On the Path to Intellectual Overmatch

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Two brand-new Joint Chiefs of Staff publications have rekindled the often-impassioned debate at the nation’s war colleges over the future of joint professional military education. On May 1, the Joint Chiefs issued their vision and guidance statement entitled Developing Today’s Joint Officers for Tomorrow’s Ways of War: The Joint Chiefs of Staff Vision and Guidance for Professional Military Education & Talent Management. Two weeks later came the publication of the latest Officer Professional Military Education Policy. In the works for a couple of years, both documents reflect critical evolutions in how the U.S. military will develop its officer corps. While Vision and Guidance is essential to understanding the Joint Chiefs’ intent for leadership development as a whole, the Officer Professional Military Education Policy is the point of departure for curriculum design and execution.

On May 18, James Lacey, a senior faculty member at Marine Corps University, fired a salvo in a War on the Rocks commentary entitled “Finally Getting Serious About Professional Military Education.” He uses the Joint Chiefs’ Vision and Guidance to advocate for prioritizing the study of military history and employing wargames. This argument is one that he has forcefully made in the past and — like anything the esteemed professor writes — merits serious consideration. One would be forgiven for coming away from his article believing the Joint Chiefs of Staff have now endorsed Lacey’s vision for professional military education. However, to advance his points, Lacey invokes a narrow reading of Vision and Guidance and goes too far in prescribing program requirements not mandated in either the Joint Chiefs’ statement itself or the new Officer Professional Military Education Policy. The Vision and Guidance deserves to be read more broadly as it breaks other important new ground. For example, the Joint Chiefs plan to synergize duty assignments and professional military education in a whole new way.

Flexibility of Approaches

Lacey begins by correctly citing the National Defense Strategy’s admonition that joint professional military education has “stagnated.” However, Lacey goes on to proclaim that, “in perusing [Vision and Guidance], it becomes clear that the Joint Chiefs are casting almost all the blame for this failure on senior-level professional military education.” A more careful reading of Vision and Guidance undercuts this assertion rather clearly. While the Joint Chiefs demand rapid, substantial improvements, the document does not single out senior developmental education — or any other facet of professional military education — for disproportionate criticism. Indeed, the document is almost exclusively forward-looking and is better understood as a call for cultural change across the entire leadership development enterprise. In fact, Vision and Guidance frames the entire leadership development picture, beginning with pre-commissioning and continuing through flag rank. Rather than focusing on any one program, the new document calls for a deep, robust cultural and intellectual shift across the joint force. Education ought to move from a collateral facet of an officer’s career to a central aspect of her service.



Vision and Guidance recognizes that complexity across the five battlefield domains will require officers to have a heightened level of intellectual prowess. America’s inability to rely on mass or superior technology will make warfighting more complicated than it has been at any point in recent memory.

Just as a new physician or attorney embarks on a lifelong commitment to learning, so too must the freshly commissioned soldier, airman, sailor, or marine. For doctors and lawyers, one’s professional development characteristically consists of constant reading, gradual specialization, and periodic returns to the classroom. Over time, the need for maintaining knowledge currency is internalized. Once implemented, the Joint Chiefs’ Vision and Guidance will make constant learning foundational to an officer’s professional success — like in other professions that are rooted in great complexity.

Next in his article, Lacey argues that “in no uncertain terms, the Joint Chiefs are directing professional military education schools to cease what they are currently doing in the classroom.” He also asserts that the “vision demands large increases in the use of history-based case studies.” To be clear, this assertion is not what the Joint Chiefs wrote. Again, while major changes in joint professional military education are called for, the Joint Chiefs are far more openminded than Lacey suggests. Yes, the Vision and Guidance document states, “methodologies [that] include [emphasis added] the use of case studies grounded in history” should be incorporated into joint professional military education. However, the Joint Chiefs are equally clear that this guidance is not a limitation on pedagogy. On the contrary, they stress that “to move to a higher trajectory, we must remove constraints on student learning by supporting various learning styles, behaviors, and individual desires.”

To fully appreciate Vision and Guidance, the new Officer Professional Military Education Policy needs be read closely. In the policy document, one finds the details for a professional military education program built around “outcomes-based education.” To achieve the Joint Chiefs’ intent — and to faithfully execute the new policy — curriculum design should begin with “a clear picture of what is important for students to be able to do, then organizing curriculum, Instruction, and assessment to make sure this learning ultimately happens.” Starting with a prescribed methodology — case studies — or an academic field of expertise — history — is antithetical to the new policy. It is also arguably detrimental to the Joint Chiefs’ agenda.

Case studies certainly have a vital role to play in joint professional military education. However, to suggest that they are now primus inter pares goes too far. They are hardly the only method through which active and experiential learning can occur. One should also appreciate that case studies have their limitations. Used correctly, they compel students to critically assess what happened and unearth key lessons for themselves, thereby reinforcing learning. Unfortunately, case studies make it tempting for students and less-experienced faculty to focus on context — especially the drama, personal stories, tactics, and turning points that make case studies so interesting in the first place.

Be Aware of Precedent and Beware Precedent

Additional challenges surface if, as Professor Lacey insists, curricula are primarily built around history. Looking back is not the same as looking forward — a lesson that seems to be relearned every few decades, often at great cost. Russel Weigley, the greatest American military historian of his generation, wrote about this phenomenon in his seminal Makers of Modern Strategy chapter. For example, in the decades before the American Civil War, the West Point superintendent’s Napoleon seminar was the honors-level program of the day. Graduates left the U.S. Military Academy having learned Napoleon’s offensive-minded tactics. Once they became field commanders in the Civil War, however, their devotion to those tactics caused many of them to fail to recognize the conflict’s rapidly changing character. As a result, thousands of soldiers died. Misinterpreting past events led to even worse outcomes in the wars of the 20th century. However, none of these facts detracts from the value of studying history. In fact, doing so is often the best playbook one has. Humans tend to think they are living in a new and unprecedented time. It is only through studying the past that they realize helpful precedents exist. Nonetheless, in an era of profoundly rapid technological change, past “lessons” need to be considered with great care.

Wargames can also be of great use so long as they are specifically tailored to a program’s learning outcomes. In considering their utility, though, “wargames” should be broadly defined. Curriculum designers ought not to consider historically based versions alone but rather create wargames that invoke political science, economics, law, international relations, psychology, and other social sciences. Sometimes, instead of using historical settings, current-day or future-focused wargames should be developed. One can easily imagine that existing or future wargames premised on military responses to mass famine in the Sahel, sudden flooding of America’s coastal basing facilities, a massive cut in the defense budget, or a seething global pandemic would have tremendous value. Such wargames not only provide relevant and applicable context but also offer the best chance to tackle issues of rapid technological change while stimulating critical thinking and rewarding risk-taking. These and other current-day or future-focused wargames can teach strategic agility in a real-world context while demanding multiple sets and repetitions. New ones could join the library of case studies, colloquia, and exercises that the Joint Chiefs require.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

As my colleague Richard Andres has pointed out, in the world of professional military education, one size doesn’t fit all. Each program should have the wherewithal to change when needed — but not just for the sake of it. Here, National Defense University’s recent experiences are instructive. Rather than being stuck in place, the National War College’s core courses change by about a third every year. Course directors rotate every two to three years while entirely new courses — designed to meet the chairman’s directives — are constantly in development. The “take a knee” culture referred to in Lacey’s article is also long gone, replaced with a level of academic rigor comparable to other graduate schools in the National Capital Region. As with any program, students inevitably get back what they choose to put in. But, each week, the average student will complete between 450 and 500 pages of reading, research and/or write complex papers, and tackle a weighty course load that meets the highest accreditation standards. The workload at National Defense University’s Eisenhower School is just as demanding.

Another note of caution is in order: Just as the question of what to teach is under debate, so too is the matter of who should do the teaching. An article by Adam Lowther and Brooke Mitchell published in these virtual pages last week advocates for a trio of “structural reforms” designed to create a new student “mindset of creativity.” These reforms include getting rid of course directors in favor of individual faculty course design, opening school leadership positions to career academics, and diversifying faculty disciplines. The latter would largely be achieved by filling open positions with career academics. In Lowther and Mitchell’s view, professional military education relies — to its detriment — on “under-qualified military instructors” who inhibit creative thought. As insightful as their observations may be, certain truths must be kept in mind. Above all, while Vision and Guidance and the Officer Professional Military Education Policy call for developing greater creative thinking skills, the second document also lays out other specific learning outcomes that should be achieved. Most of these specific learning outcomes relate to the conduct of war and are, themselves, the product of extensive debate, reflection, and often costly experience.

As with curriculum design, achieving the prescribed learning outcomes should be a central consideration when hiring faculty. This approach does not suggest civilian faculty members are anything short of essential. In many fields, the expertise they bring after a lifetime of study is invaluable. That said, the contributions of military faculty members are every bit as important. A faculty seminar leader with 15 or more years of applied joint experience will be more familiar with war’s challenges and how to apply critical thinking to them than most anyone in academia. And, let us not forget the handful of career foreign service and intelligence officers, and other agency representatives detailed to the war colleges. They also bring vital teaching perspectives on diplomacy, foreign assistance, emerging threats, and how the other instruments of power interact with the military instrument. Those in the field of professional military education should never forget that America’s staff and war colleges are primarily schools of practice with assigned missions. To achieve those missions, valuing one type of faculty member over another does little more than insisting upon certain courses of study or methods of instruction. A faculty diverse in experience, education, and worldviews should be the real the goal.

Synthesizing Education and Talent Management

Perhaps most importantly, the new Vision and Guidance also identifies how the United States can best harness an officer’s military education. For what might be the first time, the Joint Chiefs are focusing on the link between an officer’s professional development and that officer’s precise role in the joint force. Far greater effort will now go into choosing the right student for the right program and then into ensuring a student’s education, training, and skills are used in the right position. Officer assignments, like the joint professional military education enterprise, will require adaptation and innovation.

What will success look like? Consider a combatant commander who — in the midst of a crisis — is asked by the president for her advice. She assembles her staff around a conference table, where the seats are filled by a richly — and diversely — educated pool of senior officers and interagency advisors. Every officer possesses a fundamental understanding of joint warfighting and its application across the spectrum of conflict. However, unlike before, the combatant commander’s team now includes graduates from each of the service war colleges, the Eisenhower School, and the National War College. Though all are thoroughly vested in jointness, individually they bring a distinct proficiency to the fight. While intellectual overmatch is a team sport and with her team now on the field, the combatant commander can wield the collective wisdom of six senior developmental education institutions. She is better prepared than ever to provide advice based on expertise from across the five domains, the field of resource strategy, and the design and implementation of national security strategy.

What’s the Key?

Achieving the Joint Chiefs’ new vision will require a commitment to lifelong learning — one internalized by every officer and reflected in service culture. Major improvements to joint professional military education will be required, as will the services’ willingness to adopt the Joint Chiefs’ talent management goals. Diversity of thought, education, and training ought to be seen as a foundational imperative. Homogenizing curricula across the war colleges, especially by overprescribing methods of instruction and fields of study, would be highly counterproductive. Such notions ought to be dispatched so that the nation’s professional military education institutions can move forward with the task at hand.



Adam Oler is an assistant professor at National War College/National Defense University. He spent nearly 24 years on active duty as an Air Force judge advocate before retiring as a colonel in 2018. He is co-lead editor of “A National Security Primer,” published by the National Defense University Press in 2019. He is a 2011 distinguished graduate of the National War College. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: Department of Defense (Photo by Sgt. Alvin Williams Jr.)