When I returned to the States, I assumed command of a Marine Barracks near Jacksonville, Florida. No Marine duty is undemanding when one is the commanding officer; yet, regular hours and no requirement to spend days away on field exercises provided more time for professional study than I had found in earlier assignments.

A combination of formal schooling, overseas travel, and four tours in combat zones over the preceding twenty-four years had widened my reading interests immensely. To continue my tactical education along with my understanding of combat leadership, I turned to the newly published (in 1979) translation of Erwin Rommel’s Attacks and a reprint of the U.S. Army Infantry Journal’s landmark Infantry in Battle, originally published in 1934 under the signature of George C. Marshall. These seminal works provided me with a wealth of new and important knowledge. To expand my understanding of strategic thought, I probed Edward Mead Earle’s Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler and Michael Howard’s The Theory and Practice of War.

In summer 1981, I reported to the Army War College. After a quick review of the program of instruction, I ascertained that this institution at the time failed to offer much of a test for any serious student. There appeared to be little opportunity for the study of war at this war college. To illustrate, World War I and World War II studies each consumed approximately eight academic hours, whereas instruction in U.S. immigration policy took up nearly twenty hours. Furthermore, reincorporating history into the curriculum remained an ongoing effort with little evidence of any significant impact.

I found no surprise in one scholar’s earlier observation that, “Perhaps the most conspicuous shortcoming of the lectures offered [in an elective course on military history] is that too few of them deal with conflict. (11)

Finally, the 1981-2 academic year saw the first introduction of Clausewitz’s On War, a text I felt comfortable with after the rigors of the Naval War College. Determining how to best fill the many hours the college scheduled for personal study – hours obviously not required to meet the limited demands of work outside the classroom – became my immediate mission. Visits to the campus library and bookstore promptly revealed the best way to accomplish this task, and the upcoming months looked considerably brighter as I contemplated the possibilities for personal reading and research. In a few days, I established two goals for my year at the Army War College: first, determine how best to approach the professional study of military history, an issue . raised after Vietnam by critics both in and out of uniform; second, create a self-directed study program that could guide officers in their own continuing professional education, a responsibility too few seemed to recognize rested on their own shoulders.

Michael Howard’s highly regarded 1961 article, “The Use and Abuse of Military History,” looked like a good place to start my research on the role of military history in professional education. (12) I found a treasure trove of advice in this piece beginning with Sir Michael’s counsel to study in width, depth, and context. The U.S. Army Center of Military History’s A Guide to the Study and Use of Military History proved equably valuable. (13) It offered everything from specifics on how a student might approach military history to bibliographic guides on great military writers and military history in specific periods. This became one of the most well-worn books in my library. I uncovered several additional aids to studying history; “timeless verities of combat,” “recurring themes,” and “threads of continuity.” These conceptual schemes help an officer understand a specific aspect or a unique instance of war through the perspective of time. Trevor N. Dupuy explained the use of the timeless verities of combat in The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare. The Naval War College and the U.S. Military Academy organized their military history study around recurring themes and threads of continuity, at least in 1982. My research enabled me to write a short paper describing the techniques a student might use to better direct his or her study of history. I shared the ideas in this paper with other officers for the remainder of my career.

At the outset of my studies at the Army War College, a letter to the school’s professional journal, Parameters, caught my attention. Retired Army Major General David W. Gray suggested “that each officer should set forth the guidelines which he intended to follow throughout his career. These guidelines would encompass principles of conduct as welJ as skills essential to professional fitness, ‘including not only those of a purely physical or technical nature but also those designed to train and discipline the mind. Presumably these skills would be modified or expanded as the officer progressed in rank.(14) I set out to review studies made of .officer education in the recent past, talked with numerous authorities on officer education, and surveyed a variety of literature on the subject. From this endeavor, I concluded it best to divide my proposed self-directed program into three parts, the humanities in general, military history specifically, and communications, that is, reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Broadening the program allowed me to consider the “whole man,” while centering on the military characteristics. Over the next months, I wrote a paper describing the importance of each of these categories to an officer’s self-education: how he or she might go about studying subjects within these categories. As an unexpected benefit, my paper met the requirements of the college for an individual research essay; thus, it performed double duty.(15) More important, it guided my own professional development efforts over the next fifteen years and informed my later work directed at improving professional military education in the Marine Corps.

Classes with Harry G. Summers, author of On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context, certainly counted among the few highlights of my time at the Army War College. In both his book and classroom, he correctly refocused responsibility for failures in Vietnam from the liberal media and antiwar protestors to the real problems: a lack of strategic thinking and realistic understanding of the nature of war. Along with Admiral Turner, Summers forced thoughtful military officers to revisit their own deficient professional educations.

General Robert Barrow, who served as Commandant of the Marine Corps during the year I attended the Army War College, also provided a beacon of light during this period with his scholarly manners. A man of exceptional physical stature and presence, he evidenced an extraordinary intellect. As a serious student of history, he frequently employed historical examples in talks and speeches. In his annual visit to the college, he opened his remarks with a spellbinding story of Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar. In a telephone call the following weekend to my twin brother, a student at the Naval War College, I mentioned the favorable reaction Barrow had received during his visit. My brother indicated that the general’s visit to Newport that same week elicited a similar response. I asked about the effect of his historical example, and my brother answered that it clearly motivated the students. We continued our conversation for some minutes, with my assuming that it centered on the same example – Nelson at Trafalgar – only to realize eventually that to the Naval War College audience, Barrow had spoken of Wellington at Waterloo. Unique among senior leaders, the commandant provided a navy example for an army school and an army example for a navy school.


Following the Army War College, I returned to the operating forces for six years, first as the executive officer of the 7th Marines and then as commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marines. From there I went to Okinawa, Japan, and assumed command of the 4th Marine Regiment. Duties as the operations officer and chief of staff of the 3rd Marine Division came afterward. Each of these billets offered the chance to implement my self-directed study program. Among the many books I read during this period, none proved more influential than Martin van Creveld’s Command in War. In the first chapter, he offered an enlightened view of command and control as practiced over the ages. In the following chapters, he expanded on his ideas with clear historical illustrations. From the outset, van Creveld recognized the inherent uncertainty of the modern battlefield. That fact, virtually unacknowledged elsewhere, supplied the underpinning for my own approach to modernizing the command and control of every unit I served in during these and subsequent assignments. I insisted subordinate commanders and staff read the book and held my own command-level workshops to review van Creveld’s ideas. In my mind, Command in War reached the status of classic almost upon publication. Surprisingly, when I asked Martin van Creveld at a conference in 1989 how he evaluated his many writings, he did not place that book at the top but stated that his then yet to be published The Transformation of War would likely hold that honor in the future.

An obscure pamphlet filled with historical illustrations in its first chapter, Combat Operations C3I Fundamentals and Interactions, written by Air Force Major George E. Orr, also influenced my thinking on command and control in the mid-1980s. The only other officer I ever encountered in this period who demonstrated familiarity with this little booklet, General Al Gray, Commandant of the Marine Corps at the time, enjoyed a reputation as a prolific reader. One of my fondest memories remains discussing the merits of Orr’s book with General Gray, while escorting him through a display of 3rd Marine Division command posts in 1987, as the officers in trail looked on with puzzled expressions. John Keegan’s The Mask of Command, an analysis of generalship over the ages, became another of my “must read” books on command and. control during this time, mainly for the way it dealt with the issue every commander faces in combat – how far forward to go. (16)

By this point in my career, I had organized my reading to ensure I regularly covered the three levels of war – tactical, operational, and strategic. At the tactical level, a number of worthwhile books appeared in the mid- to late 1980s. John A. English’s On Infantry and a reprint of E. D. Swinton’s 1907 edition of The Defense of Duffer’S Drift serve as excellent examples. English addressed the infantry arm in a scholarly way and to a depth not previously matched. (17) Swinton used a literary technique whereby a young officer in a series of dreams refights the same battle several times – improving the performance of his unit on each occasion until he finally masters the mission.

Although substantial interest in the operational level of war and operational art arose throughout the American armed forces during the 1980s and generated numerous articles, few books on the subject appeared. The opposite occurred with strategy. Peter Paret’s edited Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age and Edward N. Luttwaks’s Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace gained much attention throughout the defense community. Andrew F. Krepinevich’s The Army and Vietnam led the way for a more introspective series of works on t!Ie Vietnam War. Reprints of Lord Moran’s Anatomy of Courage and John Baynes’s Morale: A Study of Men and Courage expanded the available literature on the human dement in war. They stood solidly alongside the works of du Picq and S. L. A. Marshall. All became part of my expanding library, and I urged peers and subordinates alike to read them.

Two studies materially aided those seeking guidance on what to read, Roger H. Nye’s The Challenge of Command: Reading for Military Excellence and Robert H. Berlin’s bibliography, Military Classics, the latter published by the U.S. Army’s Combat Studies Institute. A little pamphlet retitled Literature in the Education of the Military Professional, edited by two members of the U.S. Air Force Academy’s English Department, encouraged me to venture again into areas and subjects not directly related to war. In his foreword to this booklet, Vice Admiral James Stockdale urged military professionals to study the humanities: “From such study, and from the lifetime highminded reading habit it frequently spawns, come raw material for reflective thought in times of quietude, sixth-sense inspiration in the heat of battle, and a clearer vision of the big picture in peace or war from a philosophic and historical plane high above the buzz-word filled bureaucratic smog layer which can be counted on to contaminate the atmosphere of the nether regions. (18)

(11) Russell F. Weigley, New Dimensions in Military History (San Rafael, CA, 1975), p. II.

(12) Michael Howard, “The Use and Abuse of Military History,” Royal United Service Institute Journal, February 1962, pp. 4-8.

(13) The Army intended this guide, published in 1979, to serve as a tool for the self-education of officers. However, little evidence existed in 1981 of it accomplishing that purpose. Although the Army War College gave a copy to each student, I never heard it referenced during my time there as a student.
(14) David W. Gray, Letter to the Editor, Parameters, September 1981, p. 93.
(15) Paul K. Van Riper, “A Self-Directed Officer Study Program,” student research paper, U.S. Army War College, April 19, 1982.
(16) The commander of the 1st Marine Division provided a traditional answer to this question during operations in Iraq in March and April 2003:  At a time of increasing reliance on sophisticated sensor and communications technologies to paint a ‘picture of the battle space’ to top generals far from the war front, a key Marine Corps commander last spring opted to lead his troops in Iraq the old-fashioned way: He went there. ‘In two minutes at the front edge of the combat zone, you know if the troops feel confident, if the battle’s going the way they want it to, [or if] they need something,’ said Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division. ‘You can sense it. And you can apply something.'” Quoted from Elaine M. Grossman, “Marine General: Leading from Iraqi Battlefield Informed Key Decisions,” Inside The Pentagon, Washington, DC, October 2003, 20, p. 1
(17) English’s style of writing and his organization of material made On Infantry difficult reading for many. A revised edition in 1994 with Bruce I. Gudmundsson proved to be an easier read, although it discarded much useful material.
(18) Donald Ahern and Robert Shenk, eds, Literature in the Education of the Military Professional (Colorado Springs, CO, 1982.), p. vii.

“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: Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar