AN EARLY INTEREST IN MILITARY HISTORY
My first exposure to military history came in the late 1950s as a squad leader in a Marine Corps reserve unit. Enrolled in a college program with a history-centered curriculum, I found study of the past enjoyable.
At the same time, knowledge of history appeared as if it might prove useful if I earned the officer’s commission I sought. Not surprisingly, whenever I came across an advertisement for an inexpensive book on military history, I usually invested in a copy. Of the several books I bought during this period, two made notable and long-lasting impressions. The first, S. L. A. Marshall’s Men Against Fire: The Problem of Command in Future War, cost only $1.35 in paperback. (4) I eagerly read and heavily annotated Marshall’s analytical history of recent battles. I discovered much that seemed intuitively correct although not always obvious. In field exercises, I routinely tried to take into account Marshall’s insights into leadership and small unit tactics. The second influential book, T. R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War, graphically detailed the penalties paid by poorly prepared U.S. Army units early in the Korean War. It made an indelible imprint on my mind in regard to the absolute necessity for challenging training and strict discipline in military organizations. The reputation I acquired as a hard-nosed leader found its start not only in the stern lessons taught by my drill instructors at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, but equally in those I drew from this book. I copied many passages from This Kind of War and returned to them for inspiration. My favorite was and remains: “In 1950 a Marine Corps officer was still an officer, and a sergeant behaved the way good sergeants had behaved since the time of Caesar, expecting no nonsense. allowing none. And Marine leaders had never lost sight of their primary – their only – mission, which was to fight. (5)
As a newly commissioned second lieutenant and student at the Marine Corps officers’ basic course in early 1964, I encountered history only as a means of reinforcing the customs and traditions of the Marine Corps. This instruction involved little more than story telling – often inaccurate when it came to details, as I discovered afterward when I read that the red stripes along the trouser seams of officers’ and noncommissioned officers’ uniforms, usually referred to as “blood stripes,” were not awarded in recognition of the high casualties Marine leaders suffered at the Battle of Chapultepec in the Mexican-American War. Apparently, the stripes served simply as a decorative flourish to officers’ uniforms. Fundamentally, these classes offered a narrowly focused review of the organization’s heritage – “drum-and-trumpet” military history at its finest – useful for its purpose, but not professionally enlightening.
Arriving at my first operational unit – a 2nd Marine Division infantry battalion – in late summer 1964, I found minimal interest in military history. Those officers who read of past battles and campaigns seldom advertised the fact. They judged it, I imagine, more an avocation than the heart of professional learning. Some bright spots existed. The Marine Corps Gazette offered military history books for sale at reduced prices and frequently presented articles examining past battles. A collection of Gazette articles appeared in an edited work entitled, The Guerrilla – And How to Fight Him, proving reasonably popular. Although more theoretical, Robert Osgood’s Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy also attracted attention. The magazine even identified a set of “military history classics” for purchase in a suitably marked box. Several new books on World War II generated moderate interest among my contemporaries, including the first two volumes of the official History of the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II and Kenneth Davis’s Experience of War: The United States in World War II. Although my own interest centered on reading and studying books dealing with irregular or small wars – because we seemed more likely to face such wars in the near future – I made efforts to at least peruse others. Perhaps most important, my career-long habit of always having professional reading near at hand as a guard against wasting unexpected free time began in this assignment.
When it came to small unit fighting, however, nothing surpassed the wisdom I found in Men Against Fire. After returning from my initial baptism of fire in spring 1965 in the Dominican Republic, I re-read Marshall’s book and found my original evaluation reinforced. Over the succeeding thirty years, I made revisiting his book a habit after each combat episode I experienced. Always, I came to the same conclusion. This author-historian possessed an extraordinary understanding of the close fight and wrote about his insights as clearly and succinctly as anyone before or since.
Interest in reading military history increased among my fellow Marine officers as the war clouds over Vietnam grew darker. Reading about the French experience in Indochina and the British experience in Malaya became fashionable. Copies of Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy appeared on more than a few officers’ desks. Still, many believed that sharpening their tactical and technical proficiency outweighed the potential of intellectually preparing for war. I confess to conflicted feelings at this point in my military life. Upon receiving orders assigning me to an advisory billet with an infantry battalion of the Vietnamese Marine Corps, I devoted more time to readying my personal equipment, boots, knife, map kit, and survival gear, and to improving my physical fitness than to professional reading. I did, however, re-read Men Against Fire.
A gunshot wound to the stomach shortened my tour in Vietnam by more than half and placed me in a series of military hospitals for several months. Thus, I was offered the opportunity to contemplate recent events. A growing desire to understand my wartime experience led to a renewed and intense interest in reading. I mentally created a more expansive and sophisticated menu of books than the one I had turned to prior to my departure from the United States the previous summer. I began with a survey of the history of war with Lynn Montross’s War Through the Ages. I then revisited the situation in Southeast Asia with Bernard Fall’s The Two Vietnams; tried to understand the new type of war through David Rees’s Korea: The Limited War; and looked at the larger issues of war in B. H. Liddell Hart’s Strategy and Walter Goerlitz’s History of the German General Staff: 1657-1945. I formed no agenda or reasoned plan for my reading. Instead, I simply tried to satisfy the gnawing feeling that I had known too little about war before going to Vietnam.
After convalescence, there followed an assignment as an instructor at The Basic School in Quantico, where all the Corps’ lieutenants undergo training to become rifle platoon commanders, regardless of their future occupational specialties. Faced with pending postings to Vietnam, these young officers readily sought advice on how to prepare themselves. When they asked how long it took to get ready for combat, my most common response was, “At least 100 years!” I then explained that no one wants to risk his life and those he leads without taking every opportunity to acquire the necessary skill and knowledge to succeed. Thus, any allotted time is always too short. The most frequent follow-up question concerned what to do in the time available. Here, I invariably urged each lieutenant to read, making clear the logic and efficiency of tapping into the collective wisdom of generations upon generations of warriors. I often repeated a quote from Liddell Hart, “There is no excuse for any literate person to be less than three-thousand years old in his mind.” (6) By this point, I possessed my own list of recommended books to share, though, in hindsight it was weak in many respects, particularly regarding the nature and character of war.
I soon found myself in a position to follow my own advice, because after completing the instructor tour and attending the Amphibious Warfare School, I received orders returning me to Vietnam in summer 1968, on this occasion to serve as a rifle company commander. (7) My free time before this second tour in Southeast Asia focused on specialized reading instead of overly preparing personal equipment and exercising my body to an extreme. I wanted to know more about what it meant to be a professional warrior, so I struggled through both Morris Janowitz’s The Professional Soldier and Samuel Huntington’s The Soldier and the State, devoured Martin Russ’s The Last Parallel to gain a better appreciation of infantry combat, and sought lessons on irregular war from Samuel B. Griffith’s translation of Mao Tse-Tung on Guerrilla Warfare. I once again re-read Men Against Fire to great benefit. An article by then Captain Allan R. Millett – later to become a noted historian and a reserve “colonel of marines” – supported my notions about the importance of history, so much so that I clipped the piece, «Military History and the Professional Officer.” To this day, it remains in my files. (8)
History offers no “lessons” for military officers. It does, though, provide a rich context for understanding the terrible phenomenon that was, is, and will remain war. The vicarious experiences provided through study of the past enable practitioners of war to see familiar patterns of activity and to develop more quickly potential solutions to tactical and operational problems. My several years of professional reading, for example, gave me a sense of confidence on the battlefield that I did not have during my previous tour in Vietnam. To the degree that the word has meaning in such circumstances, I became comfortable, whether under enemy fire or pressed to make rapid tactical decisions. “Mike” Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, soon developed a division wide reputation for success in battle, as well as for its ability to handle unique problems. The Viet Cong continue to fire long-range rockets at the Da Nang Airfield: put Mike Company on it. Need to stop North Vietnamese infiltrators: send for Mike Company. Only the inevitable casualties made command less than ideal. I could never identify a direct cause and effect relationship between the orders I gave in combat and the books I had previously read, but clearly a symbiotic connection existed. The secondhand wisdom gained from reading thousands of pages of military history synthesized over time in my mind and eventually merged with the experiences of previous firefights in the Dominican Republic and during my first tour in Vietnam. This combination of real and vicarious learning provided the ability to make well-informed judgments despite the inherent stresses of war.
(4) Although initially troubled by allegations concerning Marshall’s research raised in several venues in the 1980s, as well as the subsequent controversy, I regained my former confidence when Dr. Roger J. Spiller, who questioned many of Marshall’s research methods in the winter 1988 issue of the RUSL Journal, said he did not doubt the combat historian’s conclusions stating, “Forty years later, as the quest for universal laws of combat continues unabated, Marshall is still right.” (Quoted in a review of Men Against Fire in the July 1989 edition of Military Review, pp. 99 and 100.)
(5) T. R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War (New York, 1963), p. 188.
(6) B. H. Liddell Hart, Why We Don’t Learn from History (London, 1946), pp. 7-8.
(7) The use of history by Amphibious Warfare School instructors during my time there as a student appeared selective and primarily designed to support a specific teaching point. I often recalled examples that ran counter to the ones being cited. Such biased use of military history in military schools occurred all too frequently in the 19605 and 1970s.
(8) Allan R. Millet, “Military History and the Professional Officer,” Marine Corps Gazette,April 1967, p. 51.
“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)
3 March 2021 at 14:03