06 May 2010

An Investment in the Future: Officer Education

"The society which draws too broad a distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools."--Attributed to Thucydides, but thanks to Christopher from KoW, I now know it's William Francis Butler.

As I was bypassing the DoD's firewall today, reading
Kings of War through my Google Reader feed, I came across a post from Captain Hyphen which caught my eye. Capt. Hyphen is a student at King's College in London, pursuing advanced studies in the War Studies department. He provided a link to an article in the Army Times which indicated that Congress is giving very serious consideration to creating more opportunities for officer to obtain advanced degrees from universities across the world. Says the Army Times:

The [Congressional] panel expresses concern that the services are not growing enough strategists. It calls for sending some junior officers to top-tier universities for doctoral studies in history, political science, international relations and economics.

“All of the services should cultivate strategists to assume positions of senior command authority,” the report says.

The services send people now, but mostly to prepare them to join the faculty at defense or service schools rather than for broader purposes, such as building “a cadre of strategic thinkers for the operating forces and higher-level staffs.”
We've tackled the issue of higher-level education for officers before. Suffice to say that many of the most renowned commanders of the Iraq War, such as General Petraeus (PhD, Princeton), Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster (PhD, UNC-Chapel Hill), Lt. Col. John Nagl (PhD, Oxford), and Gen. Ray Odierno (MA-NC State). Throw in military officers such as Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen (PhD, University of New South Wales), and you'll quickly see why ancient warriors prayed to Athena, rather than Ares on the eve of battle--it takes a keen intellect to win wars. The tradition of scholarly generals in the American armed forces goes back to the great generals of the Second World War. General Maxwell Taylor, the second-most learned commander of the 101st Airborne Division (next to Gen. Petraeus), was often noted to have a keen grasp of ancient history, relating the dilemmas of modern democracy to the trials of the Athenians. Likewise, General George S. Patton, often pictured as a foul-mouthed, cigar-chomping troglodyte, was known to have been a voracious reader with an immense library.

That's not to say that higher education at civil institutions is the only path to creating a more well-rounded officer. Many have suggested that officers take part in internships with government agencies or NGOs--bringing valuable military skills in planning and organizing to these institutions, and gathering a better respect for a "whole of government" approach in return. And while some rightly point out that a college class never helped someone in a firefight, I challenge anyone to name one battle lost as a result of incorrectly filled-out hand receipts, lateral transfer paperwork, or failing to have 100% of one's Soldiers' "Combatting Human Trafficking" training placed in the Digital Training Management System . Yet, how many hours do we spend taking care of these ankle-biters?

Capt. Hyphen also hits on another good topic: that of professional military education, particularly among captains. Hyphen notes:
One of the blocks I had to check before getting here to London was the captain’s career course, the second significant block of training for US Army officers. It was treated as a respite from operations rather than an opportunity for professional enlightenment, in my experience. It is hit or miss at the ground level (‘Relevance’, yes. ‘Rigor’, not so much.), so I would welcome increased congressional oversight in this area broadly to ensure the taxpayer is getting maximum return on investment.
I agree. So much so that I pretty much blacklisted myself by critiquing my own captains' career course. I found that the course was intellectually lazy--simply recycling the same student handouts, battle scenarios, and PowerPoint classes over years of classroom sessions. "Years" might actually be "decades" in some instances, as I have a student handout which describes an army of the "State" which fights in Division Tactical Groups, has an Operational Strategic Command as a headquarters, and has MiG-21 fighters. Clearly, this doesn't look anything like the insurgency we were facing in Iraq, nor like the more conventional-like threat of Hezbollah.

Worse yet, massive battles were planned with captains tracing lines on acetate laid over maps for hours on end, despite the fact that most missions are planned on computers. (To stave off the critics who wonder what I will do if all the computers crash, I merely point out that I qualified as expert on tracing when I was six years old--I think I can trace lines on a map if need arises. Not to mention, if all the computers crash, how will we make the PowerPoint slides?)

Another recent article sent to me by Adam Elkus recommends changes to the captains' career course, many of which seem to be in the wrong direction. The most dangerous of these recommendations is the emphasis on distance learning to complete the majority of the class. Despite the lure of distance learning--it's cheap, after all--the greatest value of the class comes from student interaction. Captains from all sorts of different units--Apache pilots, Kiowa pilots, light units, heavy units, joint units, you name it--come together to share techniques and tactics. They work together through training exercises, and create networks which will last them their entire career. That was the real value of the course--not the week-long PowerPoint briefing on the difference between various models of BMPs.

Focus: What sorts of professional development models do you think officers could benefit from? Where would you recommend changes?

Additional Links:

"Beyond the Cloister" by Gen. David Petraeus

The counterpoint to Gen. Petraeus' article is "Learning to Lose" by Ralph Peters. Peters pulls out all the stops, claiming that the archetypal intellectual is effeminate and indecisive, based on his astute observation of Hamlet. You know, a fictional character. This argument is so bad, it's hilarious. Too bad you now have to pay $20 to read the whole thing.

Update: The NY Times tackles this issue in this morning's paper.


Christopher said...

Take a read of Peter's piece in more detail. He does not decry learning or education...he decries sending officers for Ph.Ds.

mark said...

PME for strategy should hopefully be constructed in such a way to get students to use paradigms, disciplines and methodologies as lenses and tools to tease opportunities out of the big picture.

So many ppl fall in love with the first discipline that awakens them intellectually that they see it,regardless of whether it is Clausewitz, Marxism, Sun-tzu, Realpolitik, economic determinism, postmodernism, whatever - as a silver bullet to only be used analytically. To break things down. That's fantastic for thinking tactically. For strategy and grand strategy, not so much. Constructive vision requires synthesis, insight, intuition, imagination and evaluation - not just analysis. Hard to get these with any "one best way" approach.

El Goyito said...

Concerning the type of education needed...call me old fashioned but I still say that the classics are the best - start with The Iliad and work your way through the Greeks before getting to Clauswitz.

A.E. said...

You should read the edited Army War College comp that I link to here: http://rethinkingsecurity.typepad.com/rethinkingsecurity/2010/04/studying-and-teaching-strategy.html

Not all of it is agreeable, but certainly fascinating!

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