What Military Education Forgets: Strategy is Performance


The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy charges that military education “has stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.” This claim has put the military classroom in the spotlight. Jennifer Mittelstadt, Paula Thornhill, David Morgan-Owen, Tammy Schultz, and Richard Andres each offer new, insightful critiques and competing recommendations for how educators should proceed. These valuable contributions enliven the debate about how (or whether) to reshape the military classroom. Yet I wish to challenge a presumption each writer takes for granted. Each presumes, implicitly or explicitly, that a line exists between training for military roles on the one hand and education for critical-mindedness and knowledge of the world on the other.

At times this presumption is explicit and straightforward. Schultz writes, “More individuals are needed in the J-7 [the Joint Staff] who understand the difference between training, for which check-the-block lists and metrics exist and can be executed, and education, which often has longer time horizons and for which efforts to mirror training measurement precision are folly.”  Similarly, Morgan-Owen distinguishes between “training and educational aims” and between “staff training” and “high quality tertiary education,” though he acknowledges the line between the two can be blurry. The distinction in Thornhill’s article is more subdued yet still clear. She prefers classrooms that prepare students for their future organizational roles, criticizing military education for looking too much like “homogenous strategic studies programs, similar to those found at places like Georgetown University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or Johns Hopkins University.” The implicit suggestion is that staffing a senior leader requires different skills from those learned in the field of strategic studies. As Morgan-Owen rightly points out in his response, Thornhill’s analysis implies that education for the security world is not relevant to staff work.

Mittelstadt’s argument tilts in the opposite direction: She seeks to amplify the “college” in “war college” by hiring more civilian Ph.D.s who introduce robust research agendas and diversity of perspectives to the military campus. She posits that the term “war” in “war college” signifies an aim to prepare students either for command or “complex new staff positions,” whereas the term “college” signifies the need to cultivate “educated, informed, critically-minded senior leaders.” Andres posits a spectrum between the overly academic on the one extreme and the overly “military” on the other: On one pole, students risk becoming “flush with idiosyncratic academic irrelevancies” and, on the other, they become “graduates who have not improved their ability to think, adapt, and innovate.”

This presumed distinction, or polarity, between education and the imperatives of military training is unhelpful. My aim here is to outline a vision of curricular and pedagogical practices that break down the binary of military training and civilian education in mid-career and senior-service military classrooms where students learn strategy. I argue that military educators fail to give due appreciation to one undeniable fact: Strategy is not principally a scholarly discipline, like political science, history, or psychology. Strategy is a practice. Strategy is performance. This fact leads to three provocative conclusions. First, significant improvements in military education are possible today; however, substantive reform would require the pedagogical boldness necessary to transform the military classroom from a place where students talk about strategy into a workshop where students do, or craft, strategy. Second, responsible strategic work entails configuring and visualizing a strategic landscape graphically. This work, which is cognitively and affectively demanding, would help remediate a well-documented shortfall of the U.S. military. Third, the bright-line distinction between education and training is an unhelpful convention that dissipates when military students practice crafting research-driven strategies for real-world national-security and military problems.

Today, the standard method of instruction in many mid- and senior-level military education classrooms is the seminar discussion. This classroom technique requires students to read a series of texts, prepare notes that attempt to answer the lesson outcomes, and contribute to a lively discussion about these texts during seminar. The teacher’s main concern in this practice is to facilitate discussion as well as to elicit and assess “contributions” from each student. I propose and defend a different approach.

The Military Classroom as Workshop

I define strategy as first, the competent and responsible application of judgment to realize a desired future, whether exercised by a second lieutenant or a four-star general, and second, that hoped-for but fugitive coherence achieved when the activities of a government, including its military, are competently aligned with responsible policy aims.

Strategy is performance; it is not simply a discipline one can read about, discuss, and master. My approach is to convert the military classroom into a workshop wherein students do strategy: They conduct research on a given problem, posit hypotheses about the problem’s dynamics, proposed desired outcomes, and posit recommended interventions. The key idea is that strategy – like music, or athletics, or medicine — entails doing something. And this means it can be done well or poorly. If strategic performance is to be competent, it requires repeated (and, I emphasize, repeated) practice. Military students must practice creating, designing, and developing strategies. However, as the Army Research Institute’s Angela Karrasch has pointed out to me privately, learning outcomes in military curricula too often do not prompt students to “create,” or “design,” or “develop.” Yet this is exactly what students must do upon graduation: They must create, design, and develop ways to solve intractable problems – regardless of where they serve.

Military education’s most critical flaw is that it is oriented on the false idea that one can train strategists via daily discussions of books and articles. Facilitated classroom discussions do have their place. And so too does the much-maligned lecture. Sometimes students need to listen, take notes, and learn about some dimension of the world before attempting some skill. And sometimes a classroom discussion helps engender clarity, debate, and insight. Yet, staff and war colleges will have to reconsider their attachment to seminar discussion and its potential to cultivate competent strategic practitioners.

Karrasch, in a 2014 presentation to the Board on Army Science and Technology, stated that the predominant learning outcomes in the U.S. Army mid- and senior-level military colleges’ programs of instruction expected students to analyze, summarize, evaluate, and comprehend.  Facilitated discussions do indeed conduce to these outcomes, but they are less helpful in encouraging students to create, propose, design, formulate, scan the environment, and explore – outcomes she didn’t see much of.

The workshop, not the seminar, should be the central experience of the military student. This approach is possible today. While teaching at Fort Leavenworth, I created and ran a six-month “scholars program,” called The Local Dynamics of War, from 2012 to 2014 for select groups of mid-career students. Students in the program cultivated fundamental analytical skills related to causal analysis, complexity, institutional analysis, narrative framing, and ethics. Once equipped with these analytical tools, these professionals repeatedly applied them to a series of real-world challenges in Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Students’ desks were littered with scholarly articles from Perspectives on Politics, copies of Joint Forces Quarterly, notes from discussions with international students with local knowledge, and library books. Students were working collaboratively in groups and around white boards, and they were arguing — in the highest sense of the term — about causal dynamics in the environment, the efficacy of whole-of-government and multinational interventions, the appropriateness of various competing political and military ends, and the optimal role for and employment of the military.

The Local Dynamics of War seminar shows that it is possible, at zero financial cost, to transform the military classroom from a place where students talk about reading assignments into a workshop where they engage in strategic practice. This approach enables students to learn powerful analytical techniques, confront real-world, intractable conflicts, and integrate this learning into strategy formulation and military planning. Whereas today’s military classroom requires students to sit in seminar to share their views about a specific text, tomorrow’s classroom should require students to craft strategies for real-world challenges in a workshop environment.

Some educators will argue that existing curriculum does include problem-solving exercises. But these exercises are extraordinary events, not routine practice; the students approach these exercises superficially because little or no outside, real-world research is necessary. Most importantly, these exercises tend to be based on fictional scenarios that short-circuit research skills and miss those key sociopolitical dynamics that cause real relations to go awry. As the Remote Warfare Programme suggests, no scenario is able to capture the complexity of an intractable problem’s real dynamics.

The Importance of the Environment

Educators and military professionals must strengthen their understanding of the environment.  This effort requires a new educational practice. Observers of the U.S. military, to include persons and organizations inside and outside of the military community, identify a critical shortfall among military professionals: the failure to understand the environment in its full sociopolitical, economic, technological, culture, ethical, and lethal complexity. Gideon Rose, Nadia Schadlow, Linda Robinson et al., Richard Hooker et al., Raymond Odierno et al., and the Joint Staff have each leveled stinging yet constructive critiques of the military’s strategic performance. I have offered my own critiques in Joint Force Quarterly and The Strategy Bridge.

These thinkers claim that the U.S. military repeatedly fails to manifest an adequate understanding of the strategic environment. Yet this should come as no surprise given that military educators are not in the habit of demanding that their students actually practice — again and again — the education-fueled work required by the military’s own planning conventions. Despite the critiques, I am not convinced military educators are adjusting curricula and practices in response.

Military planners should know how to craft strategies that allow for an adaptable and politically aware orchestration of the musicians of Mars. Lethality does matter. Yet strategists must base their thinking on a visualization of a strategic environment or landscape. They should create a graphic image of the reality that they hope to both navigate as an obstacle course and transform as a landscape.

The environmental visualization is common for boots-on-the-ground leaders. Rifle-carrying lieutenants and captains learn early in their training that by visualizing a piece of terrain and enemy capabilities, constraints come to the fore. A mountain there, a river crossing here, and a tree line over there conspire to constrain maneuver. But the obverse is true also. It is the very visual depiction of mountains, rivers, trees, and enemy capabilities that highlight opportunities for maneuver. No tactical leader worth her salt would proceed on a mission without developing a visual depiction of the landscape she must both navigate and change. Good tactics educators teach young officers how to visualize enemy troops and the terrain by insisting upon the building of terrain models and the conduct of rehearsals. The movie Gettysburg provides a vivid cinematic portrayal of a tactical leader, Gen. John Buford, performing this visualization, showing how this practice helps identify opportunities for maneuver amid constraints.

If competent maneuver in tactics requires a visualization of constraints and opportunities, what about strategic performance? How is it possible to identify constraints and opportunities in the environment if one has not created a depiction of the strategic landscape akin to the platoon leader’s visualization of her tactical environment?

Educators of strategy must impart to their students the skill of researching and “seeing” the strategic environment, which is replete with intermingled political, economic, technological, cultural, ethical, and lethal dynamics. Students must then cultivate the skills necessary to visualize and graphically depict this environment. White boards are useful in this regard.  Students who work together to configure a visualization of the environment on a white board provide a focal point for dialogue and debate about ongoing dynamics and potential interventions. In doctrine, the practice of military design encourages military professionals to do this sort of visualization; however, in practice, such white board work is too often neglected.

It follows that the closest thing in the U.S. military community to the strategic visualization I describe above comes in the form of a military command’s written statement of the “operational environment.” The most prominent recent examples are the latest National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. But these and other statements like them invariably offer little more than a serial listing of potential threats and challenges.  These are not configured visualizations — just lists. These documents consistently include Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, transnational criminal organizations, demographic shifts, climate change, technological advances, and so forth. These lists fail to vividly and graphically depict constraints and, consequently, opportunities. The documents betray an unintentional neglect among the strategic community since responsible strategic action is impossible without a coherent visualization of constraints and opportunities.

Imagine a young intelligence officer telling his battalion and company commanders that the mission they are about to embark upon will present their soldiers with a generic list of challenges: “Sir, you and the company commanders will encounter a variety of terrain features, changing weather conditions, an array of small-arms fire, varying amounts of mortar and artillery fire, and unforeseen elements of surprise.” Such unhelpful analysis would get this young intelligence officer fired, but this level of cognitive work gets a pass when higher-level headquarters attempt to render the strategic landscape.

Military leaders must cultivate a sophisticated knowledge about the sociopolitical and lethal environment in which they will intervene. Advocates of civilian Ph.D. educators, such as Mittelstadt, seem to recognize the need for social-scientific and historical knowledge, which underpins the cognitive work necessary for environmental understanding. These advocates’ concern is rightly placed. A dominant theme running through many of the aforementioned critiques of U.S. strategic performance is the military’s failure to apply due diligence to political factors. This includes the failure to recognize the inextricable link between military gains and political outcomes and to adequately understand the environment’s sociopolitical, economic, technological, cultural, ethical, and lethal dynamics.

Military classrooms must respond to these critics who charge that military professionals fail to understand the environment in its full sociopolitical complexity. In the Army’s vernacular, this shortfall is the military’s number-one “after-action review’ comment. Military professionals must learn how to configure the environment, and practice doing so repeatedly in the classroom.

Education and Training: An Overwrought Distinction

Training and education in the military classroom are so intertwined as a practical matter that it does harm to insist upon the distinction. The best way to practice strategy formulation is to practice confronting real-world problems in their full complexity. Such an approach, with intertwined — minute by minute — education and training, renders the distinction irrelevant.  Teachers in military colleges and universities should train their students in analytical techniques useful for learning about the world. They should require students to apply these techniques to real-world security challenges, whether organizational (how do we posture the U.S. military for war in 2030?) or geopolitical (what do we do about Russia vis-à-vis Europe?). Finally, teachers should require students to identify constraints and opportunities based on a graphic depiction of the environment that makes up the gist of a policy, strategy, or military plan.

My personal research focus is on political judgment, which (as I frame it) explores how best to combine the scholarship relevant to high-stakes situations and the practical work of the practitioner, whether she is a military professional, a diplomat, or a development-aid worker.  This work leads me to suggest that a certain group of people with the requisite skills, confidence, and autonomy must serve as curators of the most useful civilian scholarship in their respective fields. These curators must cultivate in military students a measured, lay facility with this scholarship. And they must show — by daily example — how this scholarship can inform strategy formulation and military planning.

If I’m right — and I’m eager to hear opposing views — the implications for reforming military education are sobering. Sending military students to civilian graduate schools is certainly worthwhile, and so too is hiring more top-notch civilian scholars like Mittelstadt, Kristin Behfar, Paul Kan, and Vanya Bellinger. But these moves alone do not solve the technical problems of curatorship.

To be sure, a room full of top-tier political scientists or historians can apply scholarly methods, produce new knowledge, and engage in edifying conversations. But a room full of scholars is not the same as a room full of competent strategists and military planners. A group that excels in discourse does not equate to a group that can do strategy. The military and civilian educators we hire must come to appreciate the military students’ obligation repeatedly practice configuring a visual depiction of a given problem’s relevant strategic environment and, in so doing, an awareness of potential sites and modes of intervention.


Strategy is performance, and performance requires practice. This argument has implications for the military classroom. The balance of classroom work must shift away from daily Socratic discussions and more toward roll-up-the-sleeves practice and performance. Curricula must demand that students create, design, and develop strategies to solve problems, which is what they will have to do upon graduation. Military students should routinely tackle real-world challenges in their full complexity, and they should feel this work in their guts. They must practice arguing about causal relationships in the environment and about how various strategic interventions might unfold amidst the world’s messiness. Students must learn to establish appropriate ends or objectives and to fold an ethical mindset into every dimension of their work. None of this strategic work is possible without an ongoing, critical exploration of the world and its causal and normative dynamics. Thus, students must learn to canvass perspectives or, put otherwise, do research. And, finally, students must learn how to promote their hard-won strategies and plans in the relevant decision-making corridors. Each of these activities entails practice. Strategy is not solely a discipline. Strategy is performance.


Celestino Perez, Jr. is an active-duty colonel in the U.S. Army.  He is an Army strategist who teaches national security strategy and policy at the U.S. Army War College.  He is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Army War College and holds an MA and Ph.D. from Indiana University at Bloomington in political science/political theory.
Image: Air Force photo/Kenji Thuloweit