- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2005

From the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to the German invasion of France in 1914, the British Army maintained order from Egypt to Hong Kong with an Army that never exceeded 300,000. A “thin red line” of British infantry fought a succession of small wars against mostly tribal enemies, winning virtually all of them quickly. The Achilles’ heel of the Victorian military system was intellectual rather than physical. The demands of defending the empire created an army too busy to learn. For an institution obsessed with active service, time away from campaigning was time wasted. Staff college attendance was considered bad form. Writing about one’s profession gave evidence of a mind unengaged in the necessary business of fighting real wars against real enemies. In the officers’ mess, polite conversation was spent on equine sport rather than the art of war.

The parallels between the British Army then and ours today are striking and disturbing. The American military has become so stretched that it has little time to devote to any activity other than repetitive deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. The strains of overcommitment are evident, most disturbingly in the military’s crumbling academic infrastructure. The Department of Defense is seeking ways to cut drastically the time soldiers spend in school. In World War II, 31 of the Army’s 35 corps commanders taught at service schools. Today, the Army’s staff college is so short of instructors that it has been forced to hire civilian contractors to do the bulk of the teaching.

After Vietnam, the Army sent 7,400 officers to fully funded graduate education. Today that figure is 396, half of whom are studying to join the weapons-buying community. The military school system remains an anachronism of 19th-century pedagogy that fails to make best use of the dismally limited time available to soldiers for learning. Many young officers have voted with their fingers. The most popular learning platforms among lieutenants and captains are self-generated Web sites such as companycommand.com rather than established institutions.

While the press of operations lessens opportunities to learn, experience in Iraq reinforces the belief that the need to learn has never been greater. Soldiers today can no longer just practice the science of killing in order to win. They must understand and be sensitive to alien cultures. They must be skilled in the art of peacekeeping and stability operations. They must be able to operate with coalition partners and work with governmental and non governmental institutions such as the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. Today in Iraq and Afghanistan, junior officers and sergeants make critical life-and-death decisions that were the purview of colonels and generals in previous wars. Thus, in this new and unfamiliar era of conflict, the military must prepare soldiers to think critically and analytically much earlier in their careers.

Who is to blame for allowing the learning deficit within the military to grow so wide? The list of the guilty is long. Congress shares much of the blame. In the past it has had a “show me the money” attitude toward funding military education that required an immediate and demonstrable payback for any fully funded learning program. This policy tended to overstate the need for scientific degrees and minimize opportunities for officers to study culture and the art of war.

This administration is to blame for slighting professional education in an effort to free up the (too small) pool of available soldiers and Marines for deployment into combat. The services are to blame for failing to build progressive learning institutions and to recognize those who demonstrate exceptional intellectual ability. Before Vietnam, some of our best universities, such as Duke, Yale and Princeton, had vibrant defense-studies programs that gave future combat leaders the opportunity to learn from many great teachers of the art of war. For the most part those programs and teachers are gone, victims of an academic culture that somehow believes that ignoring the study of war will make wars go away.

While the British Army obsessed on fighting distant small wars, the Germans, under Helmuth von Moltke, developed a system of disciplined learning that rewarded brilliance and creative thought. During the opening battles of World War I, the Germans taught the British a lesson in blood: In war the intellectually gifted will win over well-practiced dullards every time. Just as the British failed to understand how to transition from small- to large-scale combat, perhaps we are facing a similar intellectual challenge transitioning from large to small wars.

One fact is clear, however. War is a thinking man’s game and only those who take the time to study war are likely to fight it competently. Soldiers and Marines need time for reflection, time to learn, teach, research and write. In this new age of warfare we must do more to prepare soldiers to think as well as act.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales is the former commander of the Army War College.

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