Best Defense

War College papers: A brief history of trends in U.S. Army thought since 1950

While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on April 29, 2011. For my current book project, I spent part of last weekend going over a list of 13,542 papers ...


While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on April 29, 2011.

For my current book project, I spent part of last weekend going over a list of 13,542 papers and group studies done at the Army War College since 1950. A lot of them were what you might expect, such as two from 1952: "The Soviet Railroad System" and "The Soviet Iron and Steel Industry." Some of them are downright scary, such as 1953’s "A United States Program for the Post-World War III Peace."

And there are the hardy perennials, such as "Retention of Junior Officers" (1959), "Kashmir Dispute – Appropriate US Role" (1964), "Haiti: Another Abscess in the Caribbean" (1966) and "The Future of Stability Operations" (1970). With some updates in names and numbers, a clever but unethical student probably could re-submit any of those papers now.

Some of them just make you shake your head. In 1961, one officer studied "The Missile Killer Belt: The Ballistic Missile Defense of the Future." (You wanna talk about government spending? How many multi-billions of dollars has the Pentagon spent on ballistic missile defense over the last 40 years?) And speaking of throwing good billions after bad, there is 1963’s hopeful "Pakistan: A United States Investment." Yep, I am sure it will pay off any decade now.

But there were some surprises to me, like how many papers were done on unconventional warfare in the 1950s, which military historians tend to depict as a decade when everyone was focused on nuclear warfare. And even some of that stuff on nuclear warfare looks interesting, such as 1958’s "Critique of Kissinger’s Strategic Force – Tactical Force Concept."

I also was surprised at how little written about the Korean War. It just seems never to have been foremost in the collective mind of the Army. Indeed, Vietnam seems to get almost as much attention in the mid-’50s, with papers such as Richard Stilwell’s "The Indochina Contest," done in 1955, and another paper in 1958, "Military Strategy in Southeast Asia."

And then, 15 years later, this sorrowful topic: "Lesson from My Lai."

There are fads. Lots of papers about energy in the late 1970s. Then, "Contemporary Terrorism," written in 1982, marks the start of a new trend. After a long absence, the Civil War begins showing up again in the ’80s, though in small numbers compared to the early years of the 20th century, when it dominated. In the 1970s, computers are an occasional curiosity in some papers. In the late 1980s, they begin showing up in large numbers, as in "The Application of Microprocessor Technology in Enhancing Combat Unit Effectiveness" (1987). In the ’90s, the word was "digitization." Over the last decade it was "networks." The late ’80s also saw a spate of papers on the military’s role in "the war on drugs." The ’90s are full of "revolutions" in various areas, such as "military engineering," in 1997.

The papers by future generals don’t stand out particularly. One of the more interesting one appears to be Alexander Haig’s "Military Intervention: A Case Study of Britain’s Use of Force in the 1956 Suez Crisis," written in 1966. More typically, in 1985, there was Tommy R. Franks on "An Alternative Corps Concept for Winning the AirLand Battle."

In the papers written in the wake of 9/11, I had expected to see a torrent of papers on terrorism, Islamic extremism, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and such. There were a few, but in general the papers for 2002 looked pretty much like previous years, featuring studies of "U.S. International Fresh Water Policy," "Vince Lombardi as a Strategic Leader, " and "Major General William S. Rosecrans and the Transformation of the Staff of the Army of the Cumberland: A Case Study." Plus, of course, a naval officer’s 2007 contribution, "Algae: America’s Pathway to Independence." You certainly can’t accuse them of all running to the soccer ball. 

There are few illusions reflected in the titles from the post 9/11-era. From 2004, this paper, from an Army Reservist, intrigued me: "Operation Iraqi Freedom – An Unjust War." Two years later, an Army officer discussed, "Iraq: How We May Lose the War We Won."

Overall, the biggest hole, I would say, is a long-term tendency to study foreign strategic problems, but not to examine battles or wars that did not involve American forces. There are a few, and they generally seem to involve Germans, often the battle of Kursk. For example, I was surprised not to see a study of the Iran-Iraq War –though a small percentage of the papers are simply marked "CLASSIFIED," and that may where such papers are hidden.   

Also, there are some that I just plan to read for fun on my next research trip, such as, "1953: Creighton W. Abrams, ‘Mobility and Firepower.’"

Anyway, this is just one of the gems up available at the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Army is mulling eliminating it, probably by putting it under the Army’s Center of Military History. I think that is nuts. If anything, the Center of Military History should be made part of the Military History Institute, which has a broader mission, and connects the Army to the American public. Also, for researchers, Carlisle is a much cheaper place to go do a week of research than is the Washington, D.C. area. If you are researching on your own dime, and I think most military historians are, that matters.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola