Why Our Generals Can’t Think

by Braxton Taylor

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Having read Franklin Foer’s account in the October issue of The Atlantic describing the disastrous evacuation of Afghanistan, I was struck by what it did not contain. Nowhere in the months leading up to the withdrawal did a senior military leader question the choice of Kabul’s Karzai International Airport over the more defensible Bagram military air base.

The military chain of command knew an evacuation was imminent for months, and the Kabul airport was even more vulnerable to attack than the disastrous French position at Dien Bien Phu during the first Vietnam war. Despite that, not a single general officer, beginning with the secretary of defense — a retired general — raised an objection to the State Department’s choice of the Kabul Airport. One of two things happened here: Either they lacked the moral courage to speak up, or they did not know. In either case, I am convinced that the deplorable state of our military professional education system lies at the root of the problem.

Related: Why Our Generals Don’t Win

A misguided attempt to reform professional military education (JPME) in the 1980s led by the late Ike Skelton and other military reformers in Congress mandated that masters-level degrees be granted at all command and staff colleges, as well as a required study in “jointness.” This forced all the military midlevel colleges to make room in their courses of study to accommodate the requirements of civilian academia to grant an advanced degree. What got lost in the mix was the serious study of the military profession that was formerly required.

Command and staff colleges had traditionally been the places where aspiring senior commanders really learned their trade as majors or lieutenant commanders. This used to include a serious study of military theory, history and staff planning. That is not currently the case.

Today, seminar groups are led by two instructors — one a uniformed officer and the other an academic. There is generally no requirement that either be an expert in combined-arms combat on land, in the air, or on the sea. In some cases, they’re simply not knowledgeable about the study of war.

If there is a constant in the military profession, it is that the great captains — with the possible exception of born military geniuses such as Genghis Khan — have been keen students of history. The greats, from Alexander to Patton, have been avid readers of history, through which they learned the patterns of conflict. War is largely immutable. Technologies change, but the nature of war largely remains the same. Even Genghis — who was probably illiterate — sent his aspiring commanders to study under his great subordinate Subutai, arguably one of the great strategic and operational geniuses of history. Patton could see a situation in Sicily that reminded him of a similar battle in the Second Punic War. Offering second-rate advanced degrees in national security studies or international relations is no substitute for the serious study of war. Advanced degrees can be obtained through the GI Bill.

What retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper calls recognitional decision-making cannot be taught; it must be absorbed through a thorough study of the profession. This includes the capability and moral courage to make the right decision under pressure. But there is also a need to have the wisdom to know when to say “no” to a patently stupid order or plan.

That includes the tact to convince senior civilians that there are better alternatives and the moral courage to offer to resign if an order is illegal or immoral. I firmly believe that our general officers who orchestrated the Kabul fiasco were unprepared to make those key decisions because of a lack of competent professional military education. That does not mean that we don’t still produce some good generals, but my experience has been that they are largely self-taught by a rigorous process of independent professional reading. They have succeeded largely despite an ineffectual JPME system.

Our command and staff colleges should require a program of rigorous reading of military history interspersed with periodic exercises that require the students to make sound decisions, and insist that they be able to issue clear plans and orders based on those decisions. Those who show wise and decisive decision-making capability can be identified for command-oriented tracks, while those more inclined toward staff work can be pointed in that direction.

Some will be able to do equally well and should be marked as having the potential to go much further. Others who can’t do either should be culled and prevented from further promotion. This system may sound Darwinian, but we entrust the lives of our children to these people. Our kids and grandkids deserve the best we can do for them. We did not get that in Kabul.

When I was an officer candidate, our staff platoon commander, Lt. James Webb — a highly decorated combat veteran, encouraged us to read and write about our profession and not become ignorant “lifers.” He went on to become secretary of the Navy and a U.S. senator. Today, far too many ignorant lifers are senior flag officers.

— Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer who served as a special adviser to the deputy secretary of defense and as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lectures on Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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