Despite my protest – as far as a serving officer can protest orders – General Gray denied an extension of my tour in Okinawa, and in summer 1988, directed me to report as Director of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College at Quantico, Virginia.

In the midst of his Corpswide effort to enhance professional military education, he made clear his purpose from my first day of duty. He said simply, “This school needs changing. My intent is for it to become the premier institution of its kind in the world. You cannot achieve that goal in the time I expect you to be here, but you will have time to lay a foundation that allows it to happen.” I received no more guidance, except a pointed edict to base all instruction on history and the concepts of maneuver warfare. General Gray wanted no separate classes on military history – he insisted on weaving history into all the instructions on operations and tactics. The same admonition followed for “maneuverist’s thinking,” with a strong suggestion that I ensure the infusion of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu into the course. Basically, he wanted the entire course to rest on military history and established ideas of strategy.

Turning to the faculty, I sought to understand the existing curriculum. Years of tinkering with the course of instruction made attempts to explain it confusing at best. Three bodies of thought crystallized concerning corrective actions. One group thought the commandant wrong and argued against change. A second group recognized and supported the requirement to revamp the curriculum, but argued that instruction be halted for at least a year, and perhaps two, to accomplish such a large task. A third, smaller faction wanted to press ahead. I elected to take my counsel from Timothy Lupfer’s The Dynamics of Doctrine: The Change in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War. I reasoned that if the German Army in a matter of two months in the winter of 1917-18 could completely alter its tactical doctrine in the midst of combat, certainly the U.S. Marine Corps was capable of changing a program of instruction while teaching it. Thus, in fall 1988, we set out to revise the program of instruction completely while presenting it. For inspiration, I turned to the example Admiral Turner had established fifteen years earlier. For new content, I looked to my own work at the Army War College, the Naval War College curriculum, the critiques of outside observers and military historians such as Williamson Murray, and the thorough study of professional military education commissioned by Representative Ike Skelton, member of Congress from the state of Missouri.

To support professional education within Marine Corps schools as well as throughout the Corps, General Gray tasked the doctrine writers at Quantico to prepare a new “capstone” manual that captured the essentials of warfare. Although many of my contemporaries – experienced colonels – hoped for assignment to the project, a young captain, John Schmitt, received the mission. In short order, Schmidt gained an understanding of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu worthy of any war college graduate and transposed their weighty ideas to simple prose. Drafts of his manual circulated among Command and Staff College instructors, informing them even as they critiqued the material. The final document – Warfighting – dramatically influenced education throughout the Marine Corps and in other organizations in the Department of Defense. Moreover, translations appeared in Spanish, Japanese, and Korean within a few years of its publication.

Part way through the year, General Gray announced he wanted a reading program developed for Marine Corps officers. The task eventually found its way to my desk. The mission seemed simple because my self-directed officer study program created at the Army War College already contained a list of recommended readings for officers. I spent several weeks updating and adding to this list, querying other institutions such as the service academies, the other command and staff colleges, the war colleges, and civilian universities. Much to my surprise, the fifteen copies of the initial draft list elicited twenty-one responses. Clearly, some who learned of the list felt compelled to offer their thoughts, although not officially asked. Some respondents wanted every book written by a particular author on the list, while others demanded we include none from the same author. Other equally strong suggestions materialized. Plainly, recommended reading lists bring out deep-seated emotions and prejudices. I sensed in this deep interest a pent-up desire for a Corpswide reading program. Relying on the wisdom contained in the Center of Military History’s A Guide to the Study and Use of Military History, Nye’s The Challenge of Command, and Berlin’s Military Classics, I pressed ahead to produce a list approved by General Gray.

In the midst of the curriculum change and the construction of a professional reading list, General Gray sent out another task: Draw up plans for establishment of a Marine Corps University. Again, primary responsibility for this undertaking fell on the Command and Staff College. Once more, I looked to history. A review of Scharnhorst’s efforts to establish the Kriegsakemie, Upton’s labors to create the schools at Fort Leavenworth, Commodore Stephen Luce’s work to establish the Naval War College, and others gave me the grounding for this new endeavor. The work of a dedicated staff created the new organization, and in 1990, I assumed the position as the first President of the Marine Corps University.

My assignment at Quantico ended in summer 1991, with orders to report as the commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division. The work to overhaul professional military education continued under the sure hands of others and reached its culmination before the end of the decade. Perhaps no better manifestation of the results the commandant participated exists than the performance of the senior Marine commanders, Lieutenant General Jim Conway and Major Generals Jim Mattis and Jim Amos, during Operation Iraqi Freedom.


Senior officers influence subordinates through a combination of direction and example. As a division commander, I was in the position to order and inspire 18,000 marines to make history part of their professional development. As a first step, I added an hour of professional reading to my own official schedule, promulgated daily throughout the division. I reasoned that if subordinates saw the division commander setting aside an hour each day for reading, others might follow. I also issued a memorandum that stated in part: “The professional reading program is a key part of the continuous professional education that is necessary to develop the minds of our Marines. It is most valuable for developing the sound military judgment that is essential for practicing the maneuver warfare doctrine contained in [the Warfighting manual]. Just as we expect them to maintain their mental fitness, so should we expect them to maintain their mental fitness through a career-long professional reading program.”

In addition, I directed the purchase of more than 6,000 books for unit libraries, ordered the establishment of a historical reading room and the conduct of monthly seminars, required the division’s regiments and battalions to sponsor reading groups and hold regular discussions of selected books, sponsored staff rides to Civil War battlefields for the division staff, and asked my units to carry out their own series of staff rides. The closing sentence of my memorandum stated, “Marines fight better when they fight smarter, and a systematic and progressive professional reading program contributes directly to that end.” The proof of the value of reading is not straightforward. Performance on the battlefield provides the final test. I have no doubt marines from the division later fought smarter and therefore better because of the wisdom they gained from these various programs.

After an assignment at Headquarters Marine Corps – one that not only allowed me to read more, but also to attend several college-level history and defense-related courses – I received orders to take command of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico. That organization is responsible for all Marine Corps training and education, creation of operating concepts, and writing of doctrine. Thus, it possesses considerable ability to affect professional development across the entire Marine Corps. Again, I employed a combination of direction and example to advance the education of marines everywhere. Early on, I took action to ensure history provided the basis for all doctrinal development and the curricula for all schools. I invited noted historians to speak not only to students in formal schools, but also at professional gatherings. Monthly, I hosted a reading group – comprised of officers from lieutenant to major general- at my quarters for dinner and a follow-on discussion. Often, we were fortunate enough to persuade the author or the subject of the book under discussion to join us. Admiral Sandy Woodward, author of One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander and former Army Major Dick Winters, commander of the airborne company featured in Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, honored our reading group in this manner. When visiting units or conducting inspections at the various commands around the Marine Corps that fell under my cognizance, I made it a habit to ask questions about publications on the Commandant’s Reading List and gave away copies of books to those answering correctly.

I often noted in my two years at Quantico that the primary “weapon” that officers possess remains their minds. I followed with the observation that books provide the “ammunition” for this weapon. Always I cautioned against looking for answers in reading, especially history. Rather, I urged officers to read with the goal of absorbing the material as part of their being. To underscore my meaning, I referenced a scene from the movie Patton where the general, in a near trancelike mood, observes an ancient battlefield and replays in his mind how he trod this ground during the original battle. Most viewers, I believe, concluded Patton to be either some sort of mystic or perhaps a ‘little deranged, while I supposed his many years of reading and study gave him the sense of having been there previously. I wanted to impart a simple lesson: a properly schooled officer never arrives on a battlefield for the first time, even if he has never actually trod the ground, if that officer has read wisely to acquire the wisdom of those who have experienced war in times past. My thought was far from original, for Clausewitz observed, “Continual change and the need to respond to it compels the commander to carry the whole intellectual apparatus of his knowledge within. He must always be ready to bring forth the appropriate decision. By total assimilation with his mind and life, the commander’s knowledge must be transferred into a genuine capability.” (19)


Six years into retirement, my worry grows that the erroneous ideas on military education held by post-World War IT military leaders are again creeping back into the system. Evidence of such an unsatisfactory situation appears regularly. The promise of information technology and the rewards that it seemingly offers in terms of automated command and control, surveillance and reconnaissance, and precision-guided munitions holds a place in the minds of many defense leaders similar to the technological advantage allegedly provided by systems analysis, nuclear weapons, and computers in the 1950s and 1960s. Methodical planning techniques like those currently promised by advocates of “effects-based operations” and “operational net assessment” stand in for Robert McNamara’s systems engineering of military decision making. Having been a victim – along with an entire generation of American military officers – of such shallow thinking, I find myself habitually warning those who will listen of the potential for repeating the tragic mistakes of the 1950s and 1960s.

The value of military history to the professional military officer remains incontestable. Those who might urge its reduction or elimination from military schools and colleges are woefully uninformed at best or completely ignorant of the basic underpinnings of their supposed profession at worst. The American military cannot afford to lose a second battle to keep history at the core of professional military education.

(19) Carl von Clausetwitz, On War, trans. and ed., Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ, 1976), p. 147.

“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)