Roger J. Spiller (1944-2017)

Roger J. Spiller, one of America’s foremost military historians and theorists, died Sunday, August 13, 2017 at his home in Leavenworth, Kansas after a long bout with cancer. He was 72.

Born October 19, 1944 on a ranch near Bonham, Texas, he was the youngest of several children. From his Texas Ranger father, he learned a hatred of injustice; from his mother, a love of reading. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1962, serving for three years as an air rescue medic. After military service, he returned to Texas to pursue his education, completing a B.A. in English literature and international relations and a M.A. in history, both from Southwest Texas State College in San Marcos. He took a Ph.D. in history from Louisiana State University in 1977. There he met and married a fellow student, Irene. Together they returned to Southwest Texas where he taught history for three years.

In 1978 he was offered a visiting associate professorship in military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He stayed on as a permanent member of the faculty, and later became one of the founding members of the Combat Studies Institute. Dr. Spiller’s leadership and innovation helped turn CSI into the Army’s in-house think tank for the study of warfare. He later served as its deputy director and director.

From 1982 to 1985, he was Special Assistant to the Commander in Chief, United States Readiness Command. There he turned theory into practice advising two four-star commanders on policy and strategy.

Dr. Spiller returned to Fort Leavenworth faculty in 1985, first as Professor of Combined Arms Warfare, then as George C. Marshall Distinguished Professor of History. From 1992 to 1995, he served concurrently as Personal Historian to the Chief of Staff, United States Army. But his most important work as an educator was to expand the intellectual horizons of two generations of military officers, many of whom went on to high command in all branches of the armed forces.

After twenty years at the staff college, he was named professor emeritus. He later became an affiliated Professor of History at the University of Kansas. In 2007-2008, he was the Ewing Distinguished Visiting Professor of Military History at the United States Military Academy, West Point. He was a contributing editor for American Heritage and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Society for Military History.

It was during this period of his life that he began working with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. Over several years Spiller consulted with Burns and Florentine Films on their 2009 movie, The War, a path-breaking treatment of World War II. Burns engaged him again as a consulting historian on Vietnam, which will air later this year on PBS.

Roger Spiller was the author or editor of dozens of articles and books. He was general editor of Combined Arms in Battle since 1939 (U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 1992) and author of "Not War but Like War": The American Intervention in Lebanon (Combat Studies Institute, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 1981) and Sharp Corners: Urban Operations at Century's End (U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 2001.)

His monumental three-volume Dictionary of American Military Biography (1984) received the American Library Association’s award for best reference work of the year.

In the late 1980s, Spiller undertook research that made him an expert on what was then called “combat fatigue” and is now called “post-traumatic stress disorder.” The Uniformed Services Institute of Health Sciences recognized his expertise by inviting  him to lecture to their medical students.  

In 1999 Spiller wrote an introduction to a new translation of  a Japanese classic, Human Bullets: A Soldier's Story of the Russo-Japanese War, by Tadayoshi Sakurai, translated by Masujiro Honda, edited by Alice Mabel Bacon, University of Nebraska Press. He was subsequently invited to lecture at the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces historians on combat in the Russo-Japanese War.

In 2010 the University of Nebraska Press published In the School of War, a collection of his most influential essays on the teaching and writing of military history, which he wrote over the span of his academic career.

Spiller’s best known work, An Instinct for War: Scenes from the Battlefields of History, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2005, received a number of national book awards. Instinct is a compelling work of fiction that examines the nature of warfare over three millennia by imagining the combat experiences of individual soldiers and leaders.

Among Spiller’s most influential essays is his introduction to Between War and Peace: How America Ends Its Wars, The Free Press (New York), 2011. “Six Propositions” shows Spiller the theorist at the apex of his craft, offering one of history’s first philosophical expositions of the necessary conditions for the termination of wars.

His last work, Battle Studies: Charles Jean Joseph Ardant du Picq, which he translated, edited, and introduced, was published earlier this year by the University Press of Kansas. It is already considered the seminal treatment of its subject, a renowned soldier and theorist of the nineteenth century.

Professor Spiller received awards for distinguished civilian service from the Department of the Army and the Department of Defense. And he was named a Distinguished Alumnus of Texas State University in 1998 and received the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award from its College of Liberal Arts in 2012.

Spiller was an avid cyclist who biked for hours a day whenever his schedule allowed. He participated annually in the Bike Across Kansas and the Hotter’n Hell One Hundred near Wichita Falls, Texas. He was exceptionally well read. His interests included all types of history and fiction in many genres from the classics to German spy novels and Japanese crime fiction.

To his hundreds of colleagues in America’s military history community, Roger Spiller was not just a towering intellect, but a cherished friend and mentor. Dozens of his fellow historians sought his counsel, and he graciously, gently, and insightfully edited their works. He had a talent for friendship. He was warm, attentive, generous, irreverent, and hilarious, often profanely so. At the same time, he was a keen judge of character, and he had no patience for hypocrisy, cruelty, stupidity, or arrogance. He was progressive, both in his thinking and his politics. And he was fiercely loyal. If you made his grade, he would say, “I’d ride with you.” You never quite knew if he was referring to the horses of his Texas youth or the bicycles of his Kansas maturity, but you knew that you had received the highest compliment he had to bestow.

Above all, he reserved his greatest love for his wife of forty-six years, Irene Spiller, and their son, Galen Spiller of Kansas City.