- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
Here’s my prepared text from the FPRI discussion of professional military education (PME) last week. This isn’t exactly what I said, but is pretty close. If you listen to the audio you’ll hear I also riffed a bit, but this is close enough.
Despite what you may have heard, I am not an opponent of PME. I am a big fan of it — or at least of good PME.
I have read enough history to be persuaded that the key ingredient in officership in the interwar period was a good, rigorous educational system, with grades and class rankings. At the end of World War II, one German general (Von Rundstedt) said in 1945, "We cannot understand the difference in your leadership in the last war and in this. We could understand it if you had produced one superior corps commander, but now we find all of your corps commanders good and of equal superiority." The reason seems to have been the quality of professional education Army officers received in the 1920s and 1930s.
I agree entirely with Professor Johnson-Freese: She nails it. The problem is lack of rigor, precision, challenge. The faculties are too often weak and superficial. The leadership too often is unknowledgeable. The students do not learn how to think critically.
But you know what? It is not my problem. It is the problem of the PME establishment.
By that, I mean that I don’t have to do anything. The federal government’s budget crunch is going to take care of much of this. I suspect that in the coming decade, any institution, department, or individual that cannot demonstrate a clear, positive contribution is going to get axed. Rather, my concern is that the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater. There is a lot of good in military education, but if you let the bad persist, it will drag down the rest. So if you value the good being done, you will be vigilant in policing the lazy, the stupid, the careless, the slacker colleges. And many of us know who those are.
One quibble: I do wonder if the war colleges, staff colleges and academies are fulfilling their role as internal critics of the institution. I have not seen a critique of Army leadership, for example, any where as near as incisive at the Army War College’s 1970 study on professionalism. Has the track record been perfect over the last decade? Looking at Tora Bora, Abu Ghraib, Black Hearts – I don’t think so. Isn’t it time for such a review-how did we do over the last 10 years, what worked, what didn’t? Where is the introspection that would be a sign of a healthy intellectual climate?