Robert H. Scales Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Military Strategy and the Future of Land Wars: Conversation with Major General Robert H. Scales, Jr. (U.S. Army, ret.); March 9, 2004, by Harry Kreisler, with Thomas Barnes

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Background

General Scales, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you, Harry.

And we're joined by Professor Tom Barnes of the History Department, Chairman of the Nimitz Lecture Committee, and also Chairman of Canadian Studies at Berkeley. Tom, welcome.

[Barnes]
Thank you very much, Harry.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born into the army. My father was an engineer officer who graduated from the first OCS class at Fort Belvoir. Since he wasn't a West Pointer, he was relegated to the amphibs, and he went down to Florida to practice with amphibians, where he met my mother. I was born in Gainesville, Florida, and for the rest of my life scurried all over the world. I'm fifty-nine years old, and I purchased my first home, my first civilian dwelling, two years ago.

Oh, my goodness. Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

Considerably. My dad was, to use the old army phrase, a "mustang," in the sense that he was a self-educated professional. What I learned from him was the ethos and the values of the profession. In many professions, if you're not "born to the purple," you overcompensate sometimes, to mark yourself as a person known for your integrity. He made sure he passed that on to me, I think.

Was it inevitable that you would go into the service?

No, my brother is a lead guitarist in a rock band. So it's not inevitable. But it's very interesting you should ask that question, because I remember even as a young boy I would read history, military history. I read Caesar's Commentaries when I was about nine years old. I really got interest in that, and I was pretty good at it. The only problem was when I got to West Point, they expected me to be an engineer, which is why I graduated in the top 5 percent in the bottom fifth of my class.

You actually pursued both of these careers, because after Vietnam you went back and got a Ph.D. in history at Duke University. It's very clear in your writings, which I've gone into, you're very much concerned about history as you think about wars and military strategists.

Yes, I believe that history is a soldier's laboratory. Thank God, we only are able to practice our craft perhaps once in a lifetime. A lawyer, a doctor, a businessman stacks up real-world day-to-day experiences throughout their lifetimes; we only get a chance to participate maybe once. Much of our learning has to be second order, has to be derivative. Experiential learning is exceptional in our profession, and that's why soldiers who are serious about their profession have to delve into the historical laboratory. I understood that very early age. In fact, my doctoral dissertation was really a spin-off of my experience in Vietnam. I went through the "card catalog" of different pieces of history, and I thought, "Hmm, maybe the British army at the end of the nineteenth century is a rough metaphor for what our army is going through at this time." And that's why I did my dissertation [on that topic].

How did that Vietnam experience affect your thinking about where the army had to go?

That's a great question, Harry, because if I could just do a quick side-by-side comparison, what I learned unexpectedly when I wrote my dissertation was that the British army really was an army that was too busy to learn, that a whole string of practical successes in small wars on the edges of the Empire created a sense of anti-intellectualism in the British army. In other words doers were revered more than thinkers. It was the luminosity of your exploits rather than the quality of your work that counted. The British tabloids, the yellow press and all that, the penny novels that came out about the imperial army, sort of took over Great Britain. And, unfortunately, by 1914, the Brits had ignored technology and they found themselves on the short end, because then they were facing a first-rate power.

The analogy with the army in Vietnam was that we were coming out of a war that was a tragic conflict. We were an army that was backing up a pace or two, taking stock, trying to understand what that was all about, and committing ourselves to the course of reform. There were no analogies out there, and I thought this might be a good one.

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