When I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1956, the American military placed little emphasis on nontechnical professional education. The weIl developed curricula – much of it based on the study of history – that served World War II’s leaders so well no longer existed.
In their place stood courses dominated by political science and management philosophies. Fortunately for the United States, the situation altered considerably over the next forty years, although only at great cost. Advancing from private to lieutenant general during those four decades, I found myself initially a victim and later a beneficiary of military schooling.
The weak and uninspiring education system I first encountered might have survived far longer had it not been for the tragedy of the Vietnam War. That conflict and its aftermath provided the catalyst for much-needed change. At the center of the transformation lay a renewed interest in the study of military history. The American military’s performance in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm and the major combat phase ·of Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as its recent accomplishments in Afghanistan, offer compelling evidence of the value of the improvements made in the American armed forces between 1974 and 1991, none more so than the fundamental alterations in professional education.
In the following pages – after briefly outlining how the American military education system progressed over a century and a quarter only to lose its way in the early Cold War years – I have chronicled my own professional education and its importance to my development as a leader. I close with a cautionary note expressing concern that the gains of the past twenty years may be slipping away in a manner reminiscent of that earlier era.
POST-WORLD WAR II PROFESSIONAL
The American military, along with many European militaries, evidenced a disdain for overt intellectual activities by its officers for much of the nineteenth arid twentieth centuries. To most officers, such interests fell short in reflecting the manliness expected of those in uniform. Hard fighting, hard riding, and hard drinking elicited far more appreciation from an officer’s peers than the perusal of books. Commenting on a recent study of the nation’s military profession, one present-day commentator notes, “[w]e glimpse in finely wrought microcosm the current of anti-intellectualism that has coursed through American arms from its earliest beginnings to the present day.” (1) I Seeds of this anti-intellectualism remain, despite the efforts of several generations of reformers dedicated to improving professional military education.
Emory Upton, a U.S. Army officer who spent his adult life urging reform of the American military, laid the foundations of officer professional military education in the United States. Others in the early part of the nineteenth century, such as Stephen B. Luce, Tasker Bliss, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Elihu Root, built on Upton’s initial efforts in their own attempts to further the professional development of officers. All met resistance in their time, but by the mid-I920s their ideas guided the study of war· in most service academies, staff schools, and war colleges. History formed the core of much of the instruction in such institutions, especially in those courses focused on operations and strategy. During the 1920s and 1930s, Generals George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Admirals Chester W. Nimitz and Raymond A. Spruance, and a host of other World War II leaders attended classes enriched with military history. Many later attested to the importance of that historically grounded education. In his autobiography, Eisenhower described his time at the Army’s Command and General Staff School- from which he graduated first in the class of 1926 – as “a watershed in my life.” (2)
Victory in 1945 seemingly validated the content of prewar professional military education; therefore, major changes appeared unlikely. However, a number of defense authorities concluded that the advent of atomic weapons negated any value to be gained from studying the past. In the ensuing years, even some prominent military historians questioned the relevance of their field. In 1961, Walter Millis wrote: “It is the belief of the present writer that military history has largely lost its function …. [I]t is not immediately apparent why the strategy and tactics of Nelson, Lee or even Bradley or Montgomery should be taught to the young men who are being trained to manage the unmanageable military colossi of today… “(3)
Through both design and neglect, those in positions of influence contributed to the virtual elimination of history from the core curricula of nearly every American professional military institution throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. In its place, they inserted courses not only on nuclear war, but also on systems engineering, operations analysis, and management. Senior officers clearly deemed the emerging quantitative methods as far more relevant to the new demands of command in the nuclear age. The shortsightedness of these post-World War II leaders meant that the Vietnam generation of military officers – of which I am one – learned its early professional lessons in programs largely devoid of history. America paid a high price for such myopic views, and the resulting undue emphasis on the science of war to the detriment of the art of war.
(1) Lloyd J. Matthews, “The Unified Intellectual and His Place in American Arms,” Army Magazine, July 2002, p. I. The book he references is William Skelton, The American Profession of Arms: The Army Officer Corps, 1784-1861.
(2) Dwight D. Eisenhower. At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends (Garden City, NY, 1967), p. 200. For a detailed description of Eisenhower’s experience at Command and General Staff School (now called a “College”), see Mark C. Bender, Watershed at Leavenworth: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Command and General Staff School (Fort Leavenworth, KS, 1990). Ronald Spector, maintaining that the Naval War College curriculum was too narrow and technically focused, calls into question claims of senior World War II navy leaders that their War College education proved invaluable to prosecuting that conflict. See Ronald Spector, Professors of War: The Naval War-College and the Development of the Naval Profession (Newport, RI, 1977), pp. 149 and 150. My own interpretation is that war games provided strength to the college’s curriculum during this period, although these games focused on refighting past battles, especially Jutland.
(3) Walter Millis, Military History (Washington, DC, 1961), pp. 16-18.
“The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: An American Marine’s View”
by Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
1 March 2021 at 13:12
Interesting, enjoyed this article. Thanks for posting.
2 March 2021 at 18:36
As a non-military professional, but an aspiring Pearl Harbor historian (with a lifetime interest in this subject going back to the mid to late 1950’s), I greatly appreciate Station HYPO’s posting of this particular article. I’ll comment more on specifics once all five parts have been posted, and once my wife and I return to our home on the Island of Molokai. Thank you, General, and thank you, Mario, for posting this! Written from the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Tuesday, 2 March 2021.