The Study of History Provides Perspective
Colonel (Ret) Bart Howard '84:
“A few years ago I was looking for a short YouTube video that would help my kids discover world history and I stumbled upon a series of videos called “Crash Course World History” hosted by a young man named John Green. In the video, he welcomes the students to the series and says “that in the next 40 weeks we will be examining how in a mere 15000 years humans went from hunting and gathering to” …at this point he is interrupted by a younger version of himself, sitting in a classroom chair, erratically waving his hand in the air. “Mr. Green, Mr. Green, will this be on the test” the student earnestly asks? The lecturer John Green remarks:
“about the test, you will be measured if you are an informed, engaged and productive citizen of the world…you will take the test in schools and bars, hospitals and houses of worship, on first dates, job interviews, while watching football and scrolling through your Twitter feed…the test will see if you can place your life and your community in a broader context…you will take the test your entire life and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions, that when taken together, make your life yours and everything, everything will be on the test… so pay attention.”
I paused for a few seconds. This was supposed to be an intro for an entertaining, young student history class and yet I had just heard one of the best explanations I had ever heard of why all of us, regardless of profession, should be students of history. All of us must understand how everything that we experience has a past and those experiences must be put into context. Furthermore, with the eye of a historian, all of us must understand that stories have some bias, sources must be evaluated with some skepticism without falling into a trap of perpetual cynicism. The study of history is analogous to having watched the early episodes of a TV drama. If you step into Episode 5 of Season 4, you may not understand why certain characters have such strong feelings or what is directing their motives. The appreciation of history makes one, as John Green said “an informed, engaged and productive citizen of the world.” If one clicks on a news story (hopefully an array of news sources in the way a more conscious reader may actually turn to the notes and sources appendices) the context of history has relevance. Why is it newsworthy that the US Ambassador of South Korea finally shaved off his moustache? Why would Korean citizens care about facial hair? Could it be that the Ambassador had a Japanese mother and that the moustache bespeaks to the era that the Japanese ruled Korea as a colony? A deeper reading reveals that Japanese military leaders in the 1930s and 40s often wore thick moustaches in the fashion of General Tojo. Wait, the Japanese ruled Korea from 1910-1945? What was the nature of the mandate? Does this have implications on the nature of security cooperation today? To some, these questions may not be applicable to a community in a small town in Iowa, who have bigger problems to solve like unemployment and foreclosing farms, but in my profession, they had real and critical impacts. But let’s be honest, the diplomatic struggles in Asia are in fact having a direct impact on a family outside Des Moines. Asian history is impacting a small farmer.
So how did I use my degree in History in my life and my career? Perhaps I had the luxury or the burden, depending on your viewpoint, of knowing I had employment upon graduation from Santa Clara in 1984. For various reasons, some naïve and some very practical, I chose to attend SCU on an Army ROTC Scholarship. I desired to challenge myself in a profession that would offer immense responsibility, provide leadership skills and the chance to travel beyond the Bay Area. I had attended training across the US and I enjoyed seeing new places, meeting people from various backgrounds and it was my hope to travel even farther to Europe or Asia.
My parents did not attend college. My mother immigrated from Scotland in the 1950s and my father was the son of Irish Immigrants who hailed from humble Skibbereen. He was a model of the “greatest generation.” He grew up in the depression, volunteered for the US Navy in World War Two, and with his extensive technical training, immediately found a good paying job in his hometown in San Francisco. He was able to live the American dream of buying some real estate and sending his son to Saint Ignatius and eventually SCU. Both my parents were intellectually curious and our house was full of books. Both shared a love of history and I grew up hearing dinner discussions about everything from Tudor history to Thomas Jefferson. The choice for studying history was an easy choice for me because I already enjoyed reading about European and American history. Additionally, it was a very good fit because a portion of military officers throughout the ages studied past battles and the biographies of leaders to prepare themselves for the rigors of service. The great captains had a sound understanding of political and military history.
So I completed my undergraduate education and continued my ROTC training without any reservations. My only regret must be the same for many adults, for I wish I could have understood what a luxury it was to be able to study, read and discuss an array of fascinating topics without all the responsibilities of a full-time job, a family and seemingly lack of any free time. I confess I didn’t use all my time well!
I was blessed with a long and may I say interesting career. In my early years, I was focused on the technical aspects of leading tank and infantry organizations from the size of just a dozen Soldiers to a Brigade of 3500. My extensive reading and study of military history on the micro level helped me understand the friction of conflict, the stress of leadership and the application of lessons learned. I lived in a quonset hut minutes from the infamous Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in South Korea in 1988. I read everything I could about the background and causes of the Korean War and the decisions of President Truman. As I was promoted and moved to positions of increased responsibility, I studied history with more of an eye on diplomacy and grand strategy. As a Major, I was selected to attend a year of graduate training with the Australian Army near Melbourne Australia. There, I was able to see a larger lens of the world. I learned that the US was not the only country on the planet and our view of how to solve military and diplomatic problems was not always practical or desirable. Years later, I attended the US Army War College, which was a graduate program and I earned a MA in Strategic Studies. Unlike the days of my youth, my classmates were fully engaged and we enjoyed lively discussions in the classroom and I spent some enjoyable hours in the library working on my thesis on Dwight Eisenhower.
As I became a senior commander, I was always known for my love of history, or tying in a historical vignette while I coached my leaders. I was proud to command the oldest units in the Army. One of my commands, the 5th Artillery was formed in 1776 and was known as “Alexander Hamilton’s Own Field Artillery.” We were familiar with Hamilton before it was cool.
I served in multinational commands such as NATO in Afghanistan. In 2006 in Kabul, I was the Chief of Staff for 22,000 assigned personnel and was a senior advisor to the theater commander. I had daily interaction with the US Ambassador and met dignitaries such as Secretary of Defense Gates, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (who spontaneously hugged me when she found out I was a San Francisco native and Saint Ignatius grad), Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator John McCain, FBI Director Mueller and one day as a surprise, Prime Minister Tony Blair. I was witness to many meetings with small audiences that included immensely powerful people. I knew I was witness to history myself and discovered that the realities of political decision making are unromantic. Not all leaders are as enlightened as Roosevelt or Churchill and yet even they had their own purely political and personal agendas. Some for great and noble reasons, some quite petty. All leading figures have their own prejudices and views based on their context of history and experience.
It was quite an experience in 2006, when it was relatively safe to travel by civilian vehicle in Kabul, to visit the site of the ruined Presidential Palace. A coup that took place on the grounds sparked the initial intervention of Russian military forces in 1979. I was only a High School senior in 1979, but years later I had studied the Russian-Afghan War in detail. I confess that I was one of the few senior leaders who understood the context of what happened in those fateful years. The Russians had actually tried many of the civil support programs the US thought were novel. Schools that were being rebuilt were originally constructed by Russian engineers. Along the road to Kandahar, we passed the burned and rusted hulks of Russian tanks and trucks. We were going down a road that was a well-worn path and a poignant symbol of historical context.
I wasn’t always happy with the decisions that were made by senior leaders and our national government in regards to the Middle East conflicts, nor regarding our present strategic position in the world. When I retired in 2010, I had a clear conscience that I provided the best advice I could, advice based on a lifelong study of history.
Now I am retired, but alas I am not out of the military! My wife is a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force. We have been married ten years and her service has taken us to Belgium where we both worked for the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) in Mons. In that capacity, we travelled extensively in Europe and regularly attended high level NATO meetings.
One special memory occurred in the Summer of 2009 when tensions between Russia and Georgia grew to the point that columns of Russian military forces rolled into the small country. Being August in Europe, most of the leadership was on vacation, to include the SACEUR who was in the US. I was one of the few special assistants on duty and accompanied the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) Chief of Staff, a four-star German General, to the offices of the Russian Representative to NATO in Brussels for a consultation. We sat in a small office, the Russians on one side, a German General and a couple of staff officers on the other. I could not help notice that right above the Representative’s desk was an official portrait of Vladimir Putin, wearing a large fur cap. He stared down at us, void of emotion. There was a lot to take in and a lot that had to be put into historical context. The Russians, gave their explanation of the “provocation” that brought on their actions. I thought of all the decades of mistrust between East and West. It would be a mistake to disregard the importance of “face” to the Russians.
We enjoyed working daily with colleagues from 25 other nations and lunch in the cafeteria was a colorful display of many uniforms and accents. Both of our young sons were born in Belgium. My wife was then posted as a History Instructor at the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs and subsequently the Republic of Korea where we spent an eventful year highlighted by missile tests and high tensions.
We now live near Naples, Italy where my wife is a civil-military planner for NATO. Her specialty is Western Europe and in 2021 we will move to Lisbon, Portugal where she will work in the US Embassy. She speaks fluent Portuguese as do my sons. I get by and can order a good wine.
To keep me busy when not watching our boys, I continue to study history. We live near some of the famous battlefields of World War Two and I am currently researching the Battle of Salerno. I am also slowly writing the history of my father’s experience in World War Two.
In summary, I am a firm believer and perhaps a good example of how one can apply the study of history to their profession. Although some will pursue the study of history with the goal of being an academic, many will go on to a wide array of disciplines. Good organizations want to employ people who are able to put themselves and their community in context, digest a wide array of information, evaluate possible biases and reliability of sources and then produce some sort of usable, well written analysis. The study of history is very good preparation for such people.
I hate to end on a quote… but I do admire President Harry S. Truman who said, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” There is so much I don’t know and so little time, but I hope to keep trying.”