- 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 Maj. Matthew Cavanaugh, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist
The Profession of Arms is decaying (weakening or fraying — as opposed to a relative decline), and the primary causes are neglect, anti-intellectual bias, and a creeping, cancerous bureaucracy.
Permit me to explain, to diagnose the patient’s condition, in order to arrive at a common understanding of the illness. Let’s begin with the Profession of Arms: This is society’s armed wing, principally charged with guarding the safety and interests of that society. In some way, every political entity must use force or at least threaten to use force for it to survive in the international system. The members of the Profession of Arms are the custodians of the specific military knowledge that enables national survival. As Don Snider has put it, these commissioned members have one critical function, which is to successfully provide "the repetitive exercise of discretionary judgment[s] … of high moral content." In essence this is military judgment, which today is decaying and being compromised through apathy, disregard for intellect, and a mammoth bureaucracy.
Symptoms: Where there’s smoke…
I teach a course called DS470: Military Strategy at West Point. I was accepted to the assignment in 2009, and attended graduate school from 2010 until the summer of 2012. While in graduate school, I read everything I could to prepare myself for teaching the course. The course includes a two-week block on the Iraq War, and in preparation I came across Professor Richard Kohn‘s scathing criticism in his 2009 World Affairs Journal article (previously a lecture), "Tarnished Brass: Is the U.S. Military Profession in Decline?" His commentary was stunning at times, and this line chilled me:
Iraq has become the metaphor for an absence of strategy…. In effect, in the most important area of professional expertise — the connecting of war to policy, of operations to achieving the objectives of the nation — the American military has been found wanting. The excellence of the American military in operations, logistics, tactics, weaponry, and battle has been manifest for a generation or more. Not so with strategy.
Not long after, I came across a troubling note from a peer (then-Major Fernando Lujan) already stationed at West Point. He wrote on this blog, "From my own limited perspective, I can say that the Academy is falling heartbreakingly short of its potential to prepare young officers." He continued, "We lecture the cadets on professionalism but we practice bureaucracy. To summarize the difference, professional cultures debate, discuss, and continually innovate to stay effective in the changing world. Bureaucracies churn out ever-restrictive rules and seek to capture every eventuality in codified routines."
Kohn and Lujan’s words alerted me to some anecdotal chinks in the profession’s armor. Moreover, as Lujan’s was only one piece of data I had encountered from West Point, I resolved to keep an open mind and see for myself what it was like there. I arrived in the summer of 2012 and now have three academic semesters — a year and a half — of experiences to draw upon.
…there may be fire.
Kohn and Lujan were correct. Bureaucracy abounds. A few quick stories: It took seven different forms for seven different entities to travel to Mexico for a family friend’s wedding (not including multiple required doctor’s visits). A fellow army major and member of my academic program had a lieutenant colonel chastise him multiple times for his athletic sock preference. On the same subject, cadets are required to wear fluorescent belts at all times while wearing physical fitness uniforms — even in broad daylight. I had a cadet wear one such reflective belt indoors while giving a class presentation — when I asked him about it, he told me he had knee surgery and the regulation permitted no deviation from wearing the belt. If that isn’t a clear indicator of the willful suspension of judgment for the sake of nonsensical bureaucratic rules, I’m not sure what is. Finally, and most importantly, in my presence a fellow officer and faculty member announced at an academic policy meeting, "we don’t want second lieutenant strategic thinkers [in the U.S. Army]." The symptoms are present — the bureaucracy is suffocating both military judgment and the Profession of Arms.
A second opinion
This isn’t new. Lloyd Matthews, former editor of the U.S. Army War College’s journal, Parameters, wrote an exceptional piece on a related topic in 2002, "The Uniformed Intellectual and His Place in American Arms." Matthews recounts his experiences, similar to mine in many ways. He recalls General Alfred Gray, then commandant of the Marine Corps, complaining that there were "too many intellectuals" at the top of the military, that what we ought to have are some "old fashioned gunslingers." He relays John Hillen’s remark that many senior officers would be "more comfortable with a copy of Bass Fishing magazine than with a book on military theory." One other gem Matthews recalled was a "distinguished Army four-star" boasting "that he never read anything but the contents of his in-box." The anti-intellectual bias in the military works in concert with the bureaucracy to form powerful restrictions on professional military judgment.
Why is this happening?
Anyone with the remotest shred of curiosity would ask: Why? How can officers rightly call themselves members of the Profession of Arms and not know (or care) about studying the use of force? Doesn’t it seem odd that one could proudly wear a uniform and accept all the accolades one receives from fellow citizens (not to mention free checked bags on flights!) — and not spend time considering the military and strategic implications of, for example, the Syrian civil war or drone strike warfare?
In addition to Matthews’s coverage of the anti-intellectual bias, the first reason, suggested previously, is lack of effort. Michael Pollan, the food writer, in his latest book Cooked, observes that the average American spends 27 minutes a day cooking (half what it was in the 1960s). He assessed, "When you consider that twenty-seven minutes is less time than it takes to watch a single episode of Top Chef or The Next Food Network Star, you realize that there are now millions of people who spend more time watching food being cooked on television than they spend actually cooking it themselves." Let’s apply the same comment to the Profession of Arms. How many members of the military regularly watch two- to three-hour-long war movies, but then completely fail to commit to any serious discussion on the use of force in the real world? How many saw World War Z, 300 (war porn of the highest order), or Saving Private Ryan — and wholly neglect reading books on diplomacy, military theory, or history, let alone current war coverage in the foreign affairs section in the newspaper?
The second reason is fear of disloyalty. The thinking goes: One cannot be obedient, cannot support the flag, if one is critical. More pointedly, former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George commented that the "military mind … regards thinking as form of mutiny."
Legendary scientist Carl Sagan put it differently and cast it in a more ominous light when he suggested "people in power have a vested interest to oppose critical thinking" (audio available in "Critical Thinking"– Self Study section). Though somewhat conspiratorial (the reality is likely more subtle), Sagan’s comment hits on some logical truth. The military is principally concerned with disciplining violence for political ends, and such an organization only functions if there is glue strong enough to hold various pieces together. Some might suggest that a bureaucracy can do the same trick — but this essay finds that bureaucratic glue cannot withstand the fires of war in the international system.
Why is the decay of the Profession of Arms bad for society?
Bureaucracies are easy to control because they remove individual judgment. As such they cannot produce new knowledge. Professions are at times challenging, but continuously seek and develop new knowledge for the uncharted problems of the future. Sagan is again instructive on this distinction’s importance: "If we don’t improve our understanding of critical thinking and develop it as a kind of second nature then we’re just suckers ready to be taken by the next charlatan who ambles along."
What does a "charlatan" in military clothing look like? Consider, for example, this Pentagon doctrine gem, written in 2004 and unearthed by historian Brian Linn in his excellent book The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War (p. 3): "Joint Adaptive Expeditionary Warfare requires capabilities organized cross-enterprise, adapting dynamically to uncertainty and turbulence in a multi-dimensional, nonlinear, competitive environment." It’s fair to assume that you just read that statement three or four times, to really take in the enormity of its absurdity. It may be that the lead author was engaged in the world’s lamest drinking game, or a new form of Scrabble, but clearly such writing is distracting at best — "charlatanesqe" at worst.
The last reason is that we will lose on the battlefield. Matthews is instructive on this point, and finds that "The army that rejects seminal thinkers, thereby depriving itself of innovative ideas and the instruments for continuous intellectual self-renewal, will ultimately be a defeated army, vanquished in the wake of foes who adapt more wisely and quickly to the ever-evolving art and science of war." It’s worth asking if this is what happened in Iraq, as Professor Kohn’s thesis suggested.
War Council as an approach
All the sources cited in this essay counseled corrective measures. Kohn suggested "continuing education to be pursued by officers on their own." Matthews put the onus on the more intellectual officers, that such an individual "must discover ways to put his ideas and capacity for penetrating reflection at the disposal of the institution. That means having what it takes to convey his ideas and the fruits of his reflections in the appropriate forums." Lujan was specific to West Point, and as a fellow instructor, relevant to my work. As such, he is worth quoting at length:
West Point [should be] the epicenter of the Army’s intellectual renaissance…. At West Point, new ideas should be developed, the future of the military debated, and the military profession continually reshaped to remain effective. The Academy should be connected by a thousand links to the operational Army in the field; it should serve as a bridge between theory and practice. West Point should be home to a "Center for the Study of Modern Conflict" where civilian and military experts, cadets, and officers in the field collaborate to advance the Army’s collective understanding. Up until now, the most vibrant professional debates have been almost exclusively hosted by privately run websites such as Small Wars Journal and Abu Muqawama. West Point should become the hub of these discussions, bringing together disparate groups of enthusiasts.
War Council is designed to be a step towards Lujan’s vision — a small counter to the apathy and bureaucracy that plagues the Profession of Arms. Its mission is to support the study of the use of force, as well as critical thought, always in a respectful manner appropriate for the armed servants of society. War Council is primarily for officers and pre-commission soon-to-be officers; a venue both to provoke real discussion and digital to extend such dialogue; these two lines of effort are mutually supporting for the betterment of the Profession of Arms.
Major Matthew Cavanaugh is an Army strategist currently assigned to the Defense & Strategic Studies program at West Point. He is also the editor at WarCouncil.org — a non-partisan, multidisciplinary academic forum dedicated to the study of the use of force (primarily) for the members of the Profession of Arms. This essay is reprinted from that forum, with Major Cavanaugh’s permission. It is an unofficial expression of opinion; views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Military Academy, Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. (or any other) government.