113th Cavalry Squadron, in the Iowa Army National Guard. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from the American University of Rome, Italy and a Master of Arts in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago, Illinois.
This article was published in the July-Sept 2021 issue of Army Sustainment.