The Army Combat Historian and Combat History Operations: World War I to the Vietnam War

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Release Date: 
August 31, 2023
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The definition and use of military history has been challenging for the American military establishment. How is history useful for an operational commander or to soldiers in general? What role does history have for doctrine and training to the U.S. Army as an institution? These are questions this book answers as the authors narrate the development combat historian and the evolving role of combat historians as they develop history into a useful tool for informing training, operations, and doctrine development.

Although there were early efforts to collect records and conduct post-combat interviews going all the way back to the American Revolution and the Civil War, these were either ad hoc efforts or, in the case of the 128 Volumes of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, completed long after the war. When the U.S. entered World War I, both the War Department and the American Expeditionary Force commander, General John J. Pershing, wanted to create dedicated history staffs to collect and archive official documents and write a series of monographs.

Although the collection of official documents was largely successful, leading into the post-war era, the creation of monographs or narrative histories fell by the wayside and the long-term status of military history within the War Department waxed and waned throughout the 1920s and 1930s, never really at home either in the operations branch or any Army service college. Although the preservation of official correspondence was considered the prime goal of any history program, no real consideration was given to the practical use of history to inform doctrine or lessons learned. “The U.S. Army’s historical function was limited to the collection, collation, and publication of documents. There was no place for narrative, interpretive writing.”

When World War II started, the War Department took a more thorough approach to history, going beyond the mere gathering of documents and records to authorizing the eventual authorship of an official narrative history. More importantly, the Army determined that professionally trained historians would be sent to each theater of war not only to assist with the retention of relevant records, but to actually conduct more immediate post-combat interviews with soldiers in the field.

This need to send historians to the actual theaters was driven by a couple of factors: first, with the advent of radio communications and mobile forces, more operational orders were being passed verbally and not in writing, creating fewer tactical level documents, and the Army attempted to make better operational use of history for combat lessons learned, which required not only data gathering but interpretation and analysis. This effort at analysis and narrative writing continued into the Cold War era conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.

From their time serving as front-line historians in both World War II and Korea, the Army assembled what would become a group of the best military historians of the 20th century, including Forest Pogue, Hugh Cole, Martin Blumenson, Bevin Alexander, and the first historian to become an Army general, Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall, known by his more famous name of S.L.A. Marshall. Marshall gained initial notoriety by pioneering the interview style that would be used by generations of field historians, resembling more of a police-style interrogation with a group of soldiers to assemble and cross-verify all the facts of an engagement to draw the most complete picture of the tactical actions and decisions made.

Although Marshall would generate his own controversies for his conclusions, particularly in his combat study, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command, his basic methodologies for conducting post-battle analysis are still in use today.

As a result of the Army’s new emphasis on including narrative histories of World War II, backed by General Eisenhower, the post-war Army Chief of Staff, the Army produced 78 volumes known today as the “Green Books,” the definitive operational, organizational, and technical history of the U.S. Army in the war, covering everything from theater battlefield narratives to technical volumes on ordinance and aircraft procurement that remain significant resources for history students today. As the authors note: “This was a revolutionary new direction rippling across the writing of military history.”

The Army continued to refine the role of combat historians in both Korea and Vietnam, and the authors noted that history was not only being prepared for the Army as an institution, but it was also intended to provide more immediate feedback “to produce an operational analysis that may help American soldiers live longer and perform better in combat.”   

This trend continues today with the work of the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History and the Combat Studies Institute, both part of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.