Soldier-Scholar (Pick One): Anti-Intellectualism in the American Military
Crossing the Great Plains on an expedition to Utah in the 1850s, Maj. Charles A. May searched the wagons in an effort to reduce unnecessary baggage. When he reached the wagons of the light artillery battery, Capt. Henry J. Hunt proudly pointed out the box containing the battery library. “Books,” May exclaimed. “You say books? Whoever heard of books being hauled over the Plains? What the hell are you going to do with them?” At that moment, Capt. Campbell of the Dragoons came up and asked permission to carry a barrel of whiskey. “Yes, anything in reason Captain, you can take along the whiskey, but damned if these books shall go.”
This story has been cited over the years as an example of an anti-intellectual bias that was said to pervade the military of the day. Many esteemed defense intellectuals believe such a bias still plagues the profession today.
Even though there has been significant advancement, there is much truth to the charge. While each of the four longstanding services values intellect, they are wary of intellectuals. This tendency is reinforced by a stultified personnel bureaucracy that requires officers to successfully navigate a series of wickets to remain competitive for advancement. The result is to reward tactical expertise while capping the careers of the best strategic minds.
On the surface, anti-intellectualism is an odd critique to apply to the American military. Outside academia, it is hard to think of a profession that values schooling more. With rare exception, a four-year university degree is a baseline requirement for commissioning. Indeed, the nation has funded service academies for that purpose going back to 1802 and established a bevy of land grant colleges across the country starting in 1862 partly with an eye to training future military officers.
After commissioning, newly minted officers are sent to several more months of school before their first operational assignment and then (depending on the service) a career course lasting three to nine months somewhere between the four- and six-year mark. This is followed by another 10-month, master’s degree-producing staff college at roughly the 10-year mark and yet another 10-month, master’s degree-producing war college around the 20-year mark. (In the Navy, however, this tends to be either/or — officers seldom get both a staff college and war college tour.) All of these schools have some element of training (i.e, learning of discrete facts and inculcation of specific skills) but they are increasingly weighted to education (i.e., learning how to think analytically) as the career progresses.
Yet the commitment to lifelong learning is in constant tension with a culture and bureaucracy that rewards muddy boots and time afloat while deeply suspicious of those who spend any more time than required in the schoolhouse or intellectually broadening assignments. This is compounded by a disdain for staff work, which is seen, especially by the ground services and the Navy, as an unwelcome distraction from the real work of the military.
Professional schools have long been viewed by many in the military as boxes to be checked. With the notable exception of the Air Force, high academic performance is not a discriminator for promotion. At the other extreme, the Navy has historically struggled to fill its allotments at the staff and war colleges and tends to do so with officers who have already been passed over for promotion, preferring to keep its top performers in the fleet and check the boxes with nonresident schooling. Further, while duty as an instructor at the training-level schools is career-enhancing, it has been generations since that has been true at the staff and, particularly, war colleges.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter declared, “The common strain that binds together the attitudes and ideas which I call anti-intellectual is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.”
That duality has been a constant of the modern military.
I have seen too many senior leaders address our students pooh-poohing their own staff college experience with variants of “it’s only a lot of reading if you do it” jokes and downplaying their intellect in ways they would never do their physical fitness or tactical competence.
During his tenure as Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Al Gray founded Marine Corps University with a charge of “teaching officers and NCOs [non-commissioned officers] how to win in combat by out-thinking as well as outfighting their opponents” and established the first of the service chief reading lists that are nowadays de rigueur. The impressive research library at the university bears his name. Yet he also complained during the same tenure that there were “too many intellectuals” in the senior ranks rather than “old-fashioned gunslingers.” To emphasize that point, he was the first and thus far the only commandant to have his official photo taken in his combat fatigues rather than his service uniform. Indeed, at 92 years old and retired for nearly three decades, he is known to wear a blazer in the Marines pattern when addressing marines.
His contemporary, Norman Schwarzkopf, denigrated a predecessor in command as “an ex-White House fellow” and “a prolific contributor to military journals.”
They were part of a long tradition.
When Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan published The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, arguably the most influential work ever written by a serving American officer, in 1890, his senior remarked on his fitness report that, “It is not the business of a Naval officer to write books.” He would retire as a captain. (He was elevated to rear admiral on the retired list in 1906 by an act of Congress that promoted all Civil War captains.)
Likewise, the missions of the schoolhouses themselves have always been controversial, with many senior leaders paying lip service to education while actually demanding training.
In 1914, Leonard Wood issued orders to the effect that “all military education must be severely practical; eliminate books as far as possible except for purposes of reference.” Similarly, the 2018 National Defense Strategy, issued under Jim Mattis’ signature, declared professional military education “has stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.”
Indeed, Mattis exemplifies this paradox. As a Marine Corps general, Mattis was legendarily well-read and extolled the virtues of the written word. “Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead,” he wrote in 2003. He added, “You stay teachable most by reading books, by reading what other people went through.” This echoes Basil Liddell Hart’s dictum that officers should have a “3,000-year-old mind” by taking full advantage of the lessons of recorded history.
While he read and advocated reading widely — politics, strategy, geography, and the like — Mattis tended to couch it in tactical terms: “I can’t tell you the number of times I looked down at what was going on on the ground or I was engaged in a fight somewhere and I knew within a couple of minutes how I was going to screw up the enemy. And I knew it because I’d done so much reading.”
While he would absolutely agree with the late Lloyd Matthews’ admonition, “in war against a competitive foe, we shall have to outthink that foe if we are to be successful in outfighting him,” he almost always expressed it in a way to portray himself as a gunfighter rather than an intellectual, as if the two were mutually exclusive.
Matthews, a retired Army infantry colonel who was the longtime editor of the service’s flagship journal, cites Bernard Brodie’s observation that “soldiers have always cherished the image of themselves as men of action rather than as intellectuals, and they have not been very much given to writing analytical inquiries into their own art.” While pointing to a litany of soldier-scholars over the years who have successfully combined the two, he contends “to the extent that such uniformed writers have succeeded, they did so in spite of and not because of official encouragement.” Further, he observed, while “Army intellectuals are establishing a niche in the academic side of the house, but they remain conspicuously absent in high-level command and policy positions.”
His two-part essay was published more than 18 years ago, but that much has not changed. While the rise of online fora, including this one, have given platforms to scores of warrior-scholars to debate and shape the future of the profession of arms, they will almost universally end their careers as field grade officers.
Writing in this space in 2016, Dave Barno and Nora Bensahel lamented that, “Spending time earning a civilian graduate degree, teaching at West Point, or serving in a broadening assignment away from troops was quietly denigrated as ‘taking a knee’ and often harmed the career prospects of those who had done so.”
Around the same time, Don Snider argued that, “the Army Profession must broadly reverse its cultural biases toward anti-intellectualism” such that officers who create knowledge and those who apply it are “equally esteemed.”
For generations, the military services have invested in civilian education, including elite doctoral programs, for select officers. But, with rare exception, this was for utilization in a technical program, teaching at the academies, or specialized staff work that limited the opportunity for promotion. While the services produce scores of officers with doctoral degrees every year, the number of them who go on to four-star rank is vanishingly small. Andrew Goodpaster, John Shaud, William Crowe, David Petraeus, and James Stavridis were the only examples I could find.
Certainly, a doctorate is not a prerequisite for excellence as a strategic leader. Dwight Eisenhower and Colin Powell, arguably our two greatest military strategists of the modern era, did just fine without one. But it is noteworthy that the services all send their functional area strategists to civilian graduate programs, often through the Ph.D. They just seldom promote them beyond colonel. And, as Bob Scales lamented in these pages, “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 problem is not simply the wariness of intellectualism, but the demands of the career path. Writing at War on the Rocks nearly two years ago, I noted that many of the great U.S. military strategists of the past often spent years in the schoolhouses, the Pentagon, and other high-level staff assignments. Eisenhower had “essentially no command experience below the three-star level,” yet was the architect of the Allied victory in Europe. George Marshall “rose to five-star rank never having commanded a division, corps, or higher formation.” While Powell followed a more traditional path, he was known as a “Washington general” and became the youngest man to hold the military’s top job with relatively little time in senior command billets. The recently departed Brent Scowcroft, widely considered the archetypical national security advisor, rose from colonel to three-star general without leaving the White House.
No officer today could emulate their models. The Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980 included several much-needed reforms. But an unfortunate byproduct was to transform a system that was too much of an old boys’ network into one that is unforgivingly bureaucratic. In each service, the path to the top is narrow, requiring hitting billet and schooling gates at each grade to remain viable for promotion.
Petraeus and Stavridis were commissioned in the mid-1970s, so essentially their whole careers were under the current system. But they had to time their doctoral work and “payback” tours carefully to stay competitive. And, even then, they risked promotion boards looking more favorably on another officer who had four more years “with troops” or “in the fleet.”
Two years ago, Congress passed some reforms to this personnel system that have given service chiefs a bit more flexibility. It is too early to evaluate the impact that will have.
Still, there are some hopeful signs.
At my own institution, there has been a remarkable transformation of the military faculty over my seven years. While there were many fine instructors when I arrived in 2013, most of them were terminal lieutenant colonels and commanders who had been passed over for command and war college attendance. It was rare for one of them to be selected for colonel, much less command at that rank. That progressively changed, such that recent cohorts are mostly officers who have already commanded at the lieutenant colonel level and attended war college. Five of the officers who left us after graduation this past June had been selected for colonel (along with a recent alumnus of the faculty) and four of them just came out on the colonel’s command list. This matters, as it signals to the students — who are themselves screened for selection to resident school — that the Marine Corps values their education.
Still, there is a sense that these officers are succeeding despite spending a year or two on our faculty, not because of it. Teaching lieutenants at the Basic School or captains at the Expeditionary Warfare School is considered career-enhancing, whereas teaching at Command and Staff College is fulfilling an obligation to the Marine Corps.
Investment in civilian education is again on the upswing. For example, the Commandant of the Marine Corps Doctor of Philosophy Strategist Program is the first of its kind for the service. Although this program only accepts “up to two officers” a year, it is a welcome sign that the Corps that has determined that growing its own Ph.D.s is necessary to hold their own in staff debates with the longstanding Army strategists is a welcome sign.
Even more promising is the Army’s Goodpaster Fellows initiative, also known as the Advanced Strategic Planning and Policy Program. Launched eight years ago under the direction of then-Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, it sends a cohort of highly selected officers to top civilian Ph.D. programs as well as its elite School for Advanced Military Studies.
Crucially, the program is ostensibly designed to produce “senior leaders and strategic planners.” While Functional Area 59 Strategists have often been selected for Ph.D. programs, it has long been understood that most would retire as lieutenant colonels and none would make it past colonel. And they would almost certainly not command at either rank. Goodpaster fellows are eligible for brigade command and, presumably, thus have a shot at being future generals.
But even here we should be suspicious. The Army allows fellows a mere two years to complete their doctoral coursework while simultaneously completing the demanding School for Advanced Military Studies program. While this is understandable from a return on investment mindset, it is absurdly fast. Most civilian doctoral students, typically young and unburdened with family responsibilities, take at least five years to finish their program.
On the other hand, the Army may be simply emulating the Air Force. Its School for Advanced Military Studies spinoff, the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, while a decade younger, has been viewed as a pathway to the general officer ranks from almost its inception and has more recently started its own Ph.D. in strategy program for its top students.
Alas, the Navy is again the laggard here. The much–ballyhooed Education for Seapower initiative, launched earlier this year by then-Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer, has already lost steam, with its funding under review and widely considered dead (the report and launching memo have already been removed from the Navy’s website — gone the way of Monty Python’s parrot).
The profession of arms has come a long way since the 1850s and even the 1950s. Few senior officers question the value of books (indeed, they are more likely to brag about the ones on their nightstand). Still, there is a long way to go before the soldier-scholar is “equally esteemed” as the muddy boots soldier.
James Joyner is a professor of security studies and the security studies department head at Marine Corps University’s Command and Staff College. He’s a former Army field artillery officer and Desert Storm veteran. Follow him on Twitter @DrJJoyner.