Colonel Malcolm Muir, holder of a chair in military history at Virginia Military Institute, has long been teaching a full spectrum of courses to future officers of the U.S. military at VMI and at West Point, as well as to mid-career officers at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base. A self-described military historian “in the broadest possible sense,” Muir has taught about conflicts from the Persian Wars to the present. He specializes in the history of the U.S. Navy in World War II and has published several books and numerous papers and journal articles on naval warfare. Muir firmly believes that military officers must be conversant in the broadest lessons of military history from all periods and places.
What percentage of VMI graduates become active-duty military officers?
Until 1989 commissioning was mandatory, so it was 100 percent. Once that requirement was dropped, the rate plummeted. But now, possibly in reaction to the challenges we face in “the long war,” the rate has been inching up. Last year it edged above 50 percent.
How important is military history in their overall preparation?
In the 1970s, just one course in military history was offered at VMI. One! Now we offer 16 courses that deal directly with military history, from Civil War and Reconstruction to grand strategy in the 20th century, French Revolution and Napoléon, American military history, history of air power, World War I, World War II.
What do you think VMI graduate officers really need to know?
As second lieutenants or ensigns, they need to know how to do their jobs. They need to learn small-unit leadership, how to lead people effectively. I point to some good books for aspiring young officers: Charles MacDonald’s Company Commander or John Masters’ Bugles and a Tiger—written by people who have been down that road.
What do you think career officers need intellectually?
They need the bigger picture. They need to see that war is more than just tactics, ambushes and maneuvering. In my courses, I tell them the old saw: Amateurs talk tactics, experts talk logistics. One of the most fascinating books in the military library is Donald Engles’ book Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army. The title doesn’t reach out and grab you, but it is damn well fascinating.
You teach not only military strategy and tactics but also such policy issues as economics and diplomacy. Do you believe it’s important to emphasize those subjects?
Absolutely. Combat by itself, without looking at the overarching framework, can become almost meaningless violence. It’s like talking about a riot or a street fight. The French used to say that officers are managers of violence. There has to be a mission, a reason for the fighting. So, diplomacy, economics—it all plays in. In the fall of 1941, the Japanese army was an excellent light infantry army, and Prime Minister and army General Hideki Tojo told the emperor of Japan, “Wars can be fought and won with ease.” He’d seen that the Japanese army in the field was very potent. But he’s not taking into account the economic or political considerations. His view is so narrow that he’s dooming Japan to defeat.
So how do you give your students that big picture?
I tell the cadets, when you’re thinking about a campaign in World War II—say, Midway—start with the mission. What’s at issue here? Answer that before you start delving into details.
Do you teach courses in ethics and integrity?
No, but I have made a conscious effort to bring ethics and integrity into my courses, and I still do, because these are very important considerations—especially to people who are going to be wielding lethal weaponry. They are going to have to live with themselves and with what they do. I emphasize that the profession of arms is an honorable profession, that the defense of your country is an honorable profession. But there are tricky areas— it’s a very difficult profession. And there are ethical considerations that are much broader than your personal considerations. In my American military history class, I spend a lot of time talking about Lt. William Calley.
As an example of how things can go wrong?
Yes, I point out that Calley’s actions, while reflecting the frustration that many GIs felt in Vietnam, go beyond the pale and doubtless cost American lives. You can’t waste little children and old people without making enemies. This was a war for the hearts and minds of the people, and the way to lose it is to kill innocent people. That’s what Calley did. I also talk about unrestricted submarine warfare. While it might have given Germany a large tactical advantage in 1915 and 1917, it also brought a new powerful opponent into the war: the United States.
Which subjects do you prefer to teach?
I love teaching World War II. It’s so dramatic. I like the sea power and the air power courses. I’m a hog in paradise; I love what I do.
What is the scope of VMI’s new course on counterinsurgency and terrorism?
It focuses on modern guerrilla warfare, counterinsurgency in the 19th and 20th centuries, starting with the very origin of the term “guerrilla”—the Spanish against the French. I’ve always woven treatments of irregular warfare into my American military history courses. The Philippine insurrection is a good example, and the police actions in Haiti and the Marines in Nicaragua in the ’20s. Some of those efforts were fairly successful.
You’ve taught at several schools. Are there any significant differences from institution to institution in what future military officers are learning?
At USMA [West Point], there is a larger emphasis on the Napoleonic Wars. And that’s because USMA came out of the Napoleonic Period. It was founded in 1802. The military lessons to be extracted from the Napoleonic Wars and the Grande Armée against Russia are part of the common vocabulary of USMA graduates.
Are the great theoreticians of warfare still taught?
Certainly, I look at the works of [Carl von] Clausewitz, of Alfred Thayer Mahan, of Giulio Douhet, to pick the big three. And Sun-Tzu presents very valid lessons, but Clausewitz, Mahan, Douhet are touch stones for armies, navies and air forces. Without a basic knowledge of their ideas, an officer’s education is inherently incomplete.
Which military history books would you consider essential?
The one that really stands out, of course, is John Keegan’s The Face of Battle. For American military history, the second edition of Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski’s For the Common Defense, which I use as a text. For World War II, no work has equaled Gerhard Weinberg’s A World at Arms. Now, Weinberg’s work is big, a thousand pages, so it can’t be used as a text; it’s too advanced. But there’s something new on every page. For the soldier in the trenches at the tactical level, E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed is a classic, and justifiably so.
Any other books you consider “must” reading for cadets?
If you’re dealing with the American Civil War, it’s hard to beat Jim McPherson’s books. For World War II, another superb work is Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn. And Ronald Spector’s At War at Sea, a good book that in some ways is parallel to Keegan’s Face of Battle. It examines the conditions that sailors lived in and fought in at places like Midway.
Any other advice?
I think it is important for any student of the military to actually see the ground or go aboard the ships. At West Point we took cadets to Normandy. Last spring here at VMI, I took cadets to Guam and Iwo Jima. That’s an experience to treasure, because Americans are only allowed on Iwo Jima one day a year by the Japanese government; it’s now a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force installation. Americans can go to Iwo Jima as long as they are living veterans of the battle, and other Americans can accompany those veterans. There were 14 or 15 of them on this trip. We went to the top of Suribachi and had a ceremony for the VMI alumni killed on the island.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.