Ike’s Lament: In Search of a Revolution in Military Education
It was the day after Suzy died. Congressman Ike Skelton’s dearly loved soulmate was gone, and Ike’s call to me that night was heart-rending. Our annual House Armed Services Committee battlefield staff ride was the next day so I assumed Ike was calling to cancel. After offering my condolences, I suggested that we might put off the event until the next year. Ike said no. We’d meet as usual in front of the Russell Building at 8 AM sharp. Then off to Antietam. At the time I wondered why.
Suzy died in the summer of 2005, a time when Ike became, by his own admission, a tortured soul. He was fearful that his signature military reform, the Goldwater-Nichols act of 1986, was failing. Ike’s passion for educational reform in the 1980s was born in the belief that the military had performed so poorly during the invasion of Grenada in 1983 because the services had not learned to fight together. To use the vernacular, Ike was convinced that the services had to learn to fight “joint.” He agreed that individual services were competent at fighting in their respective domains — land, sea, and air — but they failed when brought together to fight as a multi-service team. While others in Congress sought organizational solutions to the problem, Ike believed that true “jointness” could be achieved only by changing military culture and culture could only be changed by reforming how the officer corps was educated.
And just a few years after passage of Goldwater-Nichols, it appeared to Ike that his reforms were working. He was convinced that success in Operation Desert Storm was due in some measure to the intellectual gifts of the “Jedi Knights” — Gen. Schwarzkopf’s brain trust from the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. The most intense object of Ike’s affection were the military’s war colleges. My relationship with Ike started when I was commandant of the Army War College in the mid-1990s. We bonded over our shared passion to make a good system better.
Then came 9/11 and the wars it spawned. By 2005, Ike had concluded that the performance of the generals and admirals was not up to the task of command at the strategic level — that place where warfighting tactics and the operational art intersect with political authority. By then, military leaders had indeed learned to fight “joint” but they seemed incapable of swimming in the sea of political sharks, those policy-making predators inside the Pentagon and Congress who constantly demonstrated a degree of ahistoricism and cultural shortsightedness that shocked us both.
That’s why we went to Antietam.
Out of respect for Ike’s grieving, most House staffers declined our invitation to attend. The bus was mostly empty. Only Ike’s personal staff and a few of his close family members went along. So our conversations were intimate and deep. We stopped for a moment at the battlefield cemetery. Antietam is one of a few Civil War-era National Park cemeteries that hold the remains of soldiers killed in recent wars. Ike’s tortured soul began to show itself there.
At the grave of Patrick Howard Roy, a sailor who died aboard the USS Cole in 2000, Ike remarked under his breath how stupid and needless was the death of this sailor. Sure, the military could fight “joint” thanks to his reforms. But the Cole disaster put paid to the notion that contemporary military leaders could anticipate, conceptualize, or pivot when confronted with an adaptive enemy like al-Qaeda. Most importantly, Ike lamented the inability of uniformed leaders to shape and influence decision making by their political betters. At the time, Ike was engaged in an acrimonious fight with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over the wisdom of the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq. He believed that too many generals were incapable of resisting what clearly was a wrongheaded and shortsighted strategy. I remember his saying: “They agree in my office but roll over when they face Rummy’s wrath.”
The pedagogical system that spawned today’s generation of senior officers is deeply embedded in officer culture. Prior to 9/11, no officer could be promoted to general or admiral without first attending a service specific or joint level war college. The rules have since been relaxed due to the exigencies of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most officers receive their first dipping in higher military operations and strategy at a “staff college,” essentially a mid level education given to officers at about their eleventh year of service. Both schools are selective. In the Army, the Command and General Staff College takes about half of those eligible and the Army War College takes fewer than a quarter. Every service has its own intermediate and senior school. Ike’s great reform was to transform the curriculum and student body of these schools from single service to “joint” institutions.
It was at Antietam that Ike and I concluded that jointness is not enough. We needed another revolution, one based on the objective of creating a body of senior officers of extraordinary intellectual ability. The model of reform most favored by Ike then was SAMS. We both believed then that the secret of professional military education (PME) reform was to build a new system using the proven pedagogical success of SAMS as a model. Reform would be centered on selecting the best and brightest and preparing them to swim with the political sharks.
Ike and I continued to meet after his retirement from the House. The Metropolitan Club was his favorite venue. Much of what follows came from those wonderful talks. But Ike died in 2013. The congressional acolytes he so carefully mentored to take his place as PME reformers gradually left Congress, not yet to be replaced. Passion for educational reform atrophied inside the services. Well-intended efforts by the services to select and educate a new generation of strategic thinkers have either backfired or failed. Sadly, too many of today’s very senior three and four-star generals were too busy fighting to attend war colleges. They made it without senior schooling. So why should they push against the model that made them successful?
Needless to say, the past few years have not been good for PME reform.
But the times may be changing. Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was a student of mine at the War College. Over the years, he’s been a huge supporter of education reform. I suggest that Gen. Dunford’s recently expressed enthusiasm for reform might be the catalyst for a revision of Ike’s original ideas, many of which I’ve internalized and expanded over the years in several service and trade periodicals. A chapter in my latest book, Scales on War, titled “Strategic Genius” is devoted to PME reform. It is, again, a lift from my decadeslong discussions with Ike.
So now we have a window of opportunity to reform PME. To start, let’s begin with restating Ike’s thesis, expressed to me as an intent:
To develop an exceptionally rigorous system of joint selection and education that will produce a cadre of superbly gifted strategic leaders capable of anticipating, planning, and leading in future wars.
How might reform be done? To answer, let’s begin with what doesn’t need to be reformed. The war colleges today do a good job of introducing senior officers to the strategic level of war. They provide a “survey” course in strategy that brings together strategic novices from all services, government agencies, and allied militaries to meet in pleasant surroundings with time to think, study, and get acquainted with their peers and long-neglected families. To be sure, the war colleges could use a face-lift. In many cases the curricula are outdated and some faculty are poorly credentialed. But wholesale efforts to change curricula in the past have resulted in pyrrhic victories, much energy and political capital expended for very little return. Recent efforts to reform war college staffing and organizations have, likewise, been futile. Sadly, most war college senior leaders are untutored in pedagogical issues and too often resort to moving the deck chairs. Very little, if anything, has come from these efforts at structural reform.
As suggested by Ike, meaningful reform must be based on need. What’s the problem? Simply stated: Recent experiences in war strongly suggest that those who rise to the top of the strategic decision-making pyramid are too often poorly qualified for the task. The military isn’t short of strategic talent. The problem is that the military’s promotion and rewards bureaucracies too often fail to clear a path for the most talented to reach the top. Well-educated, strategically gifted officers usually become advisers to four-stars or faculty in service schools. But when senior generals aren’t well-versed in the strategic arts themselves, thoughtful advice from staff colonels too often falls on barren intellectual ground.
The surest way to guarantee the success of PME reform would be to limit the size and scope of the enterprise. Each service has its own educational culture, bureaucracy, funding, and service-specific pedagogical needs. Attempting to reform the gigantic bureaucratic hydra would require more time, political capital, and exhaustive effort than the Defense Department possesses. I suggest that Gen. Dunford’s recently expressed enthusiasm for reform might be the catalyst for a more narrowly effort focused just on the joint educational system.
We begin PME reform by leveraging the bully pulpit of the chairman. Gen. Dunford has two authorities that would be essential to jump-start reform. First, he recommends to the secretary of defense officers for selection to coveted Joint Staff and command positions. Second, he “owns” the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk and National Defense University in Washington. Thus, he would be able to push forward reform with little outside interference or service opposition. In time, the chairman would be able to translate the success of his reform agenda by holding the service PME systems hostage to joint selection and learning standards. No graduate of a service PME school would be eligible for critical “joint” command and staff billets unless they generated parallel programs as rigorous and selective as the reformed joint system.
If the past is prologue, joint PME reform will, in time, shed the need for such coercion by the chairman. During its formative period in the early 1980s, many in the Army leadership resisted the SAMS program mightily. They considered the time spent in school a distraction. Many thought it elitist. All of these antibodies evaporated when combat commanders realized the value SAMS graduates brought to their plans and operational staffs. After Desert Storm, SAMS went from a liability to a priceless asset and the future of the institution became secure. I believe the same will happen once the chairman’s PME reforms prove their value in the field.
Developing these officers will be a long and eliminative process and thus must be limited to only the talent the military needs at the strategic level. Not every officer promoted to flag rank needs to be a professional strategist. Let’s take the joint staff and joint commands as an example. By my rough count, the joint services need about 200 flag officer and senior colonels-in-waiting as strategists. The 200 would include a majority of senior Joint Staff principals, COCOM staffs and commanders, and all the various special staffs and commanders under the chairman’s mantle. I would also include senior officers who the chairman selects for executive branch military assignments in Congress, the State Department, the National Security Council, and elsewhere. A useful addition might include attachés to major allies and potential competitor nations as well as those in the internal think tanks that can be spotted in every joint command.
Joint PME reform is as much a human resources problem as a pedagogical problem. To that end, the chairman should establish a rigorous, intellectually accountable, eliminative system for selecting, educating, and professionally rewarding those few whom the Joint Staff and joint commands need to anticipate, plan, advise, and command at the strategic level of war. Then he should reward their intellectual abilities with promotion to the highest decision-making positions within the joint staff system and within the war-fighting commands he influences directly.
How might we find and assign the best and brightest to these critical joint positions? First, start early. The chairman should have the authority to conduct a Defense Department-wide examination and survey to identify those young captains and lieutenants within all the services who demonstrate promise as future joint service officers. These joint service “apprentices” would then attend a top-tier, fully funded graduate school to study the art of war. To culminate at general and colonel with a cohort of about 200, the chairman should select about 450 potential strategic leaders to allow for attrition from resignations, retirements, and non-select for advancement in the program.
A board consisting of officers from the joint staff and combatant commands would use academic examinations and official records to select the 450 strategic apprentices. These officers would in time develop an official intellectual resume that highlights their academic standing, performance in graduate school, skills as an instructor, and candid comments by commanders and academic mentors concerning capacity for strategic leadership.
As Ike suggested, a system for developing strategic leaders should be built by leveraging the SAMS model, a model that begins at an intermediate level, an operational Joint SAMS, and continues to a strategic Joint SAMS for very qualified lieutenant colonels. If the existing Army SAMS course is to be a proper model for future joint strategic leaders, the joint version will have to be changed to fit the demands of joint service. The course would be two years with preference given to those who remain competitive from the strategist apprentice program. To accommodate such a large cohort, the intermediate joint SAMS would need to be a bit bigger, perhaps 150. Two years in residence would allow the best to complete all coursework requirements for a Ph.D in strategic studies. This cohort would be occupied mostly (but not exclusively) by officers destined for higher command, principally intelligence officers, planners, operators, and combat commanders.
The details will need some study, to be sure. But to prime the intellectual pump, here are a few specific ideas:
The operational Joint SAMS should be established in the Washington area. Its yearly input of 150 students would be very selective. The service chiefs would be responsible for nominating from their respective services about twice the total expected number of attendees. The chairman would select the final attendees strictly by talent (not by service equity) so each chief would be induced to offer their best and brightest for final selection. The chairman’s representatives would then down-select to the 150 entrants using an objective, rigorous process that would include a review of fitness reports, scores on the joint pre-commissioning examination, university transcripts, and GRE scores. The chairman’s learning representative would make final selection using a rigorous written examination that would zero in on creative thinking, personal communications, writing skill and executive military knowledge.
The operational Joint SAMS course would be two years. The rigor of the course would allow for attrition. Those let go would join their regular intermediate service school programs without prejudice. Completion of the course would satisfy not only joint professional military education requirements but also the statutory requirements for joint assignment. Thus, a two-year hiatus would not cut into an officer’s time in the field.
The course would be history-based and conducted using case studies, regional staff rides and complex, force on force, operational-level war games. All extraneous distractions dictated for regular college curricula would be eliminated. The faculty would consist of only the most respected men and women who have proven themselves both as scholars and practitioners of the operational arts. Most would be civilian.
Summers would be spent in an apprentice assignment within the joint or COCOM staffs. Two years in residence will allow some of the brightest and most tenacious Joint SAMs students to complete all requirements for a Ph.D partnering universities selected by the chairman would offer a terminal degree in strategic leadership.
Graduates from intermediate SAMS would receive a joint efficiency report co-signed by faculty and senior joint staff leaders. Unlike academic reports today, these reports will carry enormous weight in selection for future command and staff positions as well as promotions. Graduates would enjoy placement priority in all O-4 and O-5 joint positions. They would be released to their parent services only for command and specialty-qualifying staff positions.
The final step in would be the strategic Joint SAMS. This level would be small enough, about 75, to locate within the confines of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon. Again, entrance would come by written and oral examinations to test objectively an officer’s strategic skills and knowledge. The pedagogical model would be the Army War College Advanced Strategic Arts Program. The career stakes are highest at the strategic level because completion of this course would virtually guarantee promotion to flag officer. Thus, the chairman would have to be personally involved in the entry process. The course would be enormously intense and eliminative. It would involve a degree of intellectual immersion and rigor unprecedented in American higher education. As with the intermediate level, the curriculum would be history-based. Case studies, staff rides and gaming would be used to evaluate student performance. Strategic Joint SAMS students would learn strategy through intense (and eliminative) study and long periods immersed in Joint staffs and combat commands. These field and Pentagon practicums would allow Senior JSAMS students to learn the art of strategic command and leadership by practicing and demonstrating proficiency close to the centers of action. No student would graduate without first successfully defending a Ph.D dissertation.
I would allow for lateral entry into the chairman’s PME program to accommodate late bloomers. Neither Grant nor Eisenhower was recognized for strategic gifts as junior officers. I would not make the senior course rank specific, nor would I necessarily limit it to officers with operational careers. Some of our greatest strategists have been doctors and lawyers. It should also be open to reserve and National Guard officers.
Before critical assignments are made each senior Joint SAMS class would conduct a joint staff ride as its final exam. The ride could be actual or virtual or both. Perhaps the chairman or his vice chairman (but most certainly combatant command commanders selected by the chairman) would observe and make their own personal judgments as to the suitability of each aspirant to senior positions. Senior joint flag officers would put students though a joint intellectual “Ranger School” to assess their ability to think intuitively and perform under pressure.
Some might conclude that such a program is elitist. It is not. All large organizations want the most capable and intellectually gifted to reach the top. This program merely seeks to guarantee that only those gifted with strategic genius become strategic decision-makers and commanders. Likewise, the accountability embedded in such a system would provide an objective and fair barrier that would keep from responsibility those who do not have depth of intellect.
Would the ideas posited above put paid to Ike’s lingering lament that PME reform must “make smarter generals?” I think so, for the following reasons: First, these reforms would leverage the power of the chairman to select, educate, and promote those officers identified through objective evaluation to our nation’s best and brightest. Second, if the chairman holds hostage selection to the most influential flag positions within Joint Staffs and combatant commands, the services would have no choice but to mimic the rigor, selectivity of the Joint SAMS programs within each service PME program. Third, in time, the chairman would be able to loosen his hand on the PME throttle as graduated Joint SAMS officers prove the validity of the program through exceptional and unequal service in battle.
Ike was a people’s Democrat. His constituency came principally from the hard scrabble rural Joes who lacked pretension and distrusted those who pretended to be smarter than they were. So, he was concerned that our program was too “elitist.” My response was that all professions in America are to some extent elitist. Lawyers must pass the bar. Doctors must specialize and be board certified. CEOs must make a profit if they are to keep their jobs. I made the point that in America, cognitive merit increasingly determines who rises to the top. If the military is to be elitist it should be led by a cognitive elite. I reminded Ike that war is a thinking man’s game and the nation, as first order of business, must demand that its sons and daughters are led into battle by men and women who are our cognitive “best and brightest.” Truthfully, Ike never really bought this argument completely.
Ike’s second concern was about the harsh, eliminative nature of our reforms. But I reminded him of what he already knew: War is harsh. And as we have seen throughout our history, mediocre generals get soldiers needlessly killed and put the nation at risk. I’m not sure he completely bought into that either.
But Ike knew in his soul that something must be done, that the revolution he began in the 1980s must be completed.
I suspect he’s reading this now and, as he looks down through those twisted wire reading spectacles he used to wear, he’s saying. “OK, gen’l, I don’t like it all but we have to start somewhere. Press on…”
Let’s start now.
Retired Major General Bob Scales is a former Commandant of the Army War College, an artilleryman and author of the book Scales on War: The Future of America’s Military at Risk, published by the Naval Institute Press. The opinions here are those of the authors and do not represent the positions or views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any organization therein.