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The Important Role of Naval History to Honor the Past, Inspire the Future

Dec. 30, 2016 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
Editor's Note: As we look forward to the year 2017 and the opportunites our history offers to honor the past and inspire the future, we thought we'd share a recent article from our Director about why naval history is important and relevant to today's Navy, its Sailors, and the American public.

Our Obligation
If we expect Sailors to fight and die for our country, the least we can do as a Navy and nation is to remember them. We make the promise to the families of those fallen in battle or lost at sea that we will never forget their loved one's sacrifice. I believe the U.S. Navy has a moral obligation to keep its word.

LT. j.g. W. L. McVay, Jr., watches his radio-gunner, K. W. Jobe, check the flexible .30-clas. MGS in their Douglas SBD-3 "Dauntless" of VS-41 during operation "Torch," November 1942, on board USS RANGER (CV-4)

Lessons Learned
Lessons learned, often at great cost, need to be preserved and, most importantly, used, to accelerate the learning/decision cycle of the U.S. Navy, so that we stay ahead of potential adversaries. These lessons are useful at all levels of war (strategic to tactical) and in man-train-equip/acquisition domains. Accurate historical context is also necessary to preclude the all-too-common misuse of the lessons of history (e.g., re-fighting the last war syndrome, believing our own propaganda syndrome, and other analytic pitfalls.)

Scene on board USS Yorktown (CV-5), shortly after she was hit by three Japanese bombs on 4 June 1942. Dense smoke is from fires in her uptakes, caused by a bomb that punctured them and knocked out her boilers. 

Unit Combat Cohesion
The legacy of Sailors who have served and sacrificed in the past, if used properly, can inspire current and future generations of U.S. Sailors to rise to any crisis or combat situation because they are standing on the shoulders, and upholding the honor, of those who have gone before and persevered against the odds. The implacable resolve to not let shipmates down, past and present, is a critical factor in creating the interpersonal bonds that are so important to success in combat. Historic examples of courage in combat, and moral courage in the bureaucracy, can serve to inculcate in current leaders a sense of courageous moral and ethical decision-making so as to not let down those who came before.

Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., Chief of Naval Operations (center background) Participates in a question and answer session with U.S. Navy Advisors at the Rach Soi Naval Base, Republic of Vietnam, in May 1971.

Build Trust, Support and Understanding Among the American People
Without the support of the American People, the U.S. Navy will not have the support of Congress necessary to sustain the naval capability necessary to prevail over the threats of the future. People who have an understanding of what the Navy has done for them in the past will better understand what the Navy is doing for them now, and what the Navy can do for them in the future, and be more willing to support the cost required. Navy museums reach 1.5M people per year (including an older demographic that votes and writes their Congressional Representative, and a younger demographic (via STEM education programs) before their minds are made up regarding a military career.)

Our rapidly expanding social networking capability is now reaching multiple millions of people per year. The majority of our Congressional inquiries involve assisting Navy veterans with Agent Orange, PTSD, and other disability claims, for which the evidence is not on their DD214's but is in the Navy's archives; such support of our veterans further enhances the standing of the U.S. Navy in the eyes of the American public.  

Naval History and Heritage Command Vision: Enhance the warfighting readiness of the U.S. Navy by using the power of history and heritage to; - pass on hard-won lessons, - foster unit combat cohesion, - and garner the continuing support of the American people.