History Department
History Department

Aaron O'Connell

Associate ProfessorPh.D., History, 2009, Yale University

Aaron O'Connell



Aaron O'Connell joined UT's History Department from Washington D.C., where he served in the Obama Administration as Director for Defense Policy & Strategy on the National Security Council staff. Prior to serving in government, Dr. O’Connell taught military history at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.  In addition to his academic career, Dr. O’Connell is also a Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, and in that capacity, he has served as a Special Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon, to the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, and to the ISAF Commander in Afghanistan. Dr. O’Connell holds a B.A. from Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, an M.A. in American Literature from Indiana University, an M.A. in American Studies from Yale University, and a Ph.D. in American History from Yale University.  When not reading or writing, he spends far too much time practicing the guitar.

Scholarly Interests

Dr. O’Connell’s scholarly interests span three inter-related fields: 20th century military history, U.S. foreign affairs, and the military's effects on contemporary U.S. culture and society. He teaches courses in military history, U.S. foreign policy, terrorism and insurgencies, and the U.S.’s role in the world.


Dr. O’Connell is the author of Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps, which explores how the Marine Corps rose from relative unpopularity to become the most prestigious armed service in the United States.  He is also the editor of Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan, which is a critical account of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan since 2001. He has also authored a number of articles and book chapters on military affairs and U.S. military culture.

Media Appearances 

Dr. O'Connell has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, BBC World Service, Public Radio International, C-SPAN, Fox News, and PBS’s NewsHour Weekend. His commentary has appeared in Foreign Affairs, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Slate, The Daily Beast, War on The Rocks, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Courses Taught
  • War and Violence in American History
  • The United States and the Second World War
  • U.S. Military History from Colonization to the Present


HIS 378W • Capstone In History

38330 • Fall 2020
Meets TTH 2:00PM-3:30PM RLP 1.104

“Terrorism & Military Occupation in American History” is the capstone course for history majors. As with other HIS 378W seminars, the primary course goal is to demonstrate mastery of the essential skills of the discipline of History: a critical evaluation of primary sources, active engagement with secondary sources, and the articulation of a cogent argument that is situated within the existing scholarship. In addition to small class discussions, research journal entries, and other assignments, students will engage in a substantial independent research project, conducted in stages,  that culminates in the production of a 15-20 page paper.

The broad subject matter of this capstone course will be to understand how the United States has thought about terrorism (or related terms) throughout its history, and to explore how the US government has responded to terrorism with both non-violent and violent tools (with a focus on military occupations). Potential research topics might explore a specific U.S. effort in the Global War on Terror, or earlier military occupations that resulted in a violent backlash, such as Reconstruction in the American South, or the 20th Century occupations of the Philippines, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Nicaragua, among others. Students will also have opportunity to explore related issues, such as the ways terrorism and occupation have been framed in popular culture or affected specific American communities.

This course carries the Independent Inquiry flag. Independent Inquiry courses are designed to engage you in the process of inquiry over the course of a semester, providing you with the opportunity for independent investigation of a question, problem, or project related to your major. You should therefore expect a substantial portion of your grade to come from the independent investigation and presentation of your own work.

This course also carries the Writing Flag. Writing Flag courses are designed to give students experience with writing in an academic discipline. In this class, you can expect to write regularly during the semester, complete substantial writing projects, and receive feedback from your instructor to help you improve your writing. You will also have the opportunity to revise one or more assignments, and you may be asked to read and discuss your peers’ work. A substantial portion of your grade will therefore come from your written work.



UGS 302 • War/Violence In Amer Hist-Wb

60410 • Fall 2020
Meets MW 3:00PM-4:30PM
Internet; Synchronous

The Signature Course (UGS 302 and 303) introduces first-year students to the university’s academic community through the exploration of new interests. The Signature Course is your opportunity to engage in college-level thinking and learning.

UGS 302 • War/Violence In Amer Hist

59690 • Spring 2020
Meets MW 3:30PM-5:00PM MAI 220B

War and violence have been a part of American history even before the formation of the United States. Since initial colonization, authorized violence (military operations) and unauthorized violence ( vigilante justice, insurgencies, mob violence, and terrorism) have regularly changed the course of American history. This course explores the role of violence in American foreign policy and society from initial colonization to the present day. Over the course of the semester, students will consider the causes and effects of violence on American history, with particular attention to the changing rules and norms of its use. We will also explore the cultural dimensions of violence in film, television, novels, and popular culture. When has violence been celebrated? When has it been condemned? Why? By whom? And with what effects? By the end of the course, students should be able to debunk long-standing myths about America's military past and to separate fact from fiction in their narratives of American history.

HIS 365G • United States Military History

38425 • Fall 2019
Meets MW 4:00PM-5:30PM GAR 2.128

This course has two broad functions.  First, all semester long, we will explore and analyze the roles of war and violence in American history. We will divide our inquiries into two categories:  “authorized violence” (in other words, state-directed violence such as wars, occupations, and military campaigns) and “unauthorized violence,” such as racial violence, labor unrest, vigilantism, and terrorism. Over the course of American history, the U.S. military has been involved in both types, and our goal for the semester is to understand how both types of violence have changed American history since initial colonization.


We will strive to achieve four major course objectives, 3 relating to content and 2 relating to skills


Specific Content Objectives


  1. To understand the causes, conduct and consequences of some of the most important military events in American history since initial colonization.


  1. To grasp the basic institutional history of the U.S. Armed Forces since the creation of the United States of America.


  1. To develop historically-informed opinions of the utility of violence in American history.


Specific Skill Set Objectives


  1. To improve your oral and written communication skills and to build your confidence in

questioning both your own ideas and assumptions and those of others.


  1. To improve your ability to think critically, recognize patterns, determine causes, find and analyze evidence for historical arguments, listen to others, and debate important ideas effectively.


  1. Course Themes:


  1. “The Three C’s: Causes, Conduct and Consequences.”  During the semester, we will cover almost every major war in U.S. history, as well as a few you probably don’t even know about. With each war, we will ask the same three questions: Why did the war or violent event happen (causes)?  What were the significant events in it that determined the outcome (conduct)?  What were the effects of the war (consequences)?


  1. War: What is it Good for? And for Whom? We will also explore the efficacy (aka: effectiveness) of violence as a political instrument. When has it worked? When hasn’t it? What groups have used violence to get what they want in American history?  Who have been the victors? Who have been the victims? Whose stories are the loudest in your understanding of American History? Why is that?


  1. Facts, Opinions, Assumptions, & the Art of a Good Conversation: This class may touch close to home for some of you.  In studying violence, we will be discussing things that may be closely tied to your narratives about yourselves, your families, your country, and perhaps even the world. It can get contentious! To make it productive (even enjoyable), we will all need to be respectful of each others’ opinions while still being vigilant in pursuing the truth about the U.S.’s history of violence. Opinions count. Facts matter. Assumptions are sneaky. Separating them out and conveying your thoughts clearly in verbally and in writing will be a theme of the course all semester long.


  1. Course Materials


  1. Millett & Masklowski, For The Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America, 2nd Ed. (New York: Free Press 1994)


  1. Assorted Readings posted on the course website (marked with ** in the list of assignments).



Grade Distribution


First Paper                                        15%                Class Participation:              15%   

Second Paper                                              20%                Final Exam:                           15%

Third Paper                                       20%                Quizzes:                                15%

UGS 302 • War And Violence In Us History

60664 • Fall 2019
Meets TTH 3:30PM-5:00PM BUR 214

The Signature Course (UGS 302 and 303) introduces first-year students to the university’s academic community through the exploration of new interests. The Signature Course is your opportunity to engage in college-level thinking and learning.

HIS 392 • Readings In War And Violence I

39245 • Spring 2019
Meets T 3:30PM-6:30PM GAR 2.124

This course offers an introduction to U.S. military history for graduate students.  While we will give significant attention to wars and battlefield operations, readings will also explore the many ways U.S. military influence and infrastructure have affected U.S. foreign policy, the U.S. economy, American culture, social movements, and American social life, primarily in the 20th century.  Thematic topics to be explored in the monographs (one per week) include the role of violence in foreign policy, gender studies, war and memory, technology and modernity, militarism and militarization, the family lives of soldiers, and the institutional histories of the U.S. Armed Forces.  

In addition to weekly monographs, we will also do a slow and close reading of a major survey of American military history since 1776 to give those who are unfamiliar with military affairs a basic primer in the major actions, wars, terminology, and concepts in the history of the U.S. military.

Recommended for students interested in 19th & 20th C. U.S. foreign policy, theories of violence, U.S. borderlands, and theories of state formation.
Provisionally-Selected Texts (some subject to change):
Allan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America (New York: Free Press, 1994).

John Ellis, The Social History of the Machine Gun (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1986)
Paul A. Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, The United States & the Philippines (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006)
Mary Renda: Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2001)
Phillip K. Lawrence, Modernity and War: The Creed of Absolute Violence (London: MacMillan Press, 1997)
Michael J. Allen, Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2012)
Gretchen Heefner, The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland (Harvard University Press, 2012)
Major Paper: 50%
Book Reviews: 15%
In-class presentations: 15%
Annotated Bibliography: 20%

UGS 303 • War/Violence In Amer Hist

62190-62200 • Spring 2019
Meets MW 2:00PM-3:00PM PAR 201

The Signature Course (UGS 302 and 303) introduces first-year students to the university’s academic community through the exploration of new interests. The Signature Course is your opportunity to engage in college-level thinking and learning.

HIS 376F • The Us And Second World War

39240 • Spring 2018
Meets WF 3:30PM-5:00PM CLA 2.606

This course fulfills part of the requirements for the Normandy Scholars Program as well as part of the American history requirement for the University.  Among the topics covered are: the causes of the War in the European and Pacific theaters; isolationism and the controversies over American entry into the war; the rise of air power and technological developments in the war; the conduct of the war; everyday life and politics on the home front; the experience of battle; the use of the atomic bomb; the seeds of the Cold War; and conflicting visions of the postwar world. Class work consists of lectures and discussions of weekly reading assignments.  

UGS 303 • War/Violence In Amer Hist

62860-62870 • Spring 2018
Meets MW 2:00PM-3:00PM PAR 201

The Signature Course (UGS 302 and 303) introduces first-year students to the university’s academic community through the exploration of new interests. The Signature Course is your opportunity to engage in college-level thinking and learning.

UGS 302 • Armed Forces/Violence In Us

61962 • Fall 2017
Meets MWF 4:00PM-5:00PM MAI 220C

The Signature Course (UGS 302 and 303) introduces first-year students to the university’s academic community through the exploration of new interests. The Signature Course is your opportunity to engage in college-level thinking and learning.

Curriculum Vitae

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