The Contrary Perspective

America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed

The Air Force Academy Chapel: God and Fighter Jets

W.J. Astore

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.