- Goldrick, James, Commodore, RAN
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This is a talk given at The Society for Military History 2004 Conference Banquet
At the time of writing, the author was Commandant, Australian Defence Force Academy
This will be an extremely personal view of the role of military history within military education. I call myself a ‘naval fellow traveler’ in the title that I have given this talk because I have deliberately attempted over many years to combine a seagoing professional career with continuing study of naval history. This has been easier than might be imagined – and I have been able to point out to those who are surprised at my having the time to publish as a professional naval officer that I do not and never have played golf.
So my reflections this evening are couched in the experience of thirty years in the Navy and rather more in naval history. And I will admit, that many in the Australian and other Navies with whom I have served over three decades are likely to roll their eyes and remark ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?’
I should also add, against the tradition of after dinner speakers, that I have not armoured myself with too many apt quotations – perhaps because the erudition of my audience is such that you will too quickly identify both their origin and their context. The art of quotation is not only in knowing when to stop, but in knowing the context of that quotation more than your listeners.
It has also been easier than might be imagined to combine history and the navy because I have been acutely and increasingly conscious of the benefits that I have gained from my abiding interest – benefits on both the small and large scale. History matters and history helps. Many of the tricks and apparent innovations which I adopted, particularly as an executive officer and as a captain, were in fact filched from memoirs and histories. Many times, when customs or practices were on the point of being abandoned, I could explain just why the Navy does things a certain way. Occasionally, I have even been able to dispense with an obsolete custom because I could prove that it really was obsolete – or that it wasn’t in fact an ‘old navy custom’ in the first place, but an unpleasant habit picked up in the recent past. I have been able to influence policy with a clear consciousness that my impetus had at least part of its original motivation from some historical fact. And I certainly believe that my understanding of historical blockade concepts was of fundamental importance to my work in tactical control of maritime interception operations in the north Persian Gulf two years ago.
Just occasionally, my interest in history has backfired. I remember, during a year ashore working for the Chief of the Australian Naval Staff in the 1980s, I had prepared a speech for him. When I presented it to him for approval, he invited me to sit and wait while he went through the text. As he read and I waited, I fell into a reverie, thinking to myself ‘How will history treat this Admiral? How will his performance as Chief of Naval Staff be judged?’ I must have wandered off mentally rather more than I had realised because I came to with a start to find the Admiral’s bloodshot eye contemplating me with some distaste. ‘James,’ he said, ‘if you must stare at me, please do not do so in a way that makes me think you are writing me into one of your histories.’
Let me say that I believe military history to be central to military education at every level. I believe also that there should be a continuum of study in military history, but that this continuum should not be considered as one that can be broken down into distinct phases. Rather, that continuum should be one of steadily deepening and more sophisticated examination of historical issues. I don’t intend to detail to you how that process should be managed – I am not at all convinced that anybody has yet worked out how to do this effectively across the full spectrum of a military career and I certainly don’t think that I can manage to do so tonight. Rather, taking discretion as the better part of valour, I want to focus on a couple of key problems that I believe military historians need to think about.