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Maastricht University

The Study of Military Occupation: What Future Military Officers Should Know

Brian Drohan, U.S. Military Academy – West Point

There is an undeniable instrumentalism to the study of history within military institutions. The temptation to draw broad lessons from the past – universally applicable, but often simplistically derived – is alive and well in armed forces around the world. The broader danger of such instrumentalism is the potential of glorifying past military endeavors. In doing so, we risk making military history a tool of propagandistic mythmaking – a “handmaid of militarism,” in the historian Sir Michael Howard’s memorable phrase. To avoid treating military history as a library of reductive “lessons learned,” as an amplifier for uncritical thinking about the role of military leaders, or as a means of perpetuating popular historical myths, future military officers need to study more than just military institutions, commanders, and soldiers. This is particularly true when studying the history of military occupation, where future military officers must broaden their historical inquiries to include the relationships between military and non-military actors – the civilians, aid workers, international organizations, refugees, wounded and sick soldiers, internees, prisoners of war, and demobilized military forces that make the dynamics of military occupation so complex.

Below I’ll discuss four points that lie at the intersection of practitioners’ experiences and scholars’ insights. Each point derives from my experiences as a military officer – which are by no means intended to be all-inclusive or universally applicable – and is informed by the reading, teaching, and writing I’ve done as a scholar. By linking military experience with academic inquiry, my goal is not simply to draw a checklist of superficial “lessons learned,” but to provide tools for cadets and junior officers to reflect on and think critically about military occupations past, present, and future.

First, just because the mission or your part of it isn’t called “occupation,” that doesn’t mean that the academic study of past military occupations is irrelevant to your work. Military occupation has a legal status and definition derived from international law that, broadly construed, involves the temporary exertion of military control over a foreign territory. The American public generally doesn’t like the term “occupation,” and certainly doesn’t like to apply that term to American military operations. Regardless of the legal framework in place within an occupied territory, many of the military tasks and missions conducted during past occupations bear resonance with a wide range of military missions today, from counterinsurgency to security force assistance and multinational training. But for the past several decades, policy elites and military leaders have been inclined to think that the United States armed forces are skilled at conducting these missions even while avoiding the term “occupation” to describe such actions – a tendency that the historian Susan Carruthers has called “occupational doublethink.” As future officers, West Point cadets need to dig deeper than rhetorical doublethink and the buzzwords of military doctrine.

Second, the study of past military occupations can hone future officers’ moral-ethical judgment. The past is not simply a library of analogies for contemporary officers to cut and paste. Today’s military leaders should look critically upon the army’s involvement in past morally and ethically dubious activities such as the policing and forced relocation of Native Americans. To take just one example in what amounted to ethnic cleansing that enabled a mass occupation of Native American land, the relocation of over 60,000 members of the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations was lawful under the 1830 Indian Removal Act, but these actions would not pass moral and ethical scrutiny today. As future officers, cadets need to expect moral-ethical ambiguity in contemporary operations, not just in the form of vague guidance or clashing priorities, but also in the interactions between soldiers and civilians. While some ethical norms may change over time, the basic principle of maintaining one’s humanity and that of one’s soldiers is constant. Outline your moral-ethical priorities and boundaries now. Keep those priorities and the lines you won’t cross in mind as you review your mission and conduct your operations. The best way to evaluate those priorities is to study past occupations and the moral-ethical dilemmas that the occupiers and occupied faced on a day-to-day basis.

Third, the reestablishment of peace and stability in the aftermath of conflict is often more complicated than the fighting part. Tasks that military leaders often prefer to view as political or “civilian” in nature – such as reestablishing governance, providing humanitarian aid, resettling displaced persons, rebuilding physical infrastructure, or demobilizing soldiers – often need to be done by military personnel because armed forces have the capacity and capabilities necessary to do so. Such was the case following the First and Second World Wars as well as more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the initial U.S. invasions swept conventionally armed and organized enemy forces from the battlefield only to encounter all of the tasks listed earlier in this paragraph. But American military leaders have in recent decades viewed these tasks as separate from the armed forces’ “traditional” warfighting mission, which is a trend that political scientist Nadia Schadlow has labeled “American denial syndrome.” The aftermath of war matters because it is where the transition from war to peace occurs. For better or worse, military power often serves as the coercive element of post-conflict reconstruction. Such has been the case throughout much of the U.S. Army’s history, as military involvement in processes of state-formation and governance has played an enduring role in American history. For instance, during Reconstruction (1865-1877) after the American Civil War the army served as the key institution for the implementation of democratic processes and protection of newly enfranchised African Americans’ rights. Officers should expect that they will have responsibilities to win the peace that do not involve kinetic conflict. Occupation, therefore, is a normal, not an exceptional, part of war.

Fourth, the experience of occupation promotes profound societal change. For example, the American occupation of Okinawa during and after the Second World War created a space in which American, Japanese, and Okinawan cultures mixed. The result, as historian Courtney Short puts it, was that “Okinawans consciously constructed their own place among the competing cultures.” Yet such cultural hybridity coexisted uneasily alongside Okinawan resistance to being what scholars Maria Höhn and Seungsook Moon have termed “doubly colonized” – marginalized within Japanese society and forced to endure the presence of a foreign military power on their island. In addition to cultural and political transformations, occupation creates new economic dynamics. Americans have historically exhibited a propensity for bringing a little – or, sometimes, a lot – of America abroad with them. The 2011-2020 expansion of the U.S. Army’s Camp Humphreys in South Korea involved the construction of a massive post exchange (department store) and commissary (grocery store). Fast-food restaurants remain as ubiquitous on U.S. military installations abroad as they are at home. In such circumstances, many local economies catered to the American military market, which has led to a kind of “Americanization” in communities such as Anjeong-ri, Dongducheon, and Itaewon in South Korea, or Kaiserslautern and Heidelberg in Germany. The influence occupiers bring does not necessarily lead to unabashedly positive outcomes – social consequences cut multiple ways, from local small business owners who can make a profit from marketing goods and services to foreign military forces to the seedier side of interactions driven by the stark power imbalances of relatively wealthy foreign troops living in close contact with a post-conflict civilian population that lacks many of the necessities for survival. Power imbalances in day-to-day interactions have often led to exploitative relationships such as drug and human trafficking, prostitution, and black-marketeering. Finally, the impact of occupation on civilian communities abroad doesn’t stay abroad – the United States’ enduring post-Second World War presence in countries such as Germany, South Korea, and Japan has led to intermarriage and immigration. Military bases within the United States are frequently home to Korean American, German American, and Japanese American communities that have grown due to these reasons. Occupation transforms all the societies it touches.

So, why does all this matter to military professionals? The study of military history and contemporary operations is not just about studying battles – militaries do much more in war than simply fight battles – and often there is no clear break between “wartime” and “peacetime.” Most wars do not end with the equivalent of a referee blowing the whistle at full-time. Transition periods from war to peace are challenging, ambiguous, and often occur intermittently. For military practitioners who often prefer the clarity and certainty of precise orders and well-practiced tasks, coming to grips with the complexities and paradoxes that historians love to grapple with will help expand your mind and reframe how you think about war and its effects on humanity. Much of what the U.S. armed forces have done over the past 20 years (and much longer) can be characterized as military occupation of one kind or another. Recognizing this past is an important first step, but it is only a first step – the next is to incorporate this knowledge into practice in a nuanced way, rather than applying an unbending template of supposedly universal “lessons learned.”

 The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense. 



Cabanes, Bruno. The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, 1918-1924. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Carruthers, Susan. The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Downs, Gregory P. After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Höhn, Maria and Seungsook Moon, eds., Over There: Living with the U.S. Military Empire from World War Two to the Present. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Howard, Sir Michael. “The Use and Abuse of Military History,” Royal United Services Institution Journal 107:625 (1962): 4-10.

Schadlow, Nadia. War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2017.

Short, Courtney. Uniquely Okinawan: Determining Identity During the U.S. Wartime Occupation. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2020.

Stirk, Peter M.R., A History of Military Occupation from 1792 to 1914. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

Watson, Samuel. Peacekeepers and Conquerors: The Army Officer Corps on the American Frontier, 1821-1846. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2013.

Cover picture: Cadets with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point march in the presidential inauguration parade in Washington, D.C., Jan. 21, 2013. President Barack H. Obama was elected to a second four-year term in office Nov. 6, 2012. More than 5,000 U.S. Service members participated in or supported the inauguration. This image was released by the United States Army with the ID 130121-A-AO884-166. 

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Brian Drohan is U.S. Army and Academy Professor at the U.S. Military Academy – West Point