What Cadets Should Study - and Why Military History is Not Enough

West Point cadets departing for a two month-long trip to study European Great War battlefields in the summer of 1919.

West Point cadets departing for a two month-long trip to study European Great War battlefields in the summer of 1919.

Note: We're revisiting some of our most popular material from the past 10 months for our newer readers; this was originally posted June 4, 2014. Enjoy!

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

My last essay - on a representative list of questions West Point does not emphasize - generated some  strong feedback.  In the spirit of discussion, I feel obligated to address some of these criticisms. For example, via email I received a message with this question:

"Is the reason why war fighting and academic education are stove piped, is because the Army doesn't want officers to have to 'think' during combat operations?" 

There are clearly times when officers must respond reflexively and times where they ought to pause and consider the strategic effect of their tactical actions.  This is akin to the two systems of thinking Daniel Kahneman describes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Officers should always be thinking - the type of thinking will differ according to the military situation they find themselves in.  

The argument I advance is a simple one: West Point does not currently offer any regular study of modern war that is relevant to the needs of soon-to-be junior Army officers.  It should.  In fact, as I'll describe at the end of this essay, and as the picture above depicts, this is an old idea that ought to return to cadet education.  To develop this idea, what will follow is a list of my responses to the comments (which can be viewed here) from the original essay.

1. Measuring Effectiveness in COIN:

James highlighted some challenges with measuring effectiveness in counterinsurgency warfare, particularly the “development and reliable measures of effectiveness as opposed to simplistic measures of performance.”   His comment proposed dropping the word "tactical," so the question would read: “How should we measure effectiveness in counterinsurgency operations?”  I agree with the amendment; my original phrasing was simply more specific to junior officer concerns.

2. On Suitability for Cadets:

In Michael's comments, there are two statements with which I'd disagree. The first is that, “cadets and junior officers are not necessarily equipped or expected to deal with these weighty issues.”  I'd counter that the information-heavy (You Tube, etc.) operating environment, current organizational imperatives (i.e. U.S. Army's Regional Alignment of Forces), and the profession itself - all demand junior leaders with a sense of strategic understanding.  Ready or not, lieutenants must possess a base knowledge of military strategy. Second, on the point that “these questions would be better suited for the captains’ career course [or a master’s program].”  While I agree that these questions should be consulted continually (i.e. lifelong, evolving study), the challenge with CCC is that it lacks qualified faculty.  This is West Point’s institutional advantage – it has both the academic firepower and the military faculty to bring to bear on these issues.

3. On Whether the 10 Questions are Already Addressed in the Curriculum:

Three comments (from Gregory, Tanner, and Jim) all hit on a similar thread: that these questions are already being effectively responded to in the curriculum at West Point. Tanner: “strategic level concepts and problem solving are not left out of the West Point curricular equation.”  Gregory: “These questions…were all debated and discussed extensively when I was there from 2002-2006…Not sure what has changed.”  Jim: “I think a lot of this was dealt with in my day (and still is) in the core History of the Military Art course and an elective I took, History of Revolutionary Warfare…[As an adjunct faculty member, I observed] many of these types of questions are dealt with in capstone seminars for the [senior Social Science] majors.  I think #3 doesn’t get answered until Ranger School, which does a fine job with 2LT’s.”

Consolidated Response: Though there are opportunities for cadets to engage with military strategy and the academic study of modern war - these are limited, scattered, ad hoc, and most importantly, not required.  It is not one of the Dean’s 31 "Domains of Knowledge" which form the individual objectives across all academic programs.  As baseline strategic education is not an organizational priority, it simply follows that what is available is unresourced and inconsistent.  It sits in the canyon between the Dean and the Commandant; both programs graze the surface of the list of ten questions, but fall short of directly addressing them.  Military tactics focuses on the practical and tactical; building platoon leaders as solid as oak trees, while what I describe is more about seeing the "forest" of modern combat.  International relations and political science provide logic and theory at the broadest level – but John Mearsheimer’s offensive realism isn’t all that relevant to a platoon leader in Afghanistan.  In my opinion, we incorrectly assume that all cadets have a firm grasp of this in-exhaustive list of questions based on the sum total of the parts of their education. They don't. Which brings me to military history.

I tread carefully here because I respect historians so much.  I consider history both foundational and necessary (see “When Warfare Rhymes”)  – yet still not sufficient for the modern junior officer.  To take two examples provided in the comments: first, Gregory mentioned that my question #8 regarding logistics was at least partially addressed by employing the historical example of the “operational logistics necessary to carry out the Napoleonic campaigns.”  Though important, there is clearly more to the story for a modern American junior officer.  The sheer distances involved, the speed with which requests are filled – just think of the changes that have taken place in the past 20 years, let alone the last 200.  Lieutenant General "Gus" Pagonis (Gulf War general in charge of logistics) wrote a book about “moving mountains” for Desert Storm.  Today, just-in-time processes ensure that there are no “mountains” which pile up at any point on the supply chain.

Another example comes from Jim, and the elective he took while at the Academy in the early 1980s on the "History of Revolutionary Warfare.” To demonstrate the insufficiency of this for a modern junior officer, we should consider the recent example of Osama bin Laden.  As David Kilcullen observed, “If bin Laden didn’t have access to global media, satellite communications, and the Internet, he’d just be a cranky guy in a cave.”  Moreover, journalist George Packer interviewed Kilcullen in 2006 on the same point:

“After Kilcullen returned from Afghanistan last month, he stayed up late one Saturday night (‘because I have no social life’) and calculated how many sources of information existed for a Vietnamese villager in 1966 and for an Afghan villager in 2006. He concluded that the former had ten, almost half under government control, such as Saigon radio and local officials; the latter has twenty-five (counting the Internet as only one), of which just five are controlled by the government.”

All this is not to deny history's importance.  Just that it is not enough.  This is not the first time the idea has been advanced.  In 1961, Sir Michael Howard famously wrote on “The Use and Abuse of Military History,” which offered “three general rules of study” for “the officer who studies military history as a guide in his profession and who wishes to avoid its pitfalls.”  He advised study in “depth,” “width,” and “context.”  Though history is well equipped to provide both depth and width – a crucial background – it cannot traverse the last mile to the study of today's warfighting context.  And this is what is lacking. Optimally, when cadets study both military history (depth and width) and modern war (context) as Sir Michael counseled, they can draw comparisons and separate the character of conflict from the stable continuities in war across time. 

4. On West Point's Graduates Preparedness: 

On Jim’s point that “[West Point] does an excellent job of…graduating 2LT’s who are more than ready to assume their roles as Army officers.”  Although I’m also a graduate, and deeply proud of my cadets, I have to ask a question a social scientist might: by what metric?  I’m not sure what measure we would use; the data is not entirely encouraging. For evidence, see Fiasco, Chapters 8 and 9 (“How to Create an Insurgency, I” and “II”) and Chapter 12 (“Descent Into Abuse”). They document a junior and mid-career officer corps that forgot how to identify, describe, and diagnose an insurgency.  Though there is ample place to criticize Mr. Ricks, these chapters are largely based on legal and courtroom testimony, which are very hard to refute. West Point Professor Emeritus, Colonel (Ret.) Don Snider, drew the same conclusions from the performance of the officer corps in Iraq:

"Baghdad 2003, a brilliant campaign…decapitated the capital, occupied the capital. The same kind of expert knowledge displayed in that armor offensive that was displayed in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, when we kicked Iraq out of Kuwait. The same kind - brilliant.

And what happened for the next year and a half? An insurgency developed, and our soldiers on the ground and their uniformed leaders on the ground could not even recognize the insurgency let alone fight it. Why? One of the most embarrassing periods in the United States Army's history, what happened? The United States Army had lost the expert knowledge of counterinsurgency. It had atrophied. We had no doctrine. We hadn't been teaching it at our schools. There was not hardly an officer serving in Iraq at that time in the whole corps that had marched that had ever studied seriously counterinsurgency."

This isn’t to suggest that West Point is failing to produce great graduates – it is, and will continue to do so. In my estimation, these cadets succeed in spite of this missing component of their education.  West Point is not perfect; there is room for improvement. 

5. On West Point's Educational Priorities: 

On Jim's statement, “You’ve got your list of what you think are the most important things they should learn. I guarantee every department head has a similar list and wishes he or she had more cadet time to teach that department’s priorities. It’s hard to say yours are more important…”

Not more important, but certainly as important - a course dedicated to the study of modern war merits at least some time in the curriculum.  Cadets currently take four semesters of math, history, and in an engineering sequence – do we not have room to teach a basic survey course in military strategy to all of West Point’s cadets?  When I tell family members and other civilians that military strategy is not required at West Point – they are shocked.  Even more so if I take the time to mention that the U.S. Air Force Academy requires two such courses.

I'll finish by making good on my promise from the beginning of the essay.  As labeled, the photo is of cadets departing in June 1919 to study still-warm Great War European battlefields for two months. This strategic battlefield assessment is exactly the kind of study we ought to bring to our cadets.  Perhaps we should look to our traditions for guidance.  This post-WWI generation of officers did so and it worked out well for them. To paraphrase General MacArthur, "Studying the fields of current strife sows the seeds that on other days, on other fields, will bear the fruits of victory." 

 

**Note: All this is by way of friendly discussion – I greatly appreciate the back-and-forth.  Many of the comments indicated the same.  I’d also be remiss if I didn’t extend the invitation to all those that took the time to comment to write something to be published on the site.  The site will only survive if it is fueled with ideas and quality writing – something these comments exemplified in spades.