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Civil War Historian Kicks Off Pentagon Speaker Series

By John Valceanu
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 12, 2012 – Lessons of U.S. Civil War history were brought to life in the Pentagon yesterday during the first of a series of historical presentations to be delivered to interested audiences in the U.S. military’s headquarters.

Ethan Rafuse, professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College on Fort Leavenworth, Kan., delivered a lecture in the Pentagon auditorium in which he focused on the first months of the Civil War. Rafuse is a recognized expert on the Civil War who has authored several books on various aspects of the conflict. The lecture was open to anyone in the Pentagon who wished to attend, and it was webcast live on the Pentagon Channel.

During his talk, Rafuse explored the ideas that drove strategy and tactics on both sides of the war. He showed how the war was part of a larger “sectional conflict,” and he explained that it was interpreted by leaders on both sides as a “people’s contest.” He also discussed the “tripolarity of the struggle,” in which he showed how combatants and supporters on both sides strove to sway unaligned populace to their cause.

Rafuse showed that U.S. Army Capt. Nathaniel Lyon’s conventional victory over the pro-Confederate forces of the Missouri State Militia in May 1861 resulted in Missouri’s alignment with Union forces. The professor explained how this then helped drive President Abraham Lincoln’s advisors to push the idea of achieving a political result by scoring a quick conventional military victory over the Confederates.

The thought was that if the Union could defeat Confederate forces in a big battle, the South would lose the will to fight on, and the war could be concluded quickly. Unfortunately, the Union was unable to achieve that victory during First Manassas in July 1861, and the result was that war then raged and ravaged the country for another four years.

During his presentation, Rafuse explained that the study of history is critical for military personnel and defense strategists, and he quoted a variety of leaders who hold or held this view. These included Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper; the late Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr., one of the great leaders of World War II; the late President Harry S. Truman, commander in chief at the end of World War II and for the Korean War; and Napoleon Bonaparte, a professional soldier who became leader of a nation.

Rafuse used a complicated presentation slide from the Afghanistan conflict to illustrate the complexities of war, and he drew attention to the similarities between the multidimensional, layered aspect of the current conflict and that of the civil war. Nevertheless, he cautioned against drawing simplistic analogies from history and applying them to current situations.

History doesn’t repeat itself, “but there are echoes that can inform thinking about situations,” Rafuse said. He also noted that those looking to learn from history have the challenge of “seeing the parallels that inform our thinking while also being sensitive to differences that also shape our thoughts.”

In an interview with the Pentagon Channel conducted after the lecture, Rafuse said the value of history is “to broaden people’s thinking – thinking about context, the breadth of events, the depth of events, the larger context in which they take place to develop critical thinking skills and the framework for dealing with problems in the future.”

The speaker series is sponsored by a collaborative effort between the history offices of the secretary of defense, the Joint Staff and the military services.

“We plan to offer a presentation each month and cover a wide range of subjects related to military history,” said Jon Hoffman, deputy chief historian in Office of the Secretary of Defense, in a blog post introducing the series.

“The concept for the series is simple—identify interesting and relevant historical topics and find a well-qualified and well-spoken historian to address them in a venue available to all personnel in the Pentagon (and hopefully well beyond),” Hoffman said in the blog.

“The presentations will serve as professional military education (in official lingo), promote historical awareness among those charged with developing and influencing national defense policy and strategy, and also honor those who have served before us in defending the nation,” he said.

Related Sites:
DOD Live Blog: Introducing the History Speaker Series
OSD Historical Office
Command and General Staff College

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