war on the rocks

How to Think Like an Officer: A Prospectus

September 11, 2018

“I’ve got (x) years (or months) to get you thinking like an officer.”

I said this line frequently to my students during my years in the Commandant’s Department at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. The Academy, also known as Kings Point, trains and educates officers for the merchant marine. About 25 percent of all graduates accept active-duty commissions in the armed forces, with the rest required to take a commission in some reserve component. The school is run on military lines with the students ranked as midshipmen, in uniform, and organized into units. In addition to admonishing students, I used a similar line on a few civilian colleagues: “You need to start thinking like an officer.”

When I said it to students, I meant that I wanted them to think like warfighters, like tacticians and strategists. I wanted them to cultivate the killer or predatory instinct needed in a tactician, as well as a knowledge of and respect for the laws and conventions of war, for the serious ethical and human consequences of decisions that they might be making in a matter of months. I also wanted them to start developing a strategic sense, to realize that mere “problem-solving” might not be enough if they were solving the wrong problem, like trying to fix the palace plumbing while Rome burned.

When I said it to fellow faculty members, I usually meant thinking like a committed member of an organization. I would sometimes remind the teachers of “the day.” This was the day when, with a big hole in the side of the ship or bad guys in the wire and no comms, our graduates, now officers, might have to earn the better pay, bigger cabin, perks and prestige of the commissioned person. How, I sometimes asked my fellow teachers and officers, do we get students ready for that day?

What does it mean to think like an armed forces officer? Is there some distinctive mental pattern of officer cognition that can be identified and improved upon? In this article, I contend that “thinking like an officer” should receive more focus in military education. As I have already suggested, officers must think as officers and warfighters. Officer thought is the most defining aspect of military professionalism, more so even than values, character or knowledge, and it has been neglected in officer education and professional military education.

Challenges to Thinking

The challenges of officer thought are great. Officers fill many roles. They lead, command, advise and instruct. They operate at various levels, from the rarefied atmosphere of a service headquarters to a “muddy boots” assignment with a small combatant unit. Officers are expected to think clearly under extremely stressful conditions. War is a protean activity that makes enormous and ever-changing cognitive demands. The officer may have to adapt to changing tactical situations and a shifting strategic context. She may have to change roles from organizer to warfighter to diplomat and back again as quickly as a harried plebe dressing for parade amidst changes in the uniform. These roles may call for combinations of discipline and creativity, of belligerence and empathy. The breadth (if not always the depth) of cognitive demands which officers can be called upon to meet is perhaps unique among the professions. To attempt to think like an officer is to expand one’s mind, and likely in multiple directions at once. The unpredictable nature of military operations also means the officer, no matter how experienced or educated, must be willing to enter a realm of uncertainty, of nearly imponderable and unprecedented factors brought on by the enemy will, by the uncertain impact of technological change, and by unfamiliar histories and cultures. Officers today are learning about the unfamiliar cultures of the Middle East, with the impact on the motives and actions of combatants and others in the region. They are also absorbing the impact of new technologies, perhaps most significantly of the cyber technology that is arguably creating a new domain of warfare as significant as those of land, sea, and sky.

These cognitive challenges and the officer’s way of meeting them define his or her professional identity more than oaths, or uniforms, or even knowledge. In a recent article in The Strategy Bridge, I dissected the intellectual and organizational challenges faced by officers at the strategic level, challenges intensified by the fact that officers spend careers learning to think at the tactical and operational levels of war, developing patterns of thought that may unsuit them to strategic thinking. Here, I take a broader view, addressing the cognitive demands of officership across the spectrum of conflict and also in roles other than warfighter.

Along with (and to a degree contrary to) officers’ extreme focus and discipline is their need for a wide lens encompassing history, language, psychology, and culture. The military culture of discipline and obedience can be the enemy of clear thinking. In fact, as I have argued elsewhere and will here again, the military profession may be considered a branch of the humanities, as a profession requiring lifetime learning and habits of reflection. History offers many examples of officers who expanded their range of capabilities through broad reading and reflection, often on their own. While serving as commandant of the U.S. Army infantry school, George C. Marshall hosted an after-hours discussion group. J. Lawton Collins (like Marshall, a future Army chief of staff), recalls the group addressing subjects that “ranged from geopolitics to economics, psychology, or sociology.” During my tour as a field historian in Iraq, I interviewed a company commander who was holding discussions with local leaders about establishing democracy in the town that was occupied by his company in the weeks following the invasion. He told me that he had been reading a biography of John Adams on the ship prior to the invasion, and that his reading had given him both inspiration and practical advice about building a new democracy.

The Problem Now

There is evidence to suggest that the current caliber of officer thought is unequal to the demands of the times. The failures of the armed forces to achieve policy goals over the past 17 years are an indication that officers have not completely mastered the intellectual demands of their profession in this century, though, to be fair, there is blame to go around for military leadership, civilian leadership, and more. In the case of Iraq, unrealistic expectations, short-sightedness, and poor planning contributed to a bloody and protracted conflict, despite the efforts of dedicated professionals like the company commander mentioned above. Set procedures, an emphasis on tactical solutions, and unrealistic theorizing in too many cases ruled out creative thought and solutions, compounding the failures on the civilian side.

One reason that the caliber of officer thought is inadequate is that the subject per se is generally neglected in military culture and education. There is little encouragement in officer education for thought to become self-conscious, and thereby subject to development. To make an analogy, the service academies used to assume that cadets were absorbing leadership abilities through the example of the commissioned officers with whom they came into contact, but over the past few decades leadership has become a subject for formal instruction, discussion, and critique. The same direct attention should be given to cognition as is now given to leadership. Without this attention, a vital component of officership is left to chance and osmosis, to a vague hope that the study of history, strategy, and other subjects will indirectly cultivate officer thought.

Another distinguished American combat leader and writer, Glover Johns, would enjoin his eager and active young subordinates to sometimes just put their feet up and think. The culture, environment, and tight schedule of military organizations can make this an elusive practice, and even time permitting, thinking is a demanding art that must be understood and practiced.

Daring to Think

The quality of officer thought could be improved by a focused attention that uses the historical record, contemporary events, venerable philosophical ideas, and modern concepts from the cognitive sciences.

In a new book project (one inspired by S.L.A. Marshall’s classic The Armed Forces Officer), I argue that the officer must think in broadly humanist and far-reaching terms, often as scholar, teacher, writer, scientist, and artist. The officer must both overcome institutional, environmental, and psychological impediments to clear thinking, some of them particular to military organizations and the practice of warfare, while also cultivating multiple intelligences, to meet the demands of military professionalism: clear thought under stress, a willingness to face often unpleasant facts, disciplined creativity, and a commitment to constant learning. The officer should also cultivate a proper respect for the long history of her distinguished calling, and for the potential for growth and greater understanding which military service can provide.

Writing of the British army of Marlborough’s time, historian Stephen Saunders Webb calls it “the greatest school of the age.” The armed forces remain a great school, especially if the experience of military service is approached in that spirit. The military officer must be open to instruction and critique from outside but not overly deferential to civil expertise from academe, the commercial sector, even from government. As Marshall remarked to President Franklin D. Roosevelt at one of their earliest meetings after Marshall became Army deputy chief of staff, “I am sorry, Mr. President, but I don’t agree with that at all.”

I will briefly discuss three areas of study that would help to make officer thought more self-conscious and subject to development. The first is a consideration of the intellectual virtues, as outlined by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle’s explication of the five virtues of art, science, prudence, wisdom, and intuition provides an excellent text for a discussion of the diverse types of thinking required of officers. This could be furthered by moving on to the consideration by Thomas Aquinas of military moral prudence. Aquinas argues that military command is not an art (as many have argued or assumed) but that it is more properly understood as an act of moral prudence combining the intellectual and the ethical, reuniting disciplines often left to different people and departments.

Second, students could participate in a cognitively-focused consideration of military history and literature, analyzing the intellectual development and thought patterns of officers and commanders. This should include a study of military incompetence. These approaches have the potential to enrich and contextualize current discussions of leadership and decision-making.

Third, there are areas of cognitive science that merit consideration. This is a diverse field, but Gordon Rattray Taylor’s modern classic, The Natural History of the Human Mindoffers some valuable pointers. Taylor’s strictures on “clever idiots” and “paleological” thinking may be especially pertinent to officers and the combat environment. They are respectively reminders that officers must be able to face a variety of problems, not only those for which they have been trained, and that they must not become what they behold by giving way to simplistic solutions or atavistic impulses under the stress of combat.


In the future, the officer will – as in the past – be tasked to think in circumstances that impede and even seem to defy clear thought. In war, it’s hard to think, and it can even be said that it is hard to think about war. The officer, sometimes the lone officer, will have to keep his head, and the faith, perhaps when all around him are losing theirs. Clear, creative, and principled thought under great stress is the officer’s forte. This subject needs increased attention from educators, mentors, and commanders, although also on the part of individual officers taking charge of their evolving ability to think as military professionals.

There may be a danger in over-intellectualizing the officer’s profession, but there is a greater danger in thinking too little. There are many ways, in addition to my proposals above, to improve the caliber of officer thought. Entry standards could be improved, military education made broader and more rigorous, and more rewards and incentives for officers pursuing intellectual development put in place. Thinking, writing, and talking about how we think, however, ought to be part of the process of improving officer thought.


Reed Bonadonna is a retired Marine Corps infantry officer and field historian. He is currently a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. His book, Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence, was published by the Naval Institute Press in 2017. He has a blog at soldiersandcivilization.com.  

Image: Air Force/Brittany Curry