The Best Defense

What exactly did Tom say about military education at last week's FPRI hoedown?

Here's my prepared text from the FPRI discussion of professional military education (PME) last week. This isn't exactly what I said, but is pretty close. If you listen to the audio you'll hear I also riffed a bit, but this is close enough.

Despite what you may have heard, I am not an opponent of PME. I am a big fan of it -- or at least of good PME.

I have read enough history to be persuaded that the key ingredient in officership in the interwar period was a good, rigorous educational system, with grades and class rankings. At the end of World War II, one German general (Von Rundstedt) said in 1945, "We cannot understand the difference in your leadership in the last war and in this. We could understand it if you had produced one superior corps commander, but now we find all of your corps commanders good and of equal superiority." The reason seems to have been the quality of professional education Army officers received in the 1920s and 1930s. 

I agree entirely with Professor Johnson-Freese: She nails it. The problem is lack of rigor, precision, challenge. The faculties are too often weak and superficial. The leadership too often is unknowledgeable. The students do not learn how to think critically.

But you know what? It is not my problem. It is the problem of the PME establishment.

By that, I mean that I don't have to do anything. The federal government's budget crunch is going to take care of much of this. I suspect that in the coming decade, any institution, department, or individual that cannot demonstrate a clear, positive contribution is going to get axed. Rather, my concern is that the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater. There is a lot of good in military education, but if you let the bad persist, it will drag down the rest. So if you value the good being done, you will be vigilant in policing the lazy, the stupid, the careless, the slacker colleges. And many of us know who those are.  

One quibble: I do wonder if the war colleges, staff colleges and academies are fulfilling their role as internal critics of the institution. I have not seen a critique of Army leadership, for example, any where as near as incisive at the Army War College's 1970 study on professionalism. Has the track record been perfect over the last decade? Looking at Tora Bora, Abu Ghraib, Black Hearts -- I don't think so. Isn't it time for such a review-how did we do over the last 10 years, what worked, what didn't? Where is the introspection that would be a sign of a healthy intellectual climate?


The Best Defense

Back when it was not uncommon to lose every officer in a battalion in a battle

I've been reading Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War, by John Lewis-Stempel. I bought it in a store in St. Ives, Cornwall, on a stormy day when the tops of the gray waves off the Irish Sea were hitting the slate roofs of waterfront houses in the town. (But in Doc Martin, wasn't Cornwall always sunny?) 

One thing that has really struck me in the book is how often battalions would lose many or even all their officers in a battle. "I ended up the only officer in the battalion," wrote 2nd Lt. Stuart Cloete, who was 19 years old. Of the 30 officers in one battalion of the East Surry Regiment who went into a battle on the Somme, four came back.  And the 6th Battalion of the King's Own Scottish Borderers lost every one of its 20 officers in an attack on September 25, 1915. If I recall correctly, Robert Graves wrote in Good-bye to All That that as a lieutenant he went on leave and returned to find himself the senior surviving officer in his battalion.     

I also was struck by the narrowness of military history in the small bookstores I visited in Cornwall. Basically, they are about the British in the two world wars, with a soupcon of the Falklands and Iraq tossed in. I can understand not paying much attention to the Americans, but how about ancient history at least?

And has anyone read Emperor Maurice's Strategikon? Worth reading?