Eight years of varied postings after my second tour in Vietnam – instructor at the U.S. Army’s Institute for Military Assistance, staff officer at Headquarters Marine Corps, battalion and regimental operations officer, and battalion executive officer in the 8th Marines – allowed sufficient free time to continue reading military history.

Although I never doubted the value of my ongoing efforts, my methodology never seemed sufficiently organized. Selection and assignment to the Naval War College’s naval command and staff course in summer 1977 soon eliminated this problem. Admiral Stansfield Turner had recognized the harm done to professional military education in

the pre-Vietnam era, and upon assuming presidency of the college in 1972, he had completely revamped the curriculum. History became the mainstay of all war-related instruction. At the start of the academic year, students read. Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War from cover to cover with the expectation that they would understand the significance of this ancient text and its relevance to the present day. The admiral believed in the value of the humanities and demanded students cover a minimum of 900 pages of assigned reading each week. His insistence on academic excellence proved intoxicating to those of us who previously had studied in relative isolation. He tossed us into the “briar patch,” and individuals who arrived at the college with an appreciation of history loved every minute of it. (9) Nonetheless, some disappointment surfaced within this group when the next major assignment turned out to be the Napoleonic Wars because we leapt over some 2,000 years of history with only a nod to its existence. However, when a school needs to cover the sweep of history in a single trimester, major compromises inevitably occur.

Personally, I resolved in the months ahead not only to work my way through the missing two millennia of military history, but also to return to the classical period of the Greek and Roman world and read in far greater depth. With a growing family and the associated expenses, I welcomed the advantage of soft cover books such as Penguin Books’ translations of Xenophon’s The Persian Expedition, Arian’s The Campaigns of Alexander, and Livy’s The War with Hannibal. My endeavor nearly floundered at the outset, when curiosity and an insatiable appetite caused me to expand my horizon even further in attempts to better understand the Greek and Roman civilizations, and then their art and architecture. Tempting as these new venues proved, I soon returned to the “main attack,” an effort that continues to the present.

Admiral Turner’s introduction of the works of the classical strategists, most particularly Clausewitz’s On War, proved as important to Naval War College students as his revitalization of historically based instruction. For nearly a quarter-century after World War II, America’s military schools failed to ground their students in the fundamental philosophies of war. Few understood the nature of war, much less its underlying theories. Without a basic knowledge of concepts and devoid of any historical context, there is little wonder that the mid-twentieth century officer corps led America into the Vietnam quagmire. Military leaders in the 1950s and 1960s proved quite adept in the science of war – mobilization, logistics, personnel management, and other peripheral activities – but demonstrated an almost complete lack of awareness of the art of war.

Turner insisted on a rebalancing of the equation. Michael Howard and Peter Paret’s 1976 translation of On War greatly aided the study of Clausewitz’s masterpiece, and thus, war itself. No more complete and enduring theory of the subject exists than the one contained in this volume. Clausewitz’s complex style of writing means the knowledge enclosed in his tome is extremely difficult to comprehend with simple reading. It requires close reading, aided by an adept teacher. Above all, Turner assembled a first-class faculty, which over time led the American military back to solid intellectual ground. The course of instruction provided me the basis for even more advanced study. Equally important, it prepared me for high-level command.

My next assignment to the United Nations (UN) Truce Supervision in Palestine promised the possibility of again seeing conflict, although as an observer trying to prevent renewed war. In preparation, I refocused my reading from the theoretical to the practical. More knowledgeable now about the wealth of military literature available, I turned to an earlier military-scholar, Ardant du Picq, whose Battle Studies: Ancient and Modern Battle in many ways closely paralleled S. L. A. Marshall’s book. I had secured this volume earlier as part of the Marine Corps Gazette’s collections of “classics.” However, I had never felt inclined to read it – a huge mistake. Du Picq’s observations on the moral effects on men in battle and the importance of cohesion seem in retrospect self-evident, but it took his book to make them so for the soldiers of his time. (10) Marshall carried forward this form of military research and writing, although without the extensive research he claimed. But the close examination of war’s sharp end truly came into its own with publication of John Keegan’s The Face of Battle in I976. A genre of similar books soon followed, including Paddy Griffith’s Forward into Battle: Fighting Tactics from Waterloo to Vietnam (and a revised edition entitled Forward into Battle: Fighting Tactics from Waterloo to the Near Future) and the works of other lecturers in War Studies at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.

I learned an important lesson reading Keegan’s book: not to downplay the ability of those without active military service or actual combat experience to write meaningfully about battle. I nearly went no further than the first sentence in The Face of Battle, in which Keegan states, “I have not been in a battle; not near one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath.” I again thought of closing the book two pages later when the author revealed he had never served in uniform. Luckily, I chose to ignore my prejudices and pressed on. As a result, 1 learned much from this now-famous military historian, not the least being that it is possible to become schooled in the profession through vicarious means, and in some cases, even more so than those who spend an unreflective lifetime in military attire.

Overall, duty in the Middle East supported my continuing professional reading and opened up a new vista, battlefield studies, or using today’s more common term, staff rides. I discovered such a plethora of sites in this region that selecting which to visit presented a huge challenge. Meggido, the location of the first recorded battle of history, won by the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmosis III in 1946 BC, lay at one end of the time spectrum, while at the other lay the various battlegrounds of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The Second Battle of Meggido, fought by General Allenby in September 1918, offered another possibility for study at both the original position and over the surrounding area traversed by the likes of Lawrence of Arabia. At the time I, visited in 1979, one could imagine the possibility of a future battle between the Soviet Union and the United States at this same spot with the Soviet backers of Syria moving down from the Golan Heights to meet Americans assisting in the defense of Israel. It was certainly an eerie thought at the time because Har (hill) Meggido is the location of the biblical Armageddon.

The earlier wars between the Arabs and Israelis – in 1948-9, 1956, and 1967 – offered numerous additional battlefields for examination. Bookstores in the region carried many publications on these wars that imparted viewpoints not elsewhere available. A few of these remain in my personal library. Among those I found most useful were Chaim Herzog’s The War of Atonement and Mohamed Heikel’s The Road to Ramadan. Such readings were reinforced by the opportunity to study the campaigns of 1941 and 1942, especially EI Alamein. Good map reading skills aided my travels over these positions because the desert looks much the same from horizon to horizon in this part of North Africa.

No nation tends to its overseas battlefield burial sites as well as the United Kingdom. Walking through the EI Alamein cemetery along row upon row of gravestones – each inscribed with a message from loved ones at home – invariably caused me to reflect deeply on the terrible costs of war and the immense responsibilities borne by those who practice the profession of arms. No words affected me more than the simple ones from a young son to his departed father: “Goodnight Daddy – Wee John.” Such a loss cannot be measured in the normal calculus of war. The safety of one’s nation and the sacrifices many pay – some the ultimate – must motivate every officer to master his or her profession.

For nearly a year, the United Nations schedule of a week of duty followed by a week off allowed me much time for staff rides accompanied by a handful of equally interested officers from a variety of nations. The chance to explore old battlefields also arose occasionally in the normal course of conducting patrols. I always tried to precede these events with detailed reading of works on the battle of interest. In the first half of my tour I worked out of Cairo, Egypt, where a preponderance of the Soviet observers also served. This meant that normally two out of three patrols I participated in included a Soviet partner.

The arrangement provided a unique opportunity to talk freely with members of a potential enemy nation, while driving over desert routes or relaxing in our small encampments. The subjects ranged from politics and religion to areas of mutual professional interest. The Soviet officers – all from the Army – often gave us copies of history books as gifts, some in Russian, others English translations. Apparently, their government made these available for free. Although a few consisted of pure propaganda, most contained credible material on the past performance of Soviet forces. The chance to discuss professional military matters with these officers offered a perspective on past and future operations unavailable anywhere else in the world at the time. The course at the Naval War College had prepared me well and allowed me to hold my own in some great debates. When patrols brought us to the scene of a 1973 battle, we usually stopped and walked over it, examining destroyed Soviet equipment and an occasional American tank, always attempting to understand how the particular engagement was likely to have unfolded. On several occasions, our accompanying Egyptian liaison officer described his own wartime experience at or near the site and suggested English translations of books related to the action.

The second half of my tour with the UN took me to southern Lebanon, where ongoing hostilities between various guerrilla factions and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) often made the work of an observer difficult. I never became comfortable under fire or near small but deadly engagements while unarmed. Nonetheless, professional rewards abounded. Observers normally alternated duty at positions near or collocated with units from the IDF and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Again, circumstances often allowed’ professional discussions with the two antagonists. Somewhat surprisingly, I never felt any hostility directed against me from members of the PLO, despite the official American attitude toward that group. Militarily related conversations in these surroundings naturally tended toward various aspects of irregular warfare. As had the Soviet officers, members of the PLO often gave us free literature, usually pamphlets. Approximately 75 percent turned out to be pure propaganda of an incendiary nature; the remainder were well-written features on the history of the region.

The insecure countryside and the reluctance of both sides to venture beyond fixed posts limited opportunities to see old battlefields. Instead, our responsibilities took us to sites of conflicts only minutes or hours old, with the object of separating the warring parties and investigating the circumstances of the action. A few P.LO positions located on or near Crusader castles and in the ancient city of Tyre allowed some limited study, however. I left the Middle East with a much-enhanced understanding of warfare over the ages and of the many similarities between armies around the world. The Naval War College experience, coupled with that of a UN observer, served as an unsurpassed professional school that provided an exceptional education.

(9) I always sensed that officers with a specialty that potentially brings them closer to an actual fight – infantrymen, pilots, artillerymen, etc. – most appreciate the study of history. A study done by a fellow student at the Army War College in 1982 that found combat arms officers “most likely to view military history as highly valuable” supports this thesis. See David W. Hazen, “The Army War College and the Study of Military History,” U.S. Army War College, April 19, 1982, p. 22.
(10) Azar Gat provides a valuable critique of du Picq in “Ardant du Picq’s Scientisrn, Teaching and Influence,” War & Society, October 1990, pp. 1-16.

“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)

Featured Image: Thucydides of the Peloponnesian War