History Echoes

Public intellectual Tariq Ali once said that history echoes. Mark Twain said that history does not repeat itself, but that it often rhymes. In other words, the names and places and even the circumstances change but often we see the lessons of the past needing to be relearned in the present. It is a sad truth; it is part of the human condition. Learning is both a life-long and a multi-generational process.

How this relates to the study of war should be obvious. If we do not learn from past wars, battles and conflicts, then we are about to hear an historical ‘echo’ or a tactical ‘rhyme.’ Ask a Russian soldier why tanks should never proceed into a built-up area without the close protection of infantry. This is not a startling insight from the ongoing war in Ukraine. It is a fundamental tenet of the principle of combined arms battle, a tactical theory that predates the First World War. I have written before that the calls for the demise of the main battle tank are based more on a misunderstanding of combined arms than on the weakness of armour in all its guises. The invention in 1861 of Gatling guns took a heavy toll on infantry but did not obviate their need. Precision artillery fire did not end manoeuvre and the introduction or armour did not remove the need for the other combat arms.

Why do companies of actors constantly stage performances of plays that everyone has seen dozens of times? After Macbeth had been staged by Shakespeare, why do it again? There are many reasons, obviously, but one is that each generation of actors will learn something from studying a great piece of art. A new director may introduce a subtlety that has lain hidden for generations. So too, soldiers and academics must constantly revisit the past in search of wisdom. What does the Battle of Cannae (216 BC) teach us? How can the employment of mounted knights at the Battle of Crécy (1346) give us insights into how to employ heavy armour in today’s warfare? What do strategists have to learn from German Blitzkrieg? The answer to all of these questions is the same: plenty.

As I have said repeatedly in many fora, there is wisdom in the Jewish Torah. My particular favourite remains Ecclesiastes 1:9, What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

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