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Letter from Military History - July 2008

Originally published on Published Online: May 29, 2008 
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What were they thinking? is a valid question when reviewing a campaign, battle or other military maneuver and seeking to understand why the recorded actions were taken. Why did the Persian cavalry fail to attack at Marathon? Why did the Confederates invade Pennsylvania? Why did the French obsess about holding the line at Verdun in the face of horrific casualties? What were Artaphernes, Robert E. Lee and Philippe Pétain thinking?

Despite its attendant horrors, war remains an arena of human behavior in which an idea can be practically tested against real-world outcomes with real-world consequences. General Pétain, to cite an example from the darkest months of World War I, had an idea that given the state of weapons technology, available manpower, the terrain and likely tactics on the Western Front, the best way to defeat the German army was to pound it relentlessly with as much artillery firepower as could be mustered. For 10 months in 1916, Pétain subordinated nearly all other tactics and concerns to put that one idea into action. In the end, his idea and the enormous efforts of the French army did, in fact, stymie the German attacks and—in Pétain's view—save France.

It must be intoxicating to be in a position to field-test such an idea and see it to fruition. For most of us, the clear path from idea to action to result is not always available—blame it on too much opposition, too many committees, too many regulations, too many out-of-the-blue variables, too many bad breaks, too much "fog of war." For us, military history can reaffirm the belief that individuals really can make a difference, and that our ideas can have world-changing consequences.

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