U.S. military academies are neither Spartan in being dedicated to war, nor are they Athenian in recognizing humanism (even the humanism of war). They are Archimedean. They focus on engineering and the machinery of war. But two millennia ago even Archimedes with his clever war machinery could not save Syracuse from defeat at the hands of Rome.
There is a lesson here for America’s military academies – if only they spent more time studying history and the humanities and less time solving equations. But they do not. I taught history at the Air Force Academy (AFA) for six years. My experience? The AFA was far too focused on STEM subjects (science/tech/engineering/math) to the neglect of history, political science, and the humanities. Today, America’s military cadets still concentrate on STEM, and they still receive Bachelor of Science degrees, even when they choose to major in subjects like history.
A technical emphasis may make sense for Air Force test pilots or Navy nuclear engineers; it does not make sense for Marine or Army lieutenants patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan. Nor does it make sense in counterinsurgency warfare and nation-building operations, which involve soft skills and judgment rather than kinetic action and calculation. Small wonder that the U.S. military in 2007 had to hire civilian anthropologists to teach the troops that winning is not only about hammering the enemy with superior firepower.
Emerging from an engineering mindset, young officers are too number-oriented, too rule-bound, too risk-averse. U.S. military officers, old as well as young, tend to think geopolitical problems – even in destabilized cauldrons like Iraq and Afghanistan – are solvable if you identify and manipulate the right variables. They think history and politics, human and cultural factors, can be controlled or compensated for.
Ever since their service academy days, they have internalized a puzzle-solving mindset, one that is suitable to technocratic hierarchies in which “progress” is measured by metrics. Their thinking about war is infected by quantification and business-speak in which assets are leveraged and force is optimized. Reinforcing this impoverished view of war is an officer evaluation system that stresses numbers, numbers, and more numbers, since if it cannot be quantified, it did not happen or does not exist.
When I was an officer and professor teaching history, many military cadets would ask, “What can I do with a History degree?” They were thinking not in terms of which course of study would make them savvier, more effective, officers and leaders. They were thinking in terms of which academic major would help them become a pilot (even better: a test pilot or astronaut), or they were thinking which major would make them more marketable once they left the military.
As a result, the vast majority of cadets at the Air Force Academy took two, and only two, history courses: a one-semester survey on world history and another survey course on military history. (Cadets at West Point take more history courses, but technical subjects are over-stressed there as well.) They had virtually no exposure to U.S. history (unless you count AF heritage or Academy trivia as “history”), but plenty of exposure to thermodynamics, calculus, physics, civil engineering, astronautics, and related technical subjects. Naturally, an engineering mentality pervaded the air. Notably absent were critical and sustained studies of recent U.S. military performance.
Combine a reductive, problem-solving approach shared among U.S. military officers with the dominance of lawyers in U.S. governmental systems and you have a recipe for number-crunching rationality and rule-bound conformity. Solutions, when proffered by such a system, involve cleverness with weapons and Jesuitical reasoning with laws. A perfect example: America’s high-tech drones and the tortured legal reasoning to sanction their assassination missions.
Educated as engineers and technicians, young officers are deployed to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and charged with negotiating the “human terrain” of cultures utterly foreign to them. Lacking knowledge of their own history as well as the history of the cultures they walk among, it is hardly surprising that they make little progress, despite hard work and honorable intentions.
Today’s U.S. military likes to fancy itself a collection of warriors, but America is not Sparta. Today’s military likes to fancy itself the bringers of democracy, but America is not Athens. Today’s military is Archimedean, infatuated by technology, believing in smart machines and victory achieved through violent action — much like America itself.
But mastery of machines by the military or, for that matter, tortured legalistic gymnastics by civilian commanders, is not in itself sufficient for victory. Just ask Archimedes at Syracuse, or a US Marine at Fallujah, or even the constitutional lawyer-in-chief at the White House.
77 thoughts on “America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed”
I have to respectfully disagree. Were it a graduate level institution, this article would be spot on; but the reality is that the Academies produce CGOs, and CGOs have little ability to influence the strategic level of war that is being discussed in this article. And as a CGO, it is your responsibility to be an expert at the tactical level. I cannot speak for the other branches of service, but in the Air Force, the vast majority of officers coming from the Academy will be required to become professionals in a career field that involves technology in which your tactical expertise depends on your ability to work with and employ technology. So naturally the Academy should be producing technologically savvy officers to do this. This would be a problem when officers reach flag rank, but they won’t do so without first attending Air War College as well as some other graduate level education, where they will then (hopefully) be exposed to the type of war doctrine that allows them to think strategically. I’m not saying this is the 100% solution, but I do not believe the Academy is the worthwhile target of a discussion like this. The way in which the military officer corps (which you mentioned) functions would be a much better place to start, and the Academy certainly has room for improvement in other areas, but I do not believe the Academic courseload has enough to do with it to warrant this claim.
Thanks for the comment. Here’s what I think an officer’s education should be about: What does my oath of office mean? How do I best support and defend the Constitution? How do I best uphold core values such as integrity, service, and excellence? How do I best serve the American people? How do I win wars at minimal cost to America as well as to the enemies I fight? An overly technical education does not do much to answer these questions. It’s also habit-forming. It’s arguably too late to wait until an officer is a colonel at AWC to start addressing war at other than technical/tactical levels.
If our young officers don’t understand their own culture and history, how can we expect them to understand the cultures and histories of other peoples? When you lack understanding, you resort to violence. You can’t talk to others, you don’t understand them, so you point guns at them or drop bombs on them. You reduce war to a technical exercise in kinetic violence, putting “bombs on target.” And sadly this tendency prevails in the military up and down the officer rank structure. Too much calculation, not enough judgment. Too many numbers, not enough understanding. And this mindset begins and is reinforced at the service academies.
I think the interesting part is that if you mentioned the history classes taken to people at these military academies, a large majority of them would mention that they seem to be a waste of time because they have already taken classes like these before. Your title, “America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed”, sounds a little like click bait. I wouldn’t call the lack of history, be it modern US military history or anything else, the reason all of the service academies are SERIOUSLY flawed.
I am by no means arguing that the core curriculum is the BEST set of courses to create “well rounded officers”, but there are things in motion to try and change the core classes. You mention a few questions that you think an officers education should be about, and yet I really don’t see those being addressed in an undergraduate course. What do you propose a lesson plan would look like for a course trying to convince me how I best support and defend the Constitution? I can’t make those decisions as a 2Lt.
I could see if you were arguing in some sort of education for commissioning course to be taught around a few of those topics, but adding more classes that would try and address “How do I best serve the American people” doesn’t sound like something that would be a class that many cadets would like to take. I think that you should argue for a revamp of history classes cadets have taken, instead of completely getting away from STEM. Cadets know what they signed up for, they know it is a STEM focused school. It is an interesting argument at the academy, cadets who take the histories and MSS degrees generally dislike courses such as Aeronautical Engineering, where as cadets who major in STEM find the histories and other “fuzzy” classes as they are called redundant.
You’ve probably heard of the Army concept of the “strategic corporal.” The idea being that in COIN or nation-building or similar operations, the actions and decisions of privates and corporals may have strategic implications. And if their actions and decisions can have such implications, your actions as a lieutenant, as the leader of such men and women, can also have implications far beyond the tactical and technical.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against STEM. My BS is in mechanical engineering, and I love science. The point is that we need more emphasis at the service academies on the human and cultural aspects of war, for those have been and will be more telling than the tactical/technical. Just look at Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. Or Vietnam. The U.S. military had or has the best weapons but lost or is losing the wars. And yet we persist in the same educational patterns we’ve been following for the last 50 years. Indeed, at USAFA less history is taught now than was taught during the Vietnam War.
This article is shameful, because you paint all of the service academies with a broad brush as if they have the same problems as USAFA, which is the youngest and (in my admittedly biased, but also informed, opinion) least impressive of them all. Having spent time at all of the academies and graduated from West Point not so long ago, I can say that at West Point there is a fundamentally different attitude towards the social sciences/ liberals arts than the other academies. The History of the Military Art, our two-semester course on warfare, for example, is unquestionably the most innovative course on the topic, and frankly I don’t think it would be improved by ramming a bunch of extra courses on how the constitution impacts warfare into the curriculum. I say this from an informed position, having went from West Point to do an MA in strategic studies at one of the premier institutions teaching the topic at the graduate level. We may have slightly too much focus on hard sciences, but your suggestion that we should dump them in favor of sort of vague topics that would have no clear equivalent at respectable civilian institutions only shows that you are going for something other than informed debate. I am shocked that someone who held a commission would write something this ill-informed and slanderous of military institutions that you clearly know nothing about.
Wow! ‘West Pointer’ this is what you were taught?
“The History of the Military Art, our two-semester course on warfare, for example, is unquestionably the most innovative course on the topic, and frankly I don’t think it would be improved by ramming a bunch of extra courses on how the constitution impacts warfare into the curriculum. I say this from an informed position, having went from West Point to do an MA in strategic studies at one of the premier institutions teaching the topic at the graduate level. ”
fr. Recent West Point Grad
It seems the Point missed the essential object of any learning which is to keep an open and curious mind. I am glad you stumbled into this blog where most readers seem to have an open mind and are curious about the world around them. As a veteran of WW II where it was a war of survival of our democracy, based on the rule of law covered by our Constitution the failure of the Point to teach you how a democracy deals with decisions on war is fundamental to your oath
to protect our country and its rule of law. I know it must be exciting to graduate and I respect you for that effort but i would strongly suggest you revisit our Constitution and the writings of those who wrote it and bolster your respect for this great document which defines our nation. War doesn’t !
that our current politicians, and I guess the Point also, think they can disregard.
Excellent answer. I do not believe my education should be boxed in soley based on a retired professor from a different academy whose service has a separate mission than ours.
It sounds like you have had bad experieces with West Point Grads and are very closed minded towards them. Every commissioning method produces good and bad officers. However, as a student at the academy, West Point does focus on US history and the Constitution. The US history and American Politics classes constantly debate the size and role of the Constitution. They also do discuss rule of law and the importance of guarding democracy, as you did in WWII. As we look over the Constitution, we discover it is vague. Therefore, it is hard to see what the intent of our founding fathers was. An improvent the academy is working on is dealing with civil military operations. Unconventional wars are challenging to fight and we must observe and understand the culture of the enemy to bring order it their region.
Yes, they must be technically proficient, but who teaches them leadership? Far too many young officers couldn’t lead their own way out of a paper bag, let alone seasoned airmen and NCOs. The article is justified in saying that technical experts the academies produce are not leaders and politicians that the country is asking them to be in the field.
How can one expect a 22 year old 2LT, fresh out of BLOC to know the right answer? Leadership is stressed at every corner at the Academies. Cadets have mentors all around them with vast leadership experience. Cadets take Psychology classes and Military Science classes with an emphasis on leadership. Summer training is focused almost exclusively on leadership. Cadets can receive as much leadership training as they want, but the only way to develop into a seasoned, tactically sound leader is to be thrown into a unit and learn from his NCOs. The Academies provide cadets with the ethical and problem solving base, their service time allows for them to truly apply these skills and learn how to be a leader in the Army/Air Force/Navy.
Current West Point Student: The only intense experience I have had with Academy graduates was during the Vietnam war.
I had run across an article on a group of Academy graduates who had served in Vietnam and subsequently resigned their commissions in protest against that war. I invited them to my city and set up radio, TV, and print interviews for them and the three of them stayed with me. One was a Marine Commander fresh from the tet offensive, one was a West Pointer from the Phoenix program, and one was a Lt. Commander from the Naval Academy.
I have never been more impressed with anyone else that I had met in my life. They were not merely intelligent gentlemen but dedicated human beings who had given up a lifetime sinecure for their principals. That was over 45 years ago and I still remember the human clarity of these dedicated young men.
These three Academy graduates did not have any doubts about what our “founding fathers” meant when they approved the Constitution and it led them to join the the multitudes of civilians who knew that war was contrived and illegal.
West Point student I appreciate your response to my comments. that readiness to discourse shows promise of an open mind. Thank yuo.
ZAck, have you ever heard of a term “a strategic corporal”? Strategic and political implications happen at the lowest possible level,when a US private shoots a kid, throws a grenade into a mosque, or raises the American flag above Sadam’s palace.
I completely agree with you, sir, as an enlisted person working labs on the Faculty. The author also ignored the change in cadet wing hierarchy which recently shifted authority from permanent party to the cadets, with oversight. The cadets only get to focus on STEM and build that technical proficiency once. One would expect them to continue to build on the foundation of history from the Academy in their chosen field once they graduate, but they’ll never be able to go back and get the STEM courses.
My son is in the middle of the West Point application process and he sent this article to me. I replied to him just as you have emphasizing the importance of STEM. There are many historic resources that can provide a continuing education after graduation and life-long.
I would like to add that in my opinion that Germany relied so much on technology that it didnt make just one variant of a vehicle or aircraft . America and Russia. had one tank and mass produced them yes we had various aircraft , but I think that making to many different kinds of machinery can hinder anation as well.
I think this perspective is a bit off, and one that misidentifies the ultimate source of the problem. While West Point was founded as primarily a school for the ACE, it evolved several times over the years (notably under MAcArthur’s reforms post-WWI), and today it along with the other Service Academies is counted by US News as a Liberal Arts college owing to the fact that a majority of grads come from liberal arts majors instead of engineering and other professional fields. West Point’s ‘Soc Mafia’ has produced the likes of Nagl, Petraeus, McMasters, and virtually all of the major innovative thinkers in the Army today.
The Air Force and Navy, owing largely to their respective heritages which place an increased value on technological innovation, do in many cases place a greater emphasis on those fields in the core, but to say this is responsible for the service culture is itself flawed (as is projecting USAFA experience on all of the service academies). Academy grads represent roughly a quarter of all officers, and from personal experience most of the emphasis on metrics have come through the chain and through later PME education, possibly due to the services’ emphasis on higher ed combined with s self-interest bias toward many seeking those degrees in fields like business and management, fields which have for the past decade or two been very metrics-heavy (you even acknowledge the lingo is business-speak, not engineering-speak). You point to the education-career questions at the service academies, but is that not a problem throughout higher ed today, reinforced by some states trying to push economic incentives for STEM education? It seems flawed to attribute that to the service academies.
Within the USAFA curriculum itself, the academy requires two courses in history, as you note, but also requires two courses in behavioral science, two in foreign languages, three in English, one in philosophy, one in social science, and three in military strategic studies which broadly includes effects-based operations, historical studies, military ethos and other topics you reference. That’s 14 classes, more than 1/4 of those required to graduate. Mind you, I’m a big proponent of a liberal arts education for all military officers and would be happy to see more of it in the core, but to place blame on the academies in the way this article does for the problems you diagnose just undermines that case and makes it easy for those who want to see the service academies go back to being more technical in nature to shoot down the argument.
As for the remainder, I’d also be happy to go point-by-point on the legal justification for RPA warfare and how it relates exactly to the complex issues of morality, geopolitical consequences, the benefits of kinetic vs. non-kinetic engagement, etc.; but I learned that reasoning from my graduate studies in humanities, not my BS in History from USAFA. Or ask the Lawyer-in-Chief you referenced or the numerous lawyers surrounding him, none of whom to my knowledge were educated at the service academies but are themselves the ones ruling on the legality of those strikes (THEY make the call on overall program legality and reasoning, the military makes the call on operations)
Thanks for your thoughtful comment. When I taught at USAFA, the saying was, “The real major is the core.” And the core courses were heavily weighted to science, engineering, and mathematics. Yes, there were (and are) humanities courses, as you mention, but they were not integrated in any way. They rarely built on one another. As a result, they didn’t really constitute a “liberal” education. Thematic unity was lacking.
Of course, military academies are about a lot more than academics (or, they should be). They are also about leadership development and character formation. Indeed, one could argue they should be primarily about leadership and character development. If the academies are not effective in developing well-rounded young leaders of high character, why bother having them? Just send all military cadets through ROTC or commission officers through OCS/OTS.
Now, how do we best develop young leaders of character? Leaders who possess judgment? Leaders with a strong ethical core? Leaders who are ready to make tough, even life-and-death, decisions? The academic curriculum and programs at each academy should be guided by these questions.
Your second paragraph would call for us to pull away from focusing solely on the accredited academic side (satisfying requirements for accreditation do matter after all, USAFA is learning that one the hard way…) and toward the broader Academy system, which is largely unaddressed in the original piece (the Comm’s side as opposed to the DF side). Character development extends beyond the academic curriculum to mandatory but un-credited military training sessions, to the Commandant’s speaker series, to Honor Code lessons and discussion (whether folks agree with the effectiveness and efficacy of the Honor System as is currently applied is another issue I’ll concede), the new Center for Character and Leadership, and the organization of the four class system. Others would add mandatory athletics (MacArthur’s ‘fields of friendly strife’ and all) to the non-academic character and leadership-centric flare that distinguishes the academies from their civilian counterparts. We can question all day the particular efficiency or efficacy of any of these programs and how they relate to truly building leaders of character, but it is difficult to argue the emphasis is lacking in comparison to a civilian institution.
The individual who wrote the article clearly has NO idea about what goes on in a Service Academy. He never even studied the catalog and I would guess, he has never really attempted to know a graduate. Sad that many of the loudest voices speak from ignorance. – (USAFA grad ’76)
Well, in fairness to him, he did teach at USAFA for a number of years. But, I think that led to his perspectives being based heavily on the DF side of the house, and teaching in History probably led to frustration over his history students having to take so many science/math/engineering core courses leaving their history emphasis a few courses shy of what a history degree would be in any other school (and, from his prospective elsewhere, less coherent as the courses don’t seem to build on one another as well as they could unless the students take up the extra initiative). I think this misses the bigger picture though by not speaking to the leadership learning outside of the DF side, and while the History/PoliSci (for example) is more STEM-focused than other institutions, the Engineering/Math side is more ‘fuzzy’ than civilian programs in most cases, leading to an overall balanced approach.
I will also have to respectfully disagree with some incorrect assumptions presented in this article.
“The AFA was far too focused on STEM subjects to the neglect of history, political science, and the humanities.” In the current Dean of Faculty briefing, created by the Registrar’s Office, presented to athletic recruits, the Core Curriculum of the Air Force Academy consists of 101 semester hours. Of these hours, 33 sem hrs are dedicated to Humanities and 17.8% are for Social Sciences. This constitutes 50.5% of the Core Curriculum. 44.5% is dedicated to Engineering and Basic Sciences (which you state in your article “technical subjects are over-stressed”) and 5% is Physical Education. Not sure how AFA is too focused on STEM subjects when they make up less than half of the core curriculum.
You also state in your article that a vast majority of cadets take two history classes (this is the minimum requirement from the Core). Traditionally, more than half of the graduating class become pilots. I would counter your statement with “a vast majority of cadets take one class in Aeronautics”.
If your argument is that the military academies need more Humanities and Social Sciences compared to “number-crunching rationality”, what percentage do you propose? If your article is against providing Air Force officers with a core understanding of engineering, what level do you suggest compared to the current 17.8% of engineering courses in the Core?
Right on Joe! Agreed. 2007 USAFA grad here.
I can see this has become an inside the “academy way” discussion. Poor Col. Astore is being pummeled.
In my humble opinion all have missed the point. The point? The U. S. has become an aggressor nation not interested in defense but in building an empire that will control resources for “our kind” ( Western capitalist countries) and deny those resources to countries like China, Russia, Iran, etc.
Col. Astore is trying to argue that a broader education will produce officers who understand the “bigger” picture and be better human beings for that and the academy supporters are arguing that it isn’t necessary to become better human beings because the politicians will make those decisions for them. Where did we hear that before? Did it start in 1933?
Well hello guys. I spent three years in the WWII Army Air Corps and by 1946 we thought we had settled the score on aggressive war making nations. We brought the leaders to trial and found them guilty of war crimes.
In my humble opinion the question is not the kind of education the AFA, WP, NA give their cadets but rather whether the current concept of elite military academies should be totally revamped to become academies of peace monitors working in the framework of possibly the UN rather than NATO. It’s no longer a matter of “our way” or the “highway”. It’s a different world out there fellows and we are no longer carrying the leadership banner.
The service academies did not produce the NeoCons (many of whom have elite liberal arts Ivy league credentials), in most cases they actually produced their realist opponents. See Brent Skowcroft (USMA ’47), Richard Armitage (USNA ’67), Eric Shinseki (USMA ’65), and scholars such as John Mearsheimer (USMA ’72). This is the point of Col Astore’s critics – the empirics don’t back up the criticism presented. The military may or may not be a tool of an imperialist agenda depending on your perspectives, but it is not driving that policy, and to suggest the academies are driving it is another step removed from reality.
Michael.. In our recent transition from a democracy into an invasive authoritarian nation the military elite have played a very significant role in helping the neo con and the neo liberal politicians execute and justify their illegal actions, from torture, to assassinations, to drone warfare, etc. on an unprecedented scale. These are criminal acts for which there will be a price to be paid. The Generals officers who run these programs are mostly, if not all ,graduates of the various academies and like the APA ( American Psychological Assoc.) who thought they would get away with endorsing torture will be paying the price.
You are right that the service academies did not produce the Neo cons and liberals but their graduates endorsed,
executed, and seemingly welcomed their policy directions. It takes a big human being to admit a mistake. I am happy to see that you are ready to discourse on your views. That keeps hope alive.
Just how recent was this transition, before or after we conquered and subjugated the Native Americans?
Seriously, while I respect your WWII service you seem to think everything which has followed it was an aberration from history, and you even seem to whitewash much of that war (we did quite a bit there that many would consider criminal as well). An open minded perspective on war would recognize that we have fought many more undeclared wars than declared ones, that the war powers have always been ambiguous, and that despite our lofty ideals, we also have a long dark streak of both expansion and seeking to influence others dating to the founding of our republic, because republics are run by man and are frankly not as pacifist as some democratic peace proponents would like when they encounter ‘others’ who the ‘enlightened’ democracies see in need of reforming.
Ad hominem taint is not helpful. Regardless of validity of justifications offered as reasons to wage war, there is always confusion and error and muddiness and self-aggrandizement and fraud and mendacity and bone-headed stupidity mixed in, each in varying degree, each and every time. Recognizing this, paying attention to it, looking for ways to clean up each and every step in a lethal process of experience that almost always sows seeds for future lethal experiences, is not some forlorn and useless exercise confined only to pussy idealistic liberalism incapable of comprehending how realistic grownups deal with intransigent disagreement between groups.
Or maybe this process post 9-11, post WWII actually (an era of its own, although your mention of historical similar predecessor policies is accurate and extends back through all history, not just North American), is unfortunately confined too much to those who are not neo-cons, wholly of very conservative ideological bent.
And does evidence 14 years on following 9-11 not support that those engaged in the discussion pro reining in US Middle East militarism are the realists trying to sway the discussion, unfortunately presently drowned out and/or ignored by too many who are unable to focus on anything other than their own fatally flawed idealized perception of, and unsustainable reactions to, present geo-reality/realpolitik? Not to mention goals for economic self-aggrandizement by the power of the plutocratic purse, the ultimate devil in the details. David Masciotra writes a comprehensive and timely essay on this topic (posted on Alternet today):
‘Spiritual devotion to the purity of America, preached by fundamentalists such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and even by moderate believers like Barack Obama, explains why for all their whining about “political correctness,” the right wing is far more sensitive and emotionally fragile than liberals. Many liberals do have a problem with overreacting to gaffes and jokes, but the real p.c. enforcement comes from the flag-saluting conservative crowd, with “p.c.” standing not for “political correctness,” but “patriotic commandments.”
At the top of the tablet is the Patriotic Commandment, “Thou shalt not criticize the military.”’
I fail to see any ad hominem taint here. Everything is aimed solely at repeated arguments and nothing either myself nor Mr. Traven has said speaks to either’s character. He speaks proudly of his service in WWII but sees some downward trend since then and somehow draws a line back to the service academies being part of that problem; I see no significant break in trends which in any way can be laid at the feet of the service academies – the changes that have come are well beyond the academy, and I see the academies as a moderating small-c conservative influence rather than part of the militarism problem.
Indeed. The Service Academies do not create the Neo-cons. They create the 2nd Louie’s who go on to become the Generals who become the key sycophants willing to support the agendas of whoever is running the civilian political establishment. And, for the past 50 or so years, in the post Cold War age, that civilian establishment has pursued the neocon global vision.
What happened with the Native Americans was a different kind of abuse. Not rooted in the fundamental ideas of neo-conservatism, but in the white suprematist colonialism of the 19th and early 20th centuries..
Thank you, “b. traven” for cutting to the chase (even though you beat me to the punch!). Though I have enjoyed watching Col. Astore evolve into a pretty harsh critic of US foreign policy, in this article he slipped back into his military mindset. THE ISSUE IS why the hell are US military personnel treading on foreign soil, among cultures they have no clue about? Why are they attempting to build “free, democratic” nations (at gunpoint!), all the while denying that this is an exercise in nation building? What on Earth does any of this have to do with “defending the Constitution of the United States”??? The job of a military machine is TO KILL AN ENEMY. The issue is HOW and WHY the military is deployed. The issue is not how the military is performing. The issue is the US thumbs its imperial hubristic nose at international law and ethical norms by engaging in these wars of choice.
But ‘how the military is performing’ is the domain of military leadership; your criticism is of the underlying policy. Military leadership ADVISES policy, but civilian control (part of that Constitution the military is defending) means the civilians set that policy.
b. traven and others have touched on the larger issue of U.S. imperialism and wars of aggression. For the sake of argument, let’s say the U.S. military has saluted smartly and facilitated empire-building and wars of aggression. And let’s say the record here is decidedly mixed. Quagmire and defeat in Vietnam. Ongoing destabilization and decay in Iraq. An Afghan government that would collapse without U.S. props.
Such a record should produce serious soul-searching and major reforms at the service academies. Has it? Not that I’m aware of, though I haven’t done serious research on this question.
The military’s response seems to be to make excuses. It’s the civilians who make policy; we just salute smartly and execute to the best of our ability. Or: We could have won, but various (possibly traitorous) elements have conspired against us in the performance of our duties.
Such attitudes stem from narrowly technocratic and bureaucratic training and acculturation. Perform the mission. Do your job. Don’t ask larger questions — that’s above your pay grade. If you fail, pass the buck up or down the chain of command. Cooperate and graduate (and get promoted).
If the last fifty years have taught us anything, it’s that technocratic-based careerism and “duty, honor, country” are not enough.
What we need, as b. traven has suggested, is fresh thinking. I suppose some will laugh at his idea of “peace” academies dedicated to getting America out of its imperial entanglements. But that’s the kind of fresh thinking that is never raised, let alone entertained, in the halls of power.
Perhaps the strongest argument against America’s military academies is not that they’re insular or in-bred or ineffectual — it’s that they’re increasingly irrelevant. Them’s fighting words, so bring it.
“Has it? Not that I’m aware of, though I haven’t done serious research on this question.”
Do the research. You’ll find the greatest debates about this very subject can be found at the service academies, among students who are well aware that in a very short period of time they will be responsible for leading others in potentially life and death situations. No, we do not just salute smartly, as H.R. McMaster (USMA ’84) rightfully rebuked the Pentagon leadership for in Vietnam betraying their advisory role and the principles of objective control in military professionalism. The strongest rebuke of favorite son David Petraeus and COIN was written by faculty member Gian Gentile, and the debate rages throughout both the service academies and the modern officer corps:
I’d like to see USAFA and USNA rise to relevance in the way that USMA has in the recent campaigns.
Great news. Thanks. I respect McMaster, but his critique of the military is too limited; see my article here: https://contraryperspective.com/2013/07/26/the-u-s-militarys-limited-critique-of-itself-ensures-future-disasters/
Here’s most of what I said: “McMaster ends his critique with a few words of praise for the U.S. military’s adaptability. The usual refrain: We messed up, but we learned from our mistakes, and are ready to take on new challenges, as long as the department of defense remains fully funded, and as long as America puts its faith in men like McMaster and not in machines/technology.”
“If those are the primary lessons our country should have learned since 9/11, we’re in big, big trouble.
So, here are three of my own “lessons” in response to McMaster’s. They may not be popular, but that’s because they’re a little more critical of our military – and a lot more critical of America.
1. Big mistakes by our military are inevitable because the American empire is simply too big, and American forces are simply too spread out globally, often in countries where the “ordinary” people don’t want us. To decrease our mistakes, we must radically downsize our empire.
2. The constant use of deadly force to police and control our empire is already sowing the deadly seeds of blowback. Collateral damage and death of innocents via drones and other “kinetic” attacks is making America less safe rather than more.
Like the Romans before us, as Tacitus said, we create a desert with our firepower and call it “peace.” But it’s not peace to those on the receiving end of American firepower. Their vows of vengeance perpetuate the cycle of violence. Add to this our special forces raids, our drone strikes, and other meddling and what you get is a perpetual war machine that only we can stop. But we can’t stop it because like McMaster we keep repeating, “This next war, we’ll get it right.”
3. We can’t defeat the enemy when it is us. Put differently, what’s the sense in defeating the enemies of freedom overseas at the same time as our militarized government is waging a domestic crackdown on dissent (otherwise known as freedom of speech) in the “homeland”?
Articles like McMaster’s suggest that our military can always win future wars, mainly by fighting more intelligently. These articles never question the wisdom of American militarization, nor do they draw any attention to the overweening size and ambition of the department of defense and its domination of American foreign policy.
Indeed, articles like McMaster’s, in reassuring us that the military will do better in the next round of fighting, ensure that we will fight again – probably achieving nothing better than stalemate while wasting plenty of young American (and foreign) lives.
Is it possible that the best way to win future wars is to avoid them altogether? As simple as that question is, you will rarely hear it asked in the halls of power in Washington.”
Interesting. So tell me then: do you believe George Santayana’s observation that only the dead have seen the end of war is wrong? And is it not the duty of the military to plan assuming he was right? If you want State or someone else to work to other purposes, that’s one thing, but how can it not be the military’s job to work to ensure that we get the next one right while trying to deter would be opponents from waging such a conflict? Isn’t that how the military and US policy has sought to avoid the war altogether for the better part of the last century? IOW -does not everyone in the halls of power in truth ALWAYS talk about finding ways to avoid fighting the next war? You keep building one strawman here after another.
You also end up basically contradicting yourself here. You critique McMaster for suggesting ” that our military can always win future wars, mainly by fighting more intelligently,” but your central thesis in the original article was that we need to make our military leaders more intelligent through a more balanced education. Is enlightenment to meet the needs of modern warfighting ultimately the goal, or is it pacifism? Again, I can give you a laundry list of academy-educated officers who have been among the most outspoken critics of specific conflicts going back to Omar Bradley (USMA ’15) pushing back against MacArthur (’98) on America’s role in Korea right through the strong critics of Iraq that I previously listed to show that the military academies have long produce critical thinkers who sit at the forefront of the debates on the wisdom of the use of force, but is not their job ultimately to be ready to fight and win the next war when called? To do otherwise would be to ignore the entirety of human history in the name of idealism.
Michael: I’d say our military is part of the problem — and part of the solution. We must always be ready to defend ourselves, which requires a strong, flexible, and professional citizen-military. I say “citizen” because military members must remember they are citizens first and foremost who have taken a special oath, but they remain citizens (even if subject to the UCMJ) because their oath is to the Constitution (and, by extension, to the citizenry).
Sun Tzu says the best way to win wars is to attain victory without fighting. I know he emphasizes subterfuge, maneuver, surprise, and so on. Putting the enemy in a position in which he has little choice but to surrender, or, if not surrender, to agree no longer to pose a threat.
Our military and its leaders have put us on the path of endless war against an amorphous enemy that we are in part creating through misguided applications of overwhelming force. Endless war, by definition, is weakening what’s left of our republic. We must heed the warning of James Madison here:
“Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …”
To preserve our republic, we must put an end to perpetual war. That is “victory” for a republic dedicated to liberty.
But again you’re jumping between unrelated concepts. To be against perpetual war and the limitation of executive authority is one thing, to argue that the service academies are creating cultures of bean counters who are not critical thinkers with regard to the utility of force in conflict zones is another. You lack the basic evidence to level the accusation, what you put forth has significant holes, and when presented with this you change the subject back to the MIC or horrible policy choices without drawing the connection. The military has some warmongers in it, but generally the military brass is the strongest voice of restraint surrounded by partisan interests of all stripes, be they neocons, humanitarian interventionists, neoliberal economists, etc. crying for action in the name of abstract interests while it remains the military who is the strongest voice saying that we are overstretched.
Beyond that, as you note, Sun Tsu is about winning without force, as you say through convincing any potential enemy that war is not in their interest through the appearance of strength, not through rational discourse as the Melians might have hoped back in the day. This can be shown empirically either using Mearsheimer’s model of conventional deterrence and the causes for its breakdown, James Fearon’s rationalist model, or Schelling and Jervis’s writings on the logic of nuclear deterrence. States are the reality of the international order, states have interests, and those interests shift over time and will often collide with the interests of others. Hoping that rationalizing differences will avoid conflict in all scenarios flies in the face of history and all explanations both of international relations and basic human nature.
Spot on! I’m a retired Naval Aviator (NROTC Liberal Arts/Education) we had an ongoing debate back in the day: who makes a better pilot; the Poet or the Engineer? Each had a decidedly different view on just about everything and it was a good thing. A balance. Quite often the Poet solved a complex problem in strike planning through simplicity because, to be blunt, the Engineers were lost in the equation. Unfortunately, now the Poets are being eliminated during the screening process even for AOCS. I was a Poet, and thought we were the better pilots of course. We were more fluid and less predictable (like war). I was also a Test Pilot (SETP); I got in through the back door, OJT. So I have seen and lived both sides. Now that I’m long retired and an author writing historical fiction, it seems even more important to me that the services need a balance. Technology is merely about the weaponry. Strategy and Tactics, the war fighting: is more suited to history and a free thinker.
Michael.. Is “IDEALISM” a bad thing.? Are we in an era of ‘post hope’? Must we look forward to Orwell’s “perpetual war”? Is this the outlook of the military elite?
Curious minds want to know!.
It is when it comes in opposition to realism. Carr and Morgenthau both used the term ‘realists’ to differentiate themselves from the failures of idealism which emerged during the post-war world. For all the references to ‘Hope,’ presumably eluding to Obama’s 2008 election, he has always been a realist at heart, always portrayed himself as such, and frankly has only run into significant challenges on foreign policy 1. when he diverted from the tenets of defensive realism (Libya and Syria), 2. by not fully articulating his guiding principles. The latter is understandable as no President can ever really proclaim defensive realism as a guiding principle as it suggests retrenchment and decline, but in the case of the US represents a pullback from over-extension from the excesses of the Bush years.
Back to the OP – this is important because the leading voices on realism and restraint have been from within the military community, who advised and continue to advise caution on intervention in Syria given the lack of a clearly defined interest, and a clear strategy to achieve defined objectives. This has run into opposition with the distinctly non-military advice of Sam Powers, Susan Rice, and Anne Marie Slaughter among others who have lobbied for humanitarian intervention, or as you might say furthering perpetual war.
Leland, Your post spoke to my heart. I graduated from USAFA in 1997 with a degree in Engineering Science (sort of a hybrid of mechanical/aero/astro engineering). Then I took my 21 year old, 2nd Lt butt to pilot training. I flew the KC-135 for four years and the C-21 for another three and a half before leaving active duty for the reserves. Now guess how many times that BS in Engineering Science helped me during my flying career? ZERO. I didn’t need advanced calculus to do airplane math in the cockpit. What I needed was a balance of foreign language and history to help me deal with being a female CGO in Middle Eastern countries where women are second class citizens. And above all, I needed people skills after being cooped up in the Zoo for four years. Besides all the engineering I learned at the Academy was obsolete in a couple of years anyway. So USAFA taught me self-discipline and time management but beyond that…
I’m thankful for my Academy education but I too was more than likely a Poet in Engineer’s clothing. I’ve transitioned from flying to television writing and couldn’t be happier although Hollywood does all it can to make you miserable.
Best of luck with your writing, Leland. I’ll have to pick up one of your novels soon.
There are some pretty valid points here, although I was a Political Science major at USAFA and got plenty of history, philosophy, etc.
However, this blog doesn’t scratch the surface on any real problems with Air Force officers. The true problem lies with the piss poor Talent Management of the military. My classmates are getting out of their service commitments early and often with large severance packages. The sharpest classmates I know want nothing to do with the promotion system in place, and they’re flocking to private industry. I work in the industry of providing major U.S. Companies with the top talent coming out of the military. What do companies want? BS Mechanical Engineering. They want candidates with Engineering degrees from Academies.
Your criticism of the zoo is highly utopian, but has no validity in the real world. History Majors are not marketable for much besides sales jobs.
Mike. Au comtare! I suggest that your comment is fed more by your current income stream than by the bigger world of enterprise out there. I would hazard a guess that a graduate of an academy with a major in poetry might have both a more lucrative and happier life than one with a major in engineering.
During the Vietnam war era I met a young Marine graduate of the naval academy who resigned in protest to that war and got a job with a prestigious Economics think tank. Not an engineer at all.
I was head of a national marketing consulting firm and following that war I found that our clients, all the big consumer goods companies in the country, liked to hire academy graduates in marketing positions because they were realists and steady under pressure.
Prior to WW II I was an engineering student but after the war I got a graduate degree in Psychology and ended up a marketing and design consultant. One of my sons has an English BA and is an exec in one of the hottest new tech start ups. Another son just sold his company to IBM and he has a graduate degree in Political Science.
Conclusion.? As Mr. Shanle says above, the poets do better at everything, including war, because they are more intellectually facile. The best argument though is your own career. You are making a good living selling engineers but you background major was Political Science not engineering.
Thanks. I had my own problems with the military’s personnel system. It loves to force round pegs into square holes.
The military tends to reward conformity. The military promotion system is also rigid and overly slow compared to the civilian world of business. I can see where “movers and shakers” would want to escape the military for a civilian world that is often less rigid, less conformist, and more open to quicker promotion for the talented.
But I don’t think a military BSME makes a job applicant any more competitive than a military BS in history or English or Poli Sci, unless the job is specifically related to engineering. And I’m speaking as a retired military officer with a BS in ME.
I scratch my head daily on this topic, and I truly believe that I’m just as smart and talented as my BSME counterparts with my BS Poli Sci…unfortunately, the numbers clearly reflect that my company, the nation’s largest military veteran placement firm, has tons of military academy grads with fuzzy majors looking for jobs, and we place BSME’s weekly. I have conversations with hiring managers at Fortune 500 companies, and they all bend over backwards for a hard engineering degree.
Going back to my original point, I don’t think the education issue with the military is headlined by a lack of certain topics in the curriculum. I’m pretty certain the bigger issue lies with Captains having to get a cheap master’s degree from DeVry or University of Phoenix to check the box before promoting to Major. That’s way bigger than the # of history courses taken at a military academy.
For the record, as a political science major, I took 4 history courses, 2 military strategic studies courses (essentially military history), 2 philosophy classes, and several others at USAFA that balanced my engineering coursework. The whole point of the academy is not the specific courses, it’s a 4 year maze with a firehose of information and challenges from 3 major fronts: academic, military, and physical. It swallows you up and spits out a product that is unshakable to quaint obstacles or problem solving situations feared by most Americans.
That’s a good point about the need to get a master’s degree — any master’s degree — to get promoted to major. That’s what promotion is often about: ticket-punching. Did you do your PME? Did you get a master’s? Did you hit your gate? And so on. Whereas promotion is supposed to be based not on what you’ve done but rather your demonstrated potential to excel in a higher grade. Ticket-punching reinforces conformity, exactly what you don’t want if you’re seeking creative problem-solvers in the upper ranks.
Also, seeing education primarily in instrumental terms, e.g. as a way to get promoted, diminishes the true value of education. Many officers see PME as just a few weeks (SOS) or a few months (ACSC/AWC) “off” from their “real” jobs as AF officers. So they work on their golf handicap at Maxwell AFB, not that I blame them completely, since many need a break from a demanding ops tempo.
Still, a system that reduces education/PME to hoops to be jumped through is seriously flawed.
It looks like West Point didn’t teach much grammar or put much emphasis on spelling!!
It is funny that you mention the “movers and shakers.” It seems that many of my classmates from 05′ that were in that group were the first ones to get out and accomplish significant things in life. Also, a significant portion of pilots that took the VSP to leave the Air Force were the kind of people that you wanted as squadron commanders eventually, because they were non-conformists and were imaginative individuals with a belief in improving the Air Force; not just reinforcing the institutionalized bureaucracy that many support to get promoted.
I disagree with this article. I majored in Mechanical Engineering at West Point, and later taught the same subject there for 3 years. I also took all the other required courses for the curriculum that every graduate takes, including 2 years of history, 2 of English, Philosophy, Social Science, Economics, Leadership, Psychology, a year of foreigh language, and many others. My undergraduate degree was truly “liberal arts” from a curriculum perspective, unlike anything an engineering student at a normal college would take. What did engineering teach that was useful to me in two Iraq tours in Armored Cavalry units and was is beneficial? Absolutely. First and foremost, engineers are problem solvers. In OIF 1 we experienced a short traditional war, a relatively non-hostile phase of rebuilding, and then the beginning of an insurgency. As a mechanical engineer, my knowledge of how infrastructure works was hugely helpful in trying to develop rebuilding solutions for my area of Baghdad. I knew what was possible and what was not. I also understood how my vehicles worked before the war and during it, and was able to help the mechanics often in keeping them running. I had studied them in the classroom in great detail, understood how the turbine engine of the tank works in intimate detail, knew when the igniter was going bad, knew how to deal with some of the other issues that arose from operational conditions, etc. I went with German engineers into the south baghdad power plant built by Siemens in the 1950s to assess it. I also helped teach a town how to vote, then helped the CA team teach these elected officals how to run a city government. Problem solving skills helped me work to understand the insurgency situation and tribal dynamics in that tour and in my second tour a couple years later, then as a troop commander with a wide and complicated area of responsibility in the tigris river valley in south baghdad. I used my engineering skill regularly in both tours. Still do in my current Army assignment. I feel we need folks with all educaitonal backgrounds, but given my choice for LTs with only one educational background, I would pick engineers over all others every time. If I could diversify(we never get that choice), I would want an engineer, a political science major, a sosh major, and a foreign area studies major from the area in which we were operating. I can attest that my soldiers always appreciated what I could bring to the platoon or troop across the spectrum from combat leadership to technical knowledge to complex problem solving.
Jon: Just so you know, my BS is also in mechanical engineering. It helped me a lot with various jobs in the Air Force. And I can see where it helped you. But I don’t think the best LT for the job is necessarily an engineer. The best LT (if such a person exists) is the best leader, able to make quick (and correct) decisions and to take decisive action under pressure. That LT might be an engineer, or he (or she) might be a philosophy major …
I currently attend USMA and I definitely disagree that all academies focus on STEM majors too heavily. This may be true for USAFA, but at USMA there are a number of required core-classes in the humanities that focus on the ethics and history of war. Also there are a large number of cadets who major in the humanities and social sciences departments here. I definitely am receiving a much more broad education here than if I went with my second choice and attended a state school for engineering.
Thanks, Adam. I’m glad to hear West Point has moved beyond armor and artillery and big battalion conventional ops. The Army is learning, but even a smarter Army can’t win wars that are unwinnable (because they shouldn’t have been fought to begin with).
About the Vietnam War, Hannah Arendt wrote that the U.S. was using excessive means to achieve minor aims in a region of marginal interest to the USA. This statement remains telling to me, and not just for Vietnam but for our current wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
What is the role of the officer when he sees his country fighting undeclared and unwise wars that are debilitating to our nation? That is a question that all our military academies should address; the answers are not easy ones.
OP, I think your argument is invalid by focusing on the Academies as the problem of not “winning the hearts and minds of the people.” While cadets take a large number of engineering courses they also take a great deal of ethics and morality courses. I don’t think more courses in History would establish a greater sense of morality and ethics in cadets. Students often take courses in U.S. history in high school. However, I do believe that additional courses in Middle-Eastern history and the history of other conflicting regions would be useful.
Your title is very misleading. I would submit that ROTC produces less morally and ethically developed officers than the Academies. I don’t believe it is something that can be fixed within the education system of ROTC universities or the Academies, but rather education within the Air Force itself. I believe that military officers should receive additional training in the importance of the morality and ethics of war before deployments as well as the histories of the the region they will be in.
This discourse is fascinating!!! For the first time I can read how ‘lifers’ or what we used to call ‘regular army’ guys talk and think . I want to thank all of you for being so open and thoughtful about your lives and how you look at them.
I am assuming that most of you, early in life, made the decision for one reason or another to devote your one and only life to the military. That is a decision that sets one apart from the general population. Some did it to get a college education, some may have done it because their parents encouraged it, some out of a sense of patriotism, some just because they could.
I come to the issues that have been discussed here also as an outsider to the general population of my time.. Raised in an orphan home I had none of the social experiences of an adolescent in those days. I didn’t know how to drive a car or what you could do in the back seat of a car with a date. I was 18. I always loved airplanes and built model balsa airplanes which one could buy as a kit for 10 cents and put it together in days of labor. I volunteered for the Army Air Corps because I was scared to death of going into the infantry. I was accepted for the Aviation Cadet program..
The war ended in 1945 and I got out in early 1946. We and our allies had beaten the three most heavily armed nations across the globe in three years. ( five for the English). It is hard for me to see how our country has been in a state of war for 13 years now against an amorphous ever changing and under armed group and we have left in our path only death, desolation, and a more deadly, unstable, world while gutting our own Constitution and economy.
My point is this. WW II was fought with citizen soldiers. I never heard the word patriotism uttered and all of us just wanted the war to end. It was no career for us. We were citizens and wanted to get on with our lives. We did our jobs and it was a successful enterprise. Most of the top commanders were academy graduates but the rest of us were an unsophisticated bunch of kids.
Let’s forget the discussion of a liberal education or an engineering education in the academies. The military is there to “protect” our country. Obviously the history of the last 13 years points towards the failure of war making as protecting our country. Why aren’t the academies emphasizing in their curriculum the alternative concepts to perpetual war and turning out military leaders who don’t make it easy for politicians to rationalize war for their own careerist aims.??
Truly excellent discussion which reveals humanity’s symptoms in suffering the millenia-persistent disease called war, while offering the broadest view of how far the distance to the “utopia” of, pardon the seasonal reference, “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men”.
From Livescience today, an op-ed on teaching values to medical students that may have application (‘ethics is messy, ambivalent, uncertain’):
Great article; I’m a 2005 USAFA grad and I definitely agree with the theme conveyed. I earned a BS in Behavioral Science and I always lamented that I could not take more humanities. More so, my academic major seemed so structured that I felt like I had little control over what classes I took.
The technical focus is definitely overbearing considering the fact that half of the USAFA grads will be pilots; a career that I promise you (from personal experience) does not require strong engineering or math skills. In fact, in my years of aviation experience, I’ve never worried about aerodynamics or thermodynamics; the only math I’ve ever had to do involved me increasing or decreasing landing/takeoff data by 10-30%–basic math skills not requiring all of those core engineering classes at USAFA.
If you haven’t heard recently, the Chief of Staff reformed the master degrees requirements, the master degree is masked for promotion until the Colonel’s board. I am a fan of this, even though I have two master’s, my only problem with the whole master’s degree and its involvement in promoting is that the board does not take into account what you got your masters in or what school. This is poor precedent, it leads to people putting in minimum effort to get the easiest and cheapest degree to check the box; defeating the whole purpose of even getting a masters. Type of degree and applicability to your career field along with the pedigree of the school should be considered.
Finally, there is an intellectual void in the pilot career field. Many of my peers prefer the idea of violence (i.e. kinetic attacks) in dealing with the problems of the Middle East because the Air Force culture is so inclined towards tactics and delivering payloads at the “bad guys.” Even more of a cultural problem is that military officers have a quandary when it comes to combat; it is beneficial for promotion purposes and vindicates all of the practice put forth into training for combat.
All services, especially the Air Force would be doing themselves a favor if they had more discussions about culture, war, history, ethics, morality, etc. on a monthly basis rather than the briefs periods of PME that require discussions about this.
At this point, allow me to state that I really don’t give a rat’s ass about what the curricula at the sundry military academies consist of. I will continue to object vigorously to how the US military is employed as long as it operates outside the pale of international law (the biggest bully on the block pretty well does as he pleases), prosecuting wars of choice rather than necessary self-defense.
US Army, 1967-71
That’s exactly why we should have this discussion. Even though the service academies only make up a quarter of the officer corp, the number of senior leaders that are Academy graduates is significantly higher. And let me remind you that Academy grads do not get preferential treatment in promotions or assignments.
Fixing the educational and professional development malaise is a part of the bigger picture in changing the military culture. The US military does not specifically make decisions about foreign policy, but they can definitely influence the debate with political leaders on how to employ military forces effectively, efficiently, and ethically.
Ok, you make the Academies “relevant” the graduates think different, better and critically. What about the unwashed masses that get a degree in something, anything that meets commissioning requirements? This is sort of a partial analysis of how to grow officers better and a piece is missing. If there is irrelevancy here, what about the contributions from civilian higher education from other commissioning sources? Is it lack of quality or poor academic choices from ROTC/OTS grads.
Great discussion. I offer this perspective, 20-yrs now since graduating USAFA: let’s not conflate the efficacy of the USAFA experience/education. Looking back, USAFA was college and a means to an end. It’s a start. Wisdom built over 20 years of learning, fighting, teaching, growing. Not many of us sit around and lament shortcomings in college curriculum. It’s college.
Let’s do a better job of making PME and broadening experiences count in the whole of an officer’s career. You need time, commitment, and experience to build a strategic thinker.
Just another perspective. No intended to denigrate anyone teaching in undergrad institutions.
I certainly agree with the author’s concerns and concept. I graduated from the Naval Academy during the Vietnam war and was a product of a then STEM mindset and was buried in science and math courses. While we had history and liberal arts courses they were buried in the flood of studying and were good but not the priority of graduation. My first job was a Division Officer aboard a destroyer right in the middle of the race problems of the late 60’s and early 70’s and my ship endured a number of racially motivated fights on the mess decks and on shore. My division was about 1/3rd black, 1/3 rednecks, and 1/3 guys as mystified as myself. All my job challenges were concerned with people, US history, psychology, and putting yourself in the other guys shoes. Differential equations were meaningless in that tense environment. My next tour was as an advisor to a small Vietnamese riverboat group deep in a jungle in which I dealt with ancient Asian history, racial bigotry (against local Cambodians), guerrilla warfare, terror and its effect on a culture, poor and misunderstood communications among Vietnamese and Americans, and the incredible cultural differences between my team and our VN sailors. I think I (and my classmates) did pretty well under the circumstances but our self confidence and effectiveness in meeting new and unexpected environments would have been a lot better with more “Bull” courses, as they were called. By the way, the senior officers who might or might not have taken such courses at a higher level did no better then the Ensigns and Lieutenants in those situations. They struggled as much as we did which convinces me the education needs to be right at the beginning level.
T.E. …Your note above is the most relevant in this string of comments on the relationship between a broad education and a narrow one in preparing military leadership. It demonstrates that a broad, open, and curious mind is needed especially in the most intense atmosphere of military action. The responsibilities you faced required you to look at all humanity, Americans and a different culture, as human beings not just as pawns to be controlled or killed. I would suggest you consider expanding these observations into a fuller article that we could run in TCP. We welcome new contrary articles.
Just send it to W.J.Astore our editor.
TE, agree with Traven, this is a really good example of the kind of fuzzy, nebulous problems that I faced as an officer that have no mathematically defined proper answer. Couldn’t tell better stories than yours why cultural awareness is an essential skill for our military leaders.
Very interesting discussion, I enjoyed very much hearing the perspectives of various flavors of graduates. Myself: USAFA grad, engineering degree (philos minor), flew airlift in Iraq and Afghanistan, then flew RPAs for several years, masters in mil history.
BLUF: I agree with Col Astore that STEM is overemphasized in the Air Force.
While my technical background was helpful in becoming a pilot, it was hardly necessary to have a whole engineering degree to succeed. Pilot training is a self contained course; they plan to teach you everything you need to know, beyond basic arithmetic. I can’t think of any instance of using anything beyond arithmetic to solve a relevant flying problem. I did learn to use a whiz wheel of course, but that I learned in UPT. Outside of math proper, the most relevant technical field in maneuvering aircraft and air to ground tactics is geometry, but I never studied that at USAFA, all my formal education there was in high school.
(As an interesting tangent, it may be that STEM is overemphasized in the USAF not because of parochial service reasons, but because it is broader American culture that emphasizes technical solutions over cultural or political ones. For further thoughts on this, see Colin Gray’s essay “The American Way of War:
Critique and Implications.” Interestingly, I read this as part of my ACSC PME book. ACSC was the first PME I did that I felt really spoke to the level of my peers, rather than treating me like a simpleton several years younger than I was. I read all the ACSC readings, and I may have been the only one. Since it is a box to check to get promoted, most folks knock the tests out as quickly as possible while doing as little of the reading as they can.)
Having watched Iraq implode first hand, as well as our fumbling progress in Afghanistan, I would agree with Col Astore that no amount of technological might will make up for poor strategy, or cultural, historical and political ignorance. Consider the Germans in two world wars: tactical brilliance will not make up for strategic failure.
Interestingly, the first instance I can remember of someone suggesting that more technological and kinetic weapons might be less effective than lower technological but more psychological weapons was a teacher at USAFA. Specifically, he was a former USMC infantry man who led troops in Vietnam and taught a philosophy course I took. He said that the VC / NVA feared an M-16 fired out of the window of a FAC aircraft more than bombs off B-52s because the shooter could find individual soldiers on the ground to shoot at, rather simply rain down incredible explosive power, which may or may not be on target as it explodes.
The USAF Weapons School is the quintessential outgrowth of the technological paradigm; it emphasizes personal technical knowledge not just as the best solution to problems, but as the only solution. I don’t think it is coincidence that along with this technical emphasis comes tendency of many weapons officers to be jerks. They tend to subscribe to the idea that only complete technical knowledge will suffice and treat anyone with a differing opinion or imperfect knowledge with disdain. It is completely correct and professional to hold aircrew to high standards, and to provide accurate feedback regardless of rank, position, or hurt feelings, but I tend to see WICs take particular pride in delivering their messages in ways designed to demean or ridicule anyone who disagrees with them. This is a great example of technical proficiency actually leading to lowered performance because of HOW the message is delivered.
The Weapons School, with its technical emphasis, has an outsize influence over our future leaders because graduating it is generally considered the mark of the best leaders we have. Some communities have gone so far as to set quotas or goals of having a certain percentage of squadron commanders be Weapons School graduates.
Over the course of my career what I have seen is an increase in demands from the WS for technical perfection, while at the same time we have been reducing material in formal training courses and taking continuity training away from ops units. As an instructor, I was told (by WS grads) not to emphasize any one tactic over another because this would prevent my student from studying and learning all three (or five, or eight) methods of accomplishing a given task. This conveniently overlooks the fact that many students had trouble learning ANY of the tactics because of lack of good written guidance and a lack of standardization among the instructor cadre. Again, this is the unbalanced emphasis on the technical coming at the expense of the cultural and political factors and led to less learning / goal accomplishment.
I’m reading this back, and it is both longer and a bit more rambling than I meant it to be, but I believe it still speaks to my point, which is that I have seen an overemphasis on technical solutions over cultural ones at every level from the tactical to the strategic, and it leads to sub optimal performance, sometimes to the point of mission failure.
Finally the RPA discussion may not be central to the original topic, but I’d be glad to answer any questions on flying them. Briefly, I would say that RPAs, as I have participated in them, are no more or less moral than any other technological weapon, such as the F-16. The larger question is whether or not the war they are being used in is moral, but in and of themselves I maintain they are completely justifiable as a platform.
The academies are there to train future officers to do the job that the military requires of them. simple fact is instead of writing this long drawn out speech, become an officer or better yet become the President so that you can change the way the military is run. You are able to write these posts and all of your contrary work because of the military who defends our great nation and your freedom of speech. We, as the military, all signed up for this no one is forcing us to do what we don’t want to. If someone wants out, then there are ways to get them out. But do not talk about how the system is flawed since it has been working great for thousands of years. Like you said earlier Rome, how do you think they were so prosperous during their time? THE MILITARY. It takes some serious work to even get into the academy, they study those subjects because they are what win wars. When was the last time sitting down and having a cup of tea or what have you solved an extremist group from blowing up your house? Exactly, never. The military does what is necessary to keep all of you safe, to the best of their ability, and for you to have all the freedoms that you have. If you do not like it move out of the country and to be on the other side of our F-16’s see how long you last with your other country fighting against us.
Jacob.. You HAD free speech and job opportunities because of my generations giving our youth to WW II. We won that in three years. This military has spent 13 years chasing an amorphous group of radicals and only succeeded in increasing their numbers and destabilizing the world . Your comments about today’s military protecting our free speech and our wonderful democracy is sheer nonsense.
Our schools are falling apart, our roads are pot holed, our government spies on all of us, brave individuals who reveal how our government tortures and kills innocents are put in prison while the torturers are given rich pensions, and your military is stealing the money that should go to educate our youth and all those other good things a free American used to be proud of .
Our Constitution has been shredded by the illegal wars you speak of because our politicians have used them as an excuse to strip jobs from our country, give huge tax breaks to the 1% rich, and allow our congress to be the whores for the corporate rich.
Jacob. You are a citizen of this country first, and only serve and take an oath to preserve the Constitution and the country. You are not a slave of the political class. Some day you will have to rejoin the civilians and you should look at your service in that light and hope it will be a better life than when you went in. Military suicides are now greater than service caused deaths and that is because the country they came back to has not been the country they left.
WWII Vet, thanks for your post!
You touch on several things that are much larger than the original topic, but I agree with you. The actions we have taken since 9/11 have, by and large, burned our future to just barely get by in the present. This will be an interesting chapter when they get around to writing the history books on us.
I really appreciate your perspective. I’m a USAFA graduate with a Political Science and Area Studies degree and taught two foreign languages, area studies, and guest lectured in political science and history courses there from 2007 to 2011. The USAFA experience gave me a a good amount of breadth in STEM, humanities, and social sciences that I can still apply to this day, and I’m very grateful for that. In my second assignment, I had to apply many of the concepts from my astronautical engineering core course, and I did very well. IMHO, the mentality I’ve seen at USAFA and the operational AF is more friendly toward the technical aspect of our profession, and there is a perception that you can’t do much with a social sciences or humanities background outside of the military. When it was time to decide their major, some cadets I mentored felt pressure to major in engineering or management to be able to “make money” later in life. I convinced some of them to join us on the humanities side bust was not able to do so with others.
One of my best professors, who is a close friend to this day, is a passionate historian and would have had a huge positive impact at the Department of History, had he stayed there longer. I still vividly remember his lessons and recommended history lessons and readings on how adversaries, like Mao and Guevara, approached warfare, something the war planners in 2003 clearly missed. I also had some cringe-inducing moments, such as meeting a much higher ranking officer while deployed to the Middle East, who thought Iranians were Arabs, another senior officer who didn’t know where Portuguese was spoken, and another who saw a picture of me in Bogota, Colombia, and exclaimed, “I thought those cities were just a bunch of villages with huts in the jungle!” These well-meaning individuals were USAFA graduates who did not major in humanities or social sciences. Even with officers I supervised, I faced resistance from STEM majors when it came to broadening their understanding of our adversaries. The most memorable response I got form one was, “I don’t need to know what’s going on in Dirkadirkistan.” At the same time, I met STEM majors who epitomized the “renaissance man”. On the other hand, the USAFA humanities and social sciences majors I met in my 20 years of service for the most part had a very good grasp on the technical part of our job.
When I was a cadet, I was part of a roundtable with the Dean of Faculty, who made a small suggestion that has stuck to this day: “While here and after you graduate, don’t lose your intellectual and cultural curiosity.”
Again, thanks for your insight!
There is good news for all those like you who want to see the curriculum of the academies dumbed down in favor of what you call “history and the humanities.” We have been doing it for decades and will continue to do so. Indeed your wish is being granted, and the academies are steadily rolling back the glut of scientific literacy among America’s future leaders. The academies already know how to produce engineers who are not incapable of communicating with people. I must admit, grudgingly, that they also produce less-ditzy humanities graduates than the average institution. I have been taught many things at the academy and in the military, and I have taught myself many things since then, and engineering is the only thing that I could not have taught myself. I can thoroughly engage an economist on the topic of economics, a historian on history, a Muslim on Islam, a politician on politics, a journalist on current events, but absent any formal training, the vast majority of the above would be lost in the sauce in an engineering conversation. While I am sure I could be remanded to sensitivity training for refusing to recognize non-STEM studies as intellectually equal to, but just different from STEM, the truth is not so cuddly. When someone says “I’m not good at math/science person; I’m good at history/English,” I hear, “I’m not good at hard stuff; I’m good at easy stuff.” Hey, me too! In advocating a policy already thoroughly underway, this article seems like gratuitous pandering to leftists, millennials (admitted to the academy to receive a rubber stamp reading “intrinsically special”), and those students who tolerate their few remaining requisite STEM courses moaning, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” The latter, when he is finally allowed to spend the balance of his time at the academy regurgitating a professor’s political opinion and pretending to read classic literature, is the least common denominator to whom the academies’ non-STEM departments must teach these days. Adding more basket-weaving courses at the expense of science and engineering will only further glorify the Glorified Remedial English programs that masquerade as liberal arts.
*not good at math and science;
I have plenty of USAFA grad friends along with other “techie” friends who can barely write competently or know basic US history. We can call that “easy stuff” but so few get really good with the “easy stuff.”
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The argument in the article is fundamentally flawed. It cites that there is too much STEM at the military academies, but provides a caveat that in some cases for the Navy and Air Force it might be okay, but certainly not for the Army. However, the article then proceeds to only use the Air Force Academy as the evidence, and even then there is no real evidence and analysis presented. It took a subsequent comment to smoke out that the core curriculum at USAFA is evenly balanced, and the same is true at USMA as well.
The reality is that the core curriculums provide future officers an opportunity to develop multiple perspectives, both STEM-based and humanities/liberal arts-based. I serve now in a capacity where it is the humanities that provide the foundational thinking. However, the most useful class in developing my thinking has been what is essentially a STEM class on the applied use of advanced statistics. So besides some flawed logic in terms of evidence and analysis, I think that it contains a fair amount of fallacious logic in trying to fully equate STEM=bad and liberal arts = good.
In the end, war is both art and science, and so there is need for both in education. In the younger years of a career, it is more science than art, since tactics are grounded in technology. As one progresses up the levels or war, then art becomes a more domineering influence – this is why JPME turns more towards the liberal arts as it advances.
Reading various comments here and started doing some research. Some really good stuff here:
One interesting excerpt:
“On June 16, 2004 twenty seven former senior U.S. diplomats and military commanders called Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change issued a statement against the war. The group included:
William J. Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Ronald Reagan
Joseph Hoar, former Commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East
H. Allen Holmes, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations
Donald McHenry, former Ambassador to the United Nations
Merrill McPeak, former Air Force Chief of Staff
Jack F. Matlock, Jr., a member of the National Security Council under Reagan and former Ambassador to the Soviet Union
John Reinhardt, former Director of the United States Information Agency
Ronald I. Spiers, Under Secretary General of the United Nations for Political Affairs and a former Ambassador
Stansfield Turner, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency”