MILITARY HISTORY FOR
MY OWN INTRODUCTION TO TEACHING MILITARY HISTORY AT THE COLLEGE LEVEL
In the spring of 2009, I got an offer that I could not possibly refuse. My chairman at the Department of History and Political Science at La Roche College in Pittsburgh, Dr. Joshua Forrest, asked if I could teach a class called Experience of Modern War. The class would be a combined political science and history course, with just a few juniors and seniors in all. Moreover, I had a free hand in how and what to teach.
Military history has long been a major interest, and I've pursued it professionally, both as a writer and wargame designer and developer. In addition, I have an academic background in political science, with bachelors and masters degrees from Duquesne University. For many years I was separated from the field, working in banking and insurance especially. So when I had to chance to come back to the academic world, it was through what one of my colleagues called a "nontraditional academic track," one that went through the business world.
Experience of Modern War proved to be one of the bigger rewards for having that track go right back to the classroom.
Having the freedom to design a course from the ground up is both a challenge and an opportunity. I really had nothing to go on, and was working with a blank slate, although both Dr. Forrest and another colleague, Dr. Ed Brett, were helpful answering my questions. At the same time, there was the opportunity of teaching military history, and its intersection with politics, as I wanted, and felt that it could be and should be taught.
My first principle was to start with the basics. There were no grounds to assume that any of the students had a good grounding in military history to start with. Some were advanced general history and political science students, whom I had had the privilege of teaching previously. Yet I could not presume that even they had quite the same interest and basic grounding in military history that one my find in a military academy.
After all too, this is not part of La Roche's prime mission. It is a small, quality Catholic liberal arts college, run by the Sisters of the Divine Providence. Its purpose has more to do with teaching ethical responsibility and social justice than the art and science of war.
So I had to start with the basics. Connected with that is a question that every instructor has to face at some time: What do we use as a text book?
After some, no I will say a lot of, thinking I decided to use The Mask of Command by John Keegan. Not only is Keegan one of Britain's best military historians, he is also a fine writer, and I dearly wanted to avoid impenetrable texts. After all, a book is not that useful if the students get so discouraged by opaque writing by page five, that they stay bored and disengaged for the rest of the course.
It further offered the attraction of presenting case studies of military history, focusing on command and leadership, over two thousand years. Keegan's approach employs the examples of Alexander the Great, the quintessential heroic leader, followed by the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant and finally, as the false hero, Adolf Hitler.
This way too I could offer a general overview of military history. The title of the class was Experience of Modern War, and yet modern warfare did not explode out of nothing. It is the result of millennia of conflict.
Consistent with my emphasis on basics, I introduced two other resources to the course introduction, to be used in the first couple of weeks. One was a NATO manual on military symbology. I assumed that none of my students had an acquaintance with NATO-standard unit symbols, but knew that they would encounter them while writing their research papers, so it was a useful and necessary skill.
Secondly, I put together a PowerPoint presentation the principles of strategy. The basic source was Clausewitz's On War, along with Col. Harry Summer's book about Vietnam War grand strategy, On Strategy. While encouraging students to explore both works, we did not have the time to read them in full. Additionally, I was not so much of an academic sadist that I would make them plow through Clausewitz's dense prose unless it was an absolute necessity.
So I went with a short digest of the most fundamental principles. Ultimately I considered that a good decision, as students could refer back to the presentation, and identify how new concepts such as concentration, economy of force, and security applied to the conflicts that we would study throughout the course.
La Roche's commitment to technology further fostered an approach of class-specific materials. The college is committed to smart classroom technology, and my classroom had a computer, projector and "smart board." I was also able to secure a Moodle web site so that the materials were not simply "one-offs" for the classroom, but assets that students could download and keep.
My final plan was to devote half of the course to the basics, including all of The Mask of Command. In the process too, I was able to introduce the first of the modern situations to the class, such as by encouraging discussion of conflicts from World War II onward in the context of Keegan's case studies particularly. For example, the class talked about whether a really hell for leather hero on the model of Alexander had any place on the modern battlefield, and how the friction applied to Iraq as well as Waterloo.
Consistent with the political science aspect of the class, and La Roche's mission, I made sure that there was some consideration of doctrines of just war, the laws of war, and the general morality, or immorality as the case may be, of warfare. The early work on Wellington, Napoleon and Hitler, thanks to The Mask of Command, provided ample opportunity.
The midterm was all-essay, as is my usual practice, with two sections. In the first, students were given a choice of two essay subjects dealing with specific principles of strategy, and their application. An example is "Examine the principles of the objective and the offensive. Is it possible to win a war without a clear objective, and offensive action? Explain fully." In the second section, students were asked to compare and contrast the leadership and command styles of two specific commanders from The Mask of Command.
In the second half of the course, we cut loose from the textbook; The Mask of Command demonstrated its usefulness, and now it was time to build on it. The course materials were web sites and articles dealing with subjects from World War II onward. One week, we examined the Pacific War in terms of the principles from the PowerPoint presentation, and I introduced how concentration, objective, offensive and security and deception were incorporated into the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Without a print textbook, it became extremely important to find sound web sites; Wikipedia is my enemy in the classroom, and as an instructor I have a duty to assign alternate resources with more academic solidity.
I added links to the Moodle site for digitized official military histories from the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand for World War II. In addition, students were given links to the military history centers for all four American services, covering all American wars.
The US Army's Center of Military History is the one I used the most. Toward the middle of the course too, I was alerted to Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College by a student of mine, a veteran of Aghanistan. at another institution,. Both CMH and SSI offer excellent, academically useful works in pdf format, free to download. I highly encouraged my students to take advantage of these resources, and still do for other classes.
In the second half of the course, the class studied World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan especially. The early preparation in basic strategic principles proved valuable in all cases.
There was another case in which I was able to take the class back to the early weeks of the course. Once more taking advantage of the classroom's technology, I showed them an episode of Band of Brothers, the one in which Easy Company attacks Foy in the Ardennes, ineptly lead by the Lieutenant Norman Dike, subsequently relieved by a much more aggressive and attentive officer, Ronald Speirs. This yielded productive class discussion about the nature of leadership, as well as providing a constructive diversion.
While planning the course, I put in enough slack to accommodate a guest speaker, in the hope that my friend LTC Robert Smith, of the Center of Military History, could visit the class. A combat veteran of Iraq and armored officer, Colonel Smith is also a military historian and expert on military records collection and retention.
Colonel Smith was able to speak to both my La Roche classes, American Foreign Policy as well as Experience of Modern War. In the latter he taught about the duties of a military historian in wartime, and the importance of remaining a professional soldier in outlook besides an historian. He brought his own PowerPoint presentation, featuring photographs of his experiences during the invasion of Iraq.
With both classes too he shared insights on strategy in general, with a focus on nation building. As designed, Experience of Modern War concentrated on conventional, big-unit warfare, with asymmetrical and revolutionary warfare secondary, though recognized and studied. Colonel Smith's insights were instrumental in giving modern asymmetrical warfare greater attention, especially in the context of ongoing conflicts in Iraq and especially Afghanistan.
Consistent with my general practice, the class required research papers. In my experience both at La Roche and political science classes at Community College of Allegheny County, this is one of the problem areas, not so much because students do not try, but because they were never taught good skills in scholarly research and documentation. Secondly, one also finds that students were not taught such basic writing skills as paragraph construction.
The students in Experience of Modern War were better writers than in many other classes that I taught, probably because they were closer to graduation and therefore more experienced. Some of the papers too were downright excellent, with a high degree of focus, and incorporating both the basic elements of strategic analysis, and the research sources introduced throughout the class. Two were close to perfect in concept and execution.
The last week of the class consisted of review, and discussion of prospects for the future. Students speculated about future wars, and where the United States might be engaged in combat next; North Korea was the most popular choice, and students used what they had learned about modern war in general to brainstorm the course of a renewed conflict in Korea.
I do not believe in cumulative final exams. I have never assigned one, and barring some compelling reason as yet unforeseen, I do not expect to write one in the future. However, the first section of the final for Experience of Modern War did call upon students to draw upon the principles that we had discussed throughout the course. One question asked them to write about the relationship between mass and economy of force in World War II in the Pacific, and the other choice was to address the principle of mass in Desert Storm. The second half presented questions on the relative importance of maneuver warfare and asymmetrical warfare in the future of American warfighting, and the other asked how enemy actions and reactions influenced American strategy between World War II and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
All in all, the students did very well in the class, exhibiting that they were indeed absorbing the lessons. This was reflected in excellent grades; no student finished with less than a B-, and final grades averaged 89.28% for course, though I do not consider myself an easy grader.
I ended eminently satisfied with the efforts and interests of the students. These were people who entered the class with a range of prior knowledge of military history that was not always in the expert range, and yet every one demonstrated that they learned, and that there was something in the course that interested them more than either they nor I expected. For that they deserve credit.
In the fall of 2010, I got a second opportunity to teach Experience of Modern War at La Roche, this time as an online course. It demanded some adjustments to course planning, such as allowing students more choice for "movie day" than just Band of Brothers, depending on their own DVD libraries or access to DVD's; the most popular choices were We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down, along with that proven episode of Band of Brothers. Students had other choices too, including the Letters from Iwo Jima and the one completely fictional offering, Twelve O'Clock High.
Also, there was no need for a Moodle site either, as all the resources could be integrated into the Blackboard class management system.
However, the websites, NATO symbology manual, PowerPoint presentation, and other materials collected for the classroom experience remain just as applicable to an online course.
I fully anticipated that the online version would be another positive experience for all concerned, and the students made sure that my expectations were fully realized.. By the time the class started, I had more experience with the online classroom than the traditional one, including designing my own history and political science courses for La Roche College's growing internet presence. Secondly, online students can have a high level of involvement if the instructor maintains a consistent presence, as I tend to do in any case.
Therefore I am definitely looking forward to teaching Experience of Modern War again, through either medium. I am supremely hopeful that we can not only make this a regular feature of the La Roche curriculum, but that it will attract students to the school.