HomeNewsWilliamson Murray, military historian who peered beyond battles, dies at 81

Williamson Murray, military historian who peered beyond battles, dies at 81

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Williamson Murray, a military historian and scholar whose work brought deeper insights into Germany’s defeat in World War II and who advised U.S. commanders on how to plan for the battlefields of the future, died Aug. 1 at a hospital in Fairfax, Va. He was 81.

The death was confirmed by his wife, Lesley Smith. No specific cause was given.

Over more than 40 years, Dr. Murray bridged the worlds of academia and defense policy, writing or editing more than a dozen books and holding professorships at institutions such as Ohio State University, the Marine Corps University and the Army War College. His research often explored the intersections of military strategy, politics and industry such as the retooling of factories for war efforts, particularly during World War II.

Dr. Murray liked to quote British Gen. James Wolfe, whose forces defeated the French in Quebec in the 18th century. “War,” Wolfe said, “is an option of difficulties.”

Dr. Murray, who was widely known as Wick, embraced that view. He encouraged U.S. military planners to keep pace with evolving challenges. His assessments — looking backward for timeless lessons on warfare and ahead for changes in the tools of battle — were studied by Pentagon officials and defense to help shape planning documents that examined innovations such as drones and artificial intelligence.

“Should we have to fight a large-scale war again, only history can provide the necessary insights,” wrote Robert Mathis, a retired Air Force general, in the foreword in Dr. Murray’s 1983 book, “Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe, 1933-1945.” “If history has had one direct lesson for the student of war, it is that nations and their armed forces will not be fully prepared for the war that comes.”

Much of Dr. Murray’s early work explored Germany’s buildup before World War II and the dueling decisions by Adolf Hitler and Allied leaders over the course the war. Dr. Murray gained a reputation for looking past the us-versus-them perspectives and examining the war from all sides, including Dr. Murray’s particular interest in air power from his five years in the Air Force during the Vietnam era.

His books on the Luftwaffe chronicled the advances in Germany’s warplanes and how Allied air forces eventually overcame the early Nazi superiority in the skies. Other books on the war, including “The Change in the European Balance of Power, 1938-1939: The Path to Ruin,” argued that Allies should have mobilized counterstrikes earlier against Nazi Germany’s earlier to curb its initial technological edge.

Dr. Murray also broke down the many flaws in Germany’s military planning that strained critical supply lines across Europe and North Africa. Looking at the Eastern Front, Dr. Murray used archives and firsthand accounts to show how Soviet strategies used the terrain, weather and other factors to weaken Germany’s better equipped ground forces.

Dr. Murray’s later books studied geopolitical shifts following the Cold War and technological changes that created new ways to attack such as cyberwarfare. Just months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Dr. Murray and co-author Robert H. Scales Jr. published a prescient look at the deep complications ahead in “The Iraq War: A Military History.”

Despite overwhelming firepower, the U.S. military struggled at times during the early stages of the invasion without clear front lines and being forced into urban combat. Commanders, Dr. Murray and Scales wrote, “had to make decisions of life and death under split-second pressures and an unprecedented barrage of information that was often ambiguous, uncertain, contradictory, or quite often wrong.”

Later, after Saddam Hussein was toppled, suspicions were confirmed that the war was launched on flawed and manipulated intelligence by President George W. Bush’s administration and some allies. This was when the U.S. military began to show its real shortcomings, Dr. Murray and Scales wrote. The Pentagon does not do well with the “messy business that lies beyond clear-cut, decisive military operations” such as counterinsurgency battles and working with political leaders,” they noted.

“Since war is a political act, the defeating of enemy military forces in combat operations only represents a portion of the far larger mosaic that must include not only the planning stages but the transition stages from war to peace as well,” Dr. Murray wrote in “A Nation at War in an Era of Strategic Change,” a 2004 study of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars published by the Army War College.

He maintained a prolific output into his late 70s, offering essays for the Hoover Institution think tank on issues such as the pandemic (“The behavior of all too many Americans, aided and abetted by some of their politicians, does not provide much hope for the future,” he wrote) and removing names of Confederate figures from military bases.

“It is in thoroughly bad taste to name military institutions after generals who were defending slavery,” he wrote, “when so many of the soldiers, defending us and stationed at those institutions, are African Americans.”

Williamson Murray was born Nov. 23, 1941, in Manhattan. His father worked as a salesman, and his mother was a homemaker.

He graduated in 1963 from Yale University with a history degree and then served in the Air Force until 1969, including a tour in Southeast Asia with the 314th Tactical Airlift Wing. He returned to Yale and earned a doctorate in military and diplomatic history in 1975.

Dr. Murray taught in Yale’s history department for two years. In 1977, he took a position at Ohio State University as a professor of military history and related subjects. He was a senior fellow at the Naval War College from 1991 to 1992 and retired from Ohio State in 1995, taking the title of professor emeritus. He went on lecture at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va., and at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., during the late 1990s.

In “A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War” (2000), Dr. Murray and co-author Allan R. Millett received acclaim for delving deep into the successes and failures of U.S. generals while also re-examining the tactics used by Soviet commanders to disrupt the German advance.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wore on, Dr. Murray began increasingly focused on researching U.S. military struggles to quell insurgents and build effective alliances with local forces.

“Adaptation is a process conducted under the pressure of war,” wrote the journal Military History in a review of Dr. Murray’s book, “Military Adaptation in War: With Fear of Change” (2011). “The objective is to defeat an enemy, who in turn can be counted on to do the same thing to you. The margin for error is always slim, and as the saying goes, ‘The enemy always gets a vote.’”

Dr. Murray’s marriage to Marjorie Foster ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Lesley Smith; a son and daughter from his first marriage, and five grandchildren.

In one of Dr. Murray’s last essays for the Hoover Institution, he evaluated various possible scenarios in Ukraine. In every prediction by Dr. Murray, Russia and the West remain on their side of a military and political fault line.

“Thus, whatever the outcome of the current conflict in Ukraine,” he wrote in July, “the Ukrainians and the Americans can only look forward to a hostile Russia that will require the full political, strategic, and military attention of the United States and NATO.”

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