July 31, 2008 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Education

On Teaching War: The Future of Professional Military Education

Dickens was right, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." No statement better captures the state of professional military education and the prospects for the future.

Professional military education encompasses all the Pentagon's efforts to imbue the enlisted and officer ranks with the knowledge, skills, and attributes they need to serve the nation. This includes everything from pre-commissioning education at the military academies like West Point and individual soldier basic training to instruction targeted at the most senior generals and NCOs. Military education includes preparing service members for the jobs they are, the ones they are about to undertake, and positions they will as senior leaders.

On the one hand, American professional military education has never been under greater stress. The war tax, the Pentagon's annual ritual of raiding institutional budgets to pay for military operations until supplemental appropriation are approved; plucking staff out of stateside schools for staff jobs overseas; a relentless operational tempo that leaves little time to send the right people to schools at the right time; and outsourcing teaching and thinking to private sector companies are undermining the world's finest military education system.

On the other hand, the military schools in all the services from basic training to the war college's have preformed yeoman's services trying to reorient education courses to give warriors the skills, knowledge, and attributes they need to fight the Long War. At the same time, they have experimented with distributed learning and other techniques and technologies to deliver education to the field. The armed forces have also tried hard, despite the demands to field a combat force, to get more leaders to civilian graduate schools to learn the non-military technical and critical thinking skills required to complement warfighting knowledge.

Compounding the ambiguous state of teaching the military craft is a long list of lessons learned from the first years of the Long War. The service's Cold War practice of linking promotion and education proved a tragic mistake. Post-Cold War military operations have been highly decentralized, requiring men and women at all levels and throughout the force to exercise complex leadership and management tasks. It turns out in the new world disorder, everybody, not just the best and the brightest destined for generalship, requires a very high-degree of professional military competence.

Neglecting the professional education of the reserves, particularly in regard to joint education, was a painful lesson as well. Reserve soldiers serve in staffs at every level on every battlefield and they need to be educated to the exact same standards as their active duty counterparts.

Perhaps the most difficult lesson learned was what the real scope of professional military education should be. The military's role in warfighting was always unquestioned, but its responsibilities in peace operations are both controversial and poorly understood. This reflected the military's traditional approach to post-conflict missions, homeland security, and other interagency operations (where soldiers have to work hand-in-hand with a variety of civilian agencies), which have always been ad hoc and haphazard. The old adage that the military's job is to "win the nation's war" was just stupid. Nations, all the parts of the nation that contribute the war effort, win wars. And, "winning the peace" is part of winning the war as well, and many parts of the nation, including the military, have a role here as well. When American forces prepare to undertake post-conflict missions, they try, as much as possible, to make them mirror traditional military activities. Such an approach can result in the misapplication of resources, inappropriate tasks and goals, and ineffective operations. In addition, the armed forces largely eschew integrated joint, interagency, and coalition operations, as well as ignoring the role of non-governmental agencies. The result is that most operations lack cohesion, flexibility, and responsiveness.

Changing a Military

Saving professional military education from the relentless budgetary pressures to fund other military priorities is continuing challenge. Folding the lessons learned from the Long War into the professional military education system is another. Sustaining the education system is largely a question of maintaining adequate defense budgets--a major battle that will have to be fought in the years ahead. Institutionalizing the lessons of the Long War, however, will require both money and change.

The obstacles to making the military learn more effectively are largely cultural in origin. Therefore, changing military culture could well require a set of initiatives that cut across the services' education, career professional development patterns, and organization. To start with, the skills needed to conduct effective post-conflict tasks require "soft power," not only the capacity to understand other nations and cultures, but also the ability to work in a joint, interagency, and multinational environment. These are sophisticated leader and staff proficiencies, required at many levels of command. In the present military education system, however, much of the edification relevant to building these attributes is provided at the war colleges to a relatively elite group being groomed for senior leader and joint duty positions. This model is wrong on two counts. First, I think these skills are needed by most leaders and staffs in both the active and reserve components, not just an elite group within the profession. Second, this education comes too late in an officer or NCO's career. Virtually every other career field provides "graduate level" education to members in their mid-20s to 30s. Only the military delays advanced education until its leaders are in their mid-40s. That has to change.

Each armed service also need special schools specifically designed to teach the operational concepts and practices relevant to post-conflict missions, homeland security and other critical national security tasks. The services already have advanced schools (such as the Marine Corps School for Advanced Warfighting) for instructing in the operational arts at their staff colleges. These courses train the military's finest planners. The curriculum in these courses should be expanded to include post-conflict missions.

In the future, the attribute most needed by military officers is the critical thinking skills that come from a graduate education program. Thinking skills are the best preparation for ambiguity and uncertainty. Virtually any graduate program would suffice. In fact, the military should seek as broad a range of graduate experiences as possible as a hedge against unexpected operational and strategic requirements.

To build a well-educated, diverse officer and Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) corps, the military should use the free market. A requirement for educating a large pool of military officers will create a vast new demand. Officers and NCOs should have a wide variety of options and opportunities. The primary goal of military education is to teach officers how to think. What or where officers are learning is less important than the types of skills that they are developing--skills that will serve them well in a wide spectrum of situations and conflicts. An officer, for example, can gain the same critical analysis skills from a political science course as from an advanced engineering course.

Finally, moral and political issues are part of war, not a separate sphere that military leaders can ignore. Officers and NCOs will have to engage in the struggle of ideas against terrorism and other ideologies that may emerge in the 21st century. They will have to understand the political dimensions of war and the complexities of civil-military relations. Thus, every program must include at least some element of a classical liberal education to prepare leaders skilled in both the art of war and the art of liberty. Educating a diverse, well-educated officer corps armed with graduate-level critical-thinking skills may be the most important contribution that the Pentagon can make to transforming the military.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First published in The Ripon Forum