Restore History and Theory to Military Education
Strategic thinking —— roughly speaking, the art of using history and theory to grapple with today's security challenges —— is in decline in the U.S. defense community. Cutbacks in military education only compound the problem. Last year, in fact, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld instructed senior defense officials to
"come up with some options how we might shorten professional military education or abbreviate it during stress periods."
We are in a long war, and facing a very long "stress period."
No doubt the exigencies of the moment —— Iraq, Afghanistan, a demanding global counterterrorist campaign —— prodded Secretary Rumsfeld to move to curtail professional military education. The armed forces —— particularly the U.S. Army and Marines, which have borne the brunt of the fighting in these land—warfare—intensive campaigns —— need as many officers as they can get out in the field. This allows combat—weary units to rotate home reasonably often.
It's easy to pluck an officer from the classroom for overseas duty. The benefits are immediate and measurable: improved bureaucratic efficiency, an operational tempo that doesn't wear out personnel. But the drawbacks are remote and abstract: a generation of senior officers unschooled in the classics of military thought. U.S. military effectiveness will suffer unless today's mid—career officers —— tomorrow's generals and admirals —— undergo rigorous study.
Two risks are discernible.
One, rising leaders will have too little time in the classroom to master military history or great works of strategic theory such as Clausewitz's On War and China's Seven Military Classics. U.S. forces got accustomed to operating at helter—skelter tempo during the 1990s, when they deployed far more often than they had during the Cold War. From an educational standpoint, it's possible to work around the demands of missions such as Somalia, Bosnia, or Kosovo, at least for awhile.
Officers can enroll in "distance learning" programs that tap email, teleconferencing, CD—ROMs, and other information technologies. While these programs can't substitute for the seminar environment, students can get by, more or less, with less classroom study.
And two, curriculum developers, operating on instructions from the Defense Department, are eliminating history and theory from professional military education in an effort to make mid—career officers' coursework more "practical," meaning relevant to the everyday tasks associated with current operations. War— and service—college faculties are obediently purging much of the most valuable content from the professional military education curriculum.
Whether they realize it or not, senior defense officials are deliberately encouraging shortsightedness among the rising generation of commanders. Obsessed with meeting the needs of the day, they have directed the war colleges to lower their gaze from the abstract, seemingly airy—fairy realm of history and theory to the everyday realm of operations and even tactics.
As a result, declares Johns Hopkins University professor Eliot Cohen, a noted scholar of military affairs,
"we are on the verge of producing a generation of officers as devoid of historical—mindedness as many of the civilians with whom they will work."
Under the bowdlerized curriculum that seems to be taking shape, even the time officers do spend in study will leave them ill—equipped to think deeply about their profession.
The Pentagon's indifferent attitude toward professional military education, then, is more worrisome than any temporary bureaucratic adjustments to maintain a decent operational tempo. Personnel shortages will come and go, but building a culture that prizes strategic thinking takes time. If we lose a generation of military leaders, the harm to U.S. military effectiveness will take years to correct.
James Holmes is a senior research associate at the University of Georgia Center for International Trade and Security and co—author of a forthcoming book titled The Dragon Looks Seaward: Thinking About Naval Strategy in Contemporary China.