- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By John T. Kuehn
Best Defense guest columnist
The recent passing of former Congressman Ike Skelton brings light upon a man who had a profound impact on those around him, including and perhaps especially those in the halls of the Congress and the Pentagon.
Ike Skelton represented a type of politician more suited to former times, a statesman, a moderate Democrat, and someone willing to compromise in order to achieve the greater good. In politics he had two overriding passions, the national security of the United States and the reform of the systems in place to provide for that security. It is the second passion I wish to address because Ike did not intend for his desires and passions vis-à-vis national security reform to diminish with his passing. But I and many others out there — those who knew how fierce Ike was about implementing and protecting the reforms he helped legislate into law — are concerned that with Ike gone, there is no similar politician in Washington ready to step up and continue the “good fight.” I hope I am wrong.
Let me explain. Ike believed in the idea that the uniformed services served best when they acted as a team, what we today call “jointness,” the joint action of the services to support national policies and objectives. Skelton believed that the best path to this end was through something known as joint professional military education (JPME), specifically professional military education for the various uniformed officer corps — Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force, and Coast Guard. To this end, Ike was personally involved in drafting those parts of the famous Goldwater-Nichols defense reform legislation that implemented the JPME system that is in place today. Among its provisions, Ike stressed the importance of officers’ study of military history as reflected in the following:
Another area that our panel report stressed was the study of military history, especially in helping to develop strategists. In our visit to Fort Leavenworth in 1988, the study of military history was confined to 51 hours and limited to the American experience of war in the 20th century. Army officers, especially those who will rise to command at the corps or theater level, need a thorough understanding of military history that reaches back over the ages.
Ike believed, as have many before him, that military history was the foundation for a well-rounded education for officers. After his visit to Fort Leavenworth mentioned above, the Command and General Staff College upped its history instruction to two hours of history a week for the entire academic year at the Army Command and General Staff Officer Course. This equated to 72 hours of total history instruction. Since 9/11 this program has been under constant pressure to decrease the number of history hours, resulting in a decrease to 60 hours from 2004-2007 as part of an overall decrease in student contact hours. At one point, while serving as the military history department curriculum developer, this author was pressured (unsuccessfully) to decrease the military history hours to pre-Skelton levels. Another blow to Skelton’s legacy has been the removal of sister service joint-coded faculty billets at the nations’ joint staff and war colleges in 2007 to support other “more important” new billets created since 9/11. Ike knew about these threats to his vision for JPME and was actively working, even though no longer in Congress, to correct them.
I met Ike Skelton in 2010, at the Harry Truman Library where he was the keynote speaker for the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Korean War. He was a kind, gracious, and thoughtful man. At the time, he was one of the most powerful congressmen on “the Hill,” serving as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and holding another round of hearings to examine and improve professional military education. However, he also seemed fragile, to have grown physically weaker in his long years in the service to his nation. Tragically, he was swept from office that fall, a casualty as politics moved more to the right in places like his home district in Missouri. Evidently, there was no room for a moderate reformer from Missouri in Congress.
Ike Skelton believed in moving forward, not backward. He will be missed and the best thing we can do to honor his memory is to continue to support and improve upon his reforms that served, and should continue to serve, this country so well. Farewell to a great American and patriot.
John T. Kuehn is the Major General William A. Stofft chair of historical research at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. He retired from the Navy as a commander in 2004 and earned his Ph.D. in history from Kansas State University in 2007. He graduated with distinction from Naval Postgraduate School in 1988. He won the Society of Military History Moncado Prize in 2010 and is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008), Eyewitness Pacific Theater (with D.M. Giangreco, 2008), and numerous articles and editorials.