New history course on U.S. ‘grand strategy’ reaches out to modern military leaders

February 24, 2009 By Brian Mattmiller

If ignorance of history makes one more likely to repeat it, as the saying goes, then the stakes of historical knowledge are at their highest when involving military strategy and war.

A new summer course at UW–Madison will examine the successes and failures of America’s foreign policy “grand strategy” during the past century. The course will investigate the trajectory of U.S. involvement in two world wars, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the contemporary Middle East wars, and how mistakes in one conflict often fueled success in others.

What makes the course especially unique is its target audience: current and future U.S. military leaders.

Jeremi Suri, professor of history, has teamed with retired United States Navy Capt. Scott Mobley to organize an eight-week graduate-level summer course that is especially suited for the needs and interests of U.S. military personnel. The course will be offered from June 15-Aug. 7 in a flexible online format that allows students to complete the coursework at their convenience.

The flexible form of delivery is key, Suri says.

“One of the biggest problems we face is that the people who can use this knowledge most are the ones who have the hardest time coming to campus,” Suri says.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt glances at Europe on his Oval Office globe. Roosevelt’s decisions during World War II will be part of the UW–Madison history department’s new “grand strategies” course.

Mobley, who is the course coordinator and military liaison, is also a graduate student in the UW–Madison history program. He helped design the curriculum and is working to recruit officers and senior enlisted leaders from all four branches of the military.

Mobley says the need is out there for this type of supplemental education. The armed forces have strong academic programs offered through military academies and the war colleges, but options for continuing education can be limited over the course of a 20- or 30-year military career.

The interest is equally strong, he says. When Mobley was deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2002-03, the Navy sent teams of scholars to the naval carriers to offer intensive courses on areas of key interest, such as Middle East culture and history, political issues in Iran and other topics. The professors would do teaching rotations at different ships to reach the biggest audiences. “All the officers looked forward to attending these talks. We just soaked it up,” he says.

While the course is open to anyone, Suri says they are looking to recruit a core group to which foreign policy is “the lifeblood of their work,” including people in international policy, law and business.

“Policymakers are very hungry for institutions not to justify what they’re doing, but help them think through what they are doing,” Suri says. “I think there’s a false assumption that if you’re working with the military, then you’re automatically supporting specific aims. I think they look to us for intellectual enhancement.”

Suri also says he hopes the course represents a trend of greater collaboration between the military and the academic world, which has experienced strained relationships stemming from the divisiveness of the Vietnam War. Both sides became distrustful and politically polarized, and faculty showed a reluctance to teach military topics. “There is a new generation of academics today who are much more engaged on these topics, and the politics tend to be less predictable,” Suri says.

The best example of the value of understanding military history might come from the end of World War II, Suri says. Policy leaders at that time made a concerted decision to invest in the rebuilding of the countries that Allied forces just defeated, in Germany and Japan. The decision not to do so after World War I was disastrous and in part paved the way for the second war.

“I think that what happened at Abu Ghraib is an example of historical ignorance in action,” Suri adds. “Everything in the way that facility was set up reflected a profound ignorance of the dynamics we have seen historically in the treatment of prisoners.”

To pre-register or learn more about the course “American Foreign Policy: A History of U.S. Grand Strategy from 1901 to the Present,” contact Mobley at 608-265-0484, mobley@wisc.edu, or visit this site.