Wednesday, October 25, 2006

LtCol Wheeler outside his temporary "home" at the Marine Corps History Division. Pre-deployment training and preparations are nearly complete.

A MOMENT IN HISTORY… Each day since I’ve arrived in Quantico the headlines have been dominated by events in Iraq… the Washington Post in the morning, NPR as I drive to work, on my web-browser, FoxNews when I flip on my TV at night… the slant may differ from one venue to another, but one thing is certain - the world’s attention is focused on Iraq. What an opportunity for a historian to go to the precise place where history is being made (for better or for worse), to be with the very people who are making it, with the express mission of documenting it for future consideration. It is a moment in history. A moment for which I have been granted a front-row seat.

I can’t help but reflect as I listen to the news each day, how vital an understanding of history is as we seek to make sense of the here and now. How can we understand the sectarian violence in Iraq today if we don’t grasp the historical differences and divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims? How can we have an intelligent discussion about the wisdom or folly of proposals to divide Iraq if we aren’t aware of the ethnic distinctions between Kurds and Arabs (and Turks and Persians) or the geopolitical interests of Turkey, Iran and Gulf states as they relate to Iraq?

It’s also striking to me that there is (and ought to be) an active debate about HOW to apply the lessons of history. There was a significant amount of media coverage last week about parallels between Vietnam in 1968 and Iraq in 2006. But what is the most illuminating reading of the history involved? That a major push by the North Vietnamese during an important election year led to decreasing public support and eventual US withdrawal? Or that the Tet offensive was a military disaster for the North Vietnamese and that the reaction within the US, not the events on the battlefield, was the bright spot for our adversaries? When I read excerpts from (North Vietnamese Commanding) General Giap’s memoirs during my Command and Staff Seminar, I was struck by his candid admission that the Tet Offensive was repulsed with grievous losses for his forces and that he was “on the ropes” militarily in 1968. It was only the reaction inside the US media and public that gave him heart that his long-term strategy would work. Like the insurgents we fight today, General Giap recognized that America could not be defeated on the battlefield, but that our true “center of gravity” was public opinion and corresponding political support. This center of gravity is a by-product of our wonderfully open society and government, which not only tolerate, but encourage expression of divergent opinions. How do we reconcile the virtues of our open society with security requirements that might compel us to complete actions which may be difficult or unpopular? THAT is a question for all you students of history and civics out there to debate.

One final note: How are the North Vietnamese and their goals in 1968 so different from the multiple adversaries with multiple (often competing) goals that we face today in Iraq that historical comparisons may be strained beyond value anyway? More on that question another time.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

THE MARINE CORPS HISTORY DIVISION is a component of Marine Corps University, located in Quantico, Virginia. Those unfamiliar with military culture may find it surprising that the Marine Corps has a university. Stereotypes of the military in general, and the Marine Corps in particular, lead to the notion that our specialty is causing mayhem and breaking things. (“When it absolutely, positively has to be destroyed overnight, call 1-800-THE-USMC!”) Certainly the application of combat power is our bottom line, but there is, in fact, a tremendous commitment to education in the Corps.

From the youngest Private to the most senior General, we are always learning, both informally and formally, to become more effective warriors and citizens. The informal culture of learning is pervasive within every command; from old Marine to new, Corporal to PFC, commander to unit, knowledge is constantly being shared. The formal process begins with boot camp and never ends. The Marine Corps University is charged with coordinating most of this effort. Its mission is “to develop, deliver, and evaluate professional military education and training through resident and distance education programs in order to prepare leaders to meet the challenges of operational environments.” A quick review of their website at will reveal how varied and thorough this educational process is for Marines of all ranks.

What role does the History Division play in this process? Anyone familiar with the Marine Corps knows about our tremendous pride in our history and commitment to our legacy. The new National Museum of the Marine Corps which will open in less than a month just outside Quantico’s gates is a magnificent symbol of this pride. See
for more information about this new "epicenter" of Marine Corps History. But where do the artifacts that go into a museum or the recollections that comprise a book actually come from?

A thorough knowledge of our past (its successes and failures) is an inherent part of our preparation for the complex modern battlefield. Our Mission Statement states, “History Division's (HD) primary task is to research and write the Marine Corps’ official history. HD also provides reference and research assistance; preserves personal experiences and observations through oral history interviews; and deploys field historians to record history in the making.” (See for more information.) That’s where I come in. As a history teacher, I understand the power of the individual human perspective in truly understanding and making sense of past events. My job will be to help capture the viewpoint of those making history today in Iraq and preserve their testimony for future generations of citizens, statesmen and warriors to learn from.

Marine Corps University, located on Marine Corps Base Quantico along the shore of the Potomac River, looks much like a civilian campus. Pictured above is the sign announcing History Division’s future location (adjacent to our current temporary quarters). In the background to the right is the Gray Research Center (named for former Commandant, General Alfred M. Gray, who is known for his commitment to professional military education). To the left is Breckinridge Hall, headquarters of the Marine Corps University and home to one of its flagship schools, the Command and Staff College.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

THANK YOU to everyone who has exhibited such incredible grace to me and my family as we have prepared for my mobilization. Your support, encouragement and offers of assistance mean more than you can know. I have been humbled by each of the expressions of concern and appreciation, large and small. From the hugs and individual words of compassion, to my cross country team’s awesome new XC/USMC shirts, to the overwhelming conclusion of the school pep rally… every word and every deed has been sincerely appreciated.

The difficult process of disengagement from all of my normal, much-loved duties concluded yesterday. I’m a person who pauses reflectively at the door of my classroom when I leave for summer break on the last day of school each year – so shutting the door and walking away for six months was difficult indeed. Each little act prompted reflection; rising from my own bed for the last time, tidying up my home office and closing the door, seeing the dazzling beauty of a colorful, sunny fall day in Cazenovia (how different the vistas will be where I am headed). I think of how many others have set aside their daily lives during this war (and others) and give thanks for their sacrifices.

I am now “on deck” (remember the Marine Corps is naval service, a fact still reflected in much of our daily language) in Quantico, VA - busily doing all that I must do to prepare for my deployment. There is equipment to be readied, training to be conducted, lists to be checked. I am throwing myself into these tasks, trying not to think of my farewells but focusing instead on the mission ahead. The steady and increasing stream of reports, comments and sound-bytes in the media as election day approaches only enhance my desire to get there and begin the process of drawing my own conclusions. Back to work for the moment… more soon on Quantico, Marine Corps University and the History Division.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

ONE WEEK TO GO until I begin the journey to Iraq… Preparing for activation is an interesting exercise in taking stock of one’s life. Reservists and Guardsmen live double lives, fulfilling a normal set of civilian duties while “living another life” one weekend a month and two weeks a year. This dual existence causes friction from time to time, but one learns to adapt. Of course the reason our nation maintains reserve forces is so that they are prepared to serve when our active forces need support. That time has come.

Activation completely reverses the normal dynamics of this dual existence. For a time one’s military duties will come first and this means putting everything else on hold. The weeks leading up to activation are a process of peeling away your other responsibilities layer by layer… Some duties could be turned over quickly and easily to those gracious enough to accept them; coordinating alumni interviews for your alma mater, serving on committees… Day by day the dimensions are peeled away; Project Café, history department, student government… until only the core duties remain. Today I am only a coach, a teacher, a father, a husband. Day by day over the next week even those primary roles will be reluctantly relinquished until just one remains… Marine.

For six months my only purpose will be to carry out my duties as a Marine as thoroughly and conscientiously as I can… each day bringing me one step closer to the hectic, complicated, “normal” life that I love so much.