Best Defense

In defense of the Army’s Command & General Staff College: A rebuttal to Tom

Feeling the need to write a rebuttal to Ricks came as a surprise.

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By MAJ John Q. Bolton
Best Defense guest respondent

In a recent postForeign Policy’s Tom Ricks accuses the Army’s Command and General Staff College (CGSC) of treating its faculty in a “knuckle-headed way.” Using an internal staffing document Ricks proceeds to make broad generalizations about the College’s education priorities, staff, and, by implication, its raison d’etre.

Feeling the need to write a rebuttal to Ricks came as a surprise to me. He is one of my favorite authors; indeed, reading Fiasco during my first deployment in 2006 brought me some needed perspective as we cleared IEDs daily around Baqubah, Iraq. Moreover, in The Generals, Ricks taught me to question the military’s professional education paradigm along with the Army personnel system.

But his perennial criticism of CGSC is, at least in this case, off-base and borders on hyperbole. This article examines Ricks’ criticism before moving on to a general assessment of CGSC. The memo Ricks uses as evidence that, “the inmates are running the asylum,” is, in fact, a planning document that simply acknowledges that the CGSC curriculum, like many educational and governmental programs, has become too bloated.

In effect, this actually acknowledges previous criticism by Ricks, who has consistently called for more graduate-level education at military schools. Reducing student contact time is a first step toward this goal. Combined with its under-appreciated faculty — especially the Joint Interagency and Multi-National Operations (DIJMO) and History Departments — CGSC has the potential to meet the goals outlined in the Army Operating Concept (AOC); that is, to create “agile, adaptive leaders to win in a complex world.” Last year’s change to a single, yearlong CGSOC class, competitively selected, will also help focus resources toward this goal. 

Acknowledging that sister-service instructors are limited, the memo requires an instructor from the DJIMO when a sister-service student teaches a class. This may seem some type of parochial micromanagement, but it is simply good pedagogy when having a non-qualified teacher instruct. Oversight helps ensure the program goals are met; furthermore, this so-called nefarious requirement does not exist when a sister-service officer or civilian faculty member instructs. Lastly, the memo instructs departments to monitor faculty attendance. I simply find no fault in this general guidance. I will admit however, that words can mean many things to many people. The culture is what matters, after all.

As a recent CGSC graduate, I’d like to make an assessment of the program. Although the CGSC offers several courses, this article and the majority of external debate concern only the Command and General Staff Officers’ Course (CGSOC), the Army version of Intermediate Level Education (ILE). Since CGSC and CGSOC are used interchangeably, this article does so as well.

Holistically, CGSOC meets its tactical goals, training Army Officers for battalion and brigade-level staffing positions for the next 3-5 years of their career. The course begins with online prerequisites and introductory courses for select officers (foreign exchange, sister-service, and several Army branches). After in-processing, the college places officers into staff groups of 16 including a representative from each service, and a foreign exchange officer. The staff groups also have a member from each Army branch and, generally, a functional area such as acquisitions. The vast majority of coursework occurs within the staff groups with the exceptions of group lectures and electives (mentioned later).

The prerequisite online courses were essentially slide decks about Army Doctrine, organization, and military graphics. They also included several short writing assignments, though I don’t recall actually submitting them. Additionally, though students take reading and writing assessments, these are not incorporated into the curriculum and seem to be only useful for those applying to follow-on schools such as the School of Advanced Military Studies. (The College does officer writing improvement classes based on Nelson-Denny Reading Test scores, but these are relatively limited and not mandatory).

CGSOC begins with a fairly intense core curriculum. The core includes ethics, history, logistics, tactics (MDMP) and leadership classes, as well as the operational art, taught by DJIMO. However, seeking to do everything, the CGSOC core curriculum is too much and leaves little time for nuanced, graduate-level discussion or reflection. Accordingly, the memo Ricks cited calls for a reduction.

If anything, the history and writing portions of the core curriculum should be enhanced. One two-hour history class per week for 12 weeks is hardly sufficient, especially in light of the lack of general historical education pervasive in American education and, consequently, amongst the officer corps. The same could be said about the inability of the modern military professional to write. CGSC does not create these problems, it inherits them. However, the college recognized this fact and assigned a faculty team to redesign this year’s C100 course to include more writing exercises.

Interspersed with the core is a series of lectures. Though commonly complained about by the students as distracting from coursework, the lectures, to me, were a highlight of the CGSOC. In the course of 6 months, we heard from the Army G-3/5/7, the Chief of Staff, national non-profit and Fortune 1000 CEOs, leadership author Ori Brafman, and former Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Each was a worthwhile experience. Brafman’s visit was noteworthy as he demonstrated a collaborative technique that resulted an immediate change to the student accountability process. Whereas students previously had to check-in online daily, their collective input brought about the end of that system. Though these lectures do take time, a slight reduction in contact time, not coursework, could alleviate the time spent in lectures.

Following the core curriculum is two months of division, component, and Joint Task Force exercises. Staff groups operate independently and also combined with other groups working various potential problems such as logistics and overflight permissions all within the context of a realistic scenario. While valuable, these exercises are, arguably, too long and take time away from potential history, writing, or other classes as well as the electives period at the end of the CGSC year. They also excessively focus on the use of simulation and Mission Command software like CPOF, rather than the Operational Art. This is a fact of modern military operations, but computers are far too user-centric and individualized to facilitate group staff work, which should be collaborative.

The electives portion of CGSC occupy the final two months. Electives are varied, covering everything from history to cybersecurity. Some courses are staff rides while others offer additional skill identifiers. This allows students to tailor their coursework to their personal and professional interests. On the whole the electives are the most enjoyable portion of the course for most students. Additionally, the college runs two international exchanges with the British and French Staff Colleges, each lasting over a week. CGSC also hosts more than 60 British officers each spring.

If CGSC has failings, they echo criticism that has been leveled since the 1950s: that it focuses too heavily on tactics at the expense of joint and inter-agency education and broader education; that it creates centurions instead of strategists. During my year, two full weeks of the core curriculum consisted of a brigade-level operation using MDMP, an exercise little different from those executed by maneuver officers at each branch’s Career Course. Ironically, officers experienced in irregular, non-linear warfare — at least by proxy — and receiving an introduction to Clausewitz, are thrown into a fictitious scenario replete with self-imposed linearity more reminiscent of Desert Storm — or the National Training Center — than contemporary conflicts.

Time taken away by tactics and some other pedestrian topics comes at the cost of more nuanced, graduate-level discussion. For example, the leadership course uses Twelve O’clock High to highlight techniques in organizational-level leadership. The film, about a B-17 wing during WWII, is great but no commensurate effort is made to dovetail the experience into a strategic-level discussion about the efficacy of the Combined Bomber Offensive. This discussion could take many forms such as the accuracy of estimates, how the enemy operates as a system, and the validity of Air Power Doctrine itself.

However, this does not occur; nor do other serious discussions of strategy. Since the Tactics and History departments do not teach joint classes, students do not explicitly discover the importance of historical perspectives or how assumptions can doom operations. The college attempts shove aspects of both military and classical education into a single year, resulting in a facsimile of both. For example, the rapid pace of the core curriculum reduces the American Civil War to a single, two-hour lesson. In another example, while a DJIMO exam focuses on Center of Gravity analysis using the background of Operation Torch, the students do not have an in-depth understanding of the dynamics of that early part of WWII, making analysis fairly superficial. In other words, students are trained in processes rather than educated in broader, more complicated areas of military thinking.

This lack of rudimentary military history education as well as professional skills such as writing — not PowerPointing — are hardly the fault of the college. Yet, its graduates are judged on these skills as representative of the single year of education they receive at Leavenworth. If this is to be the case, the curriculum — and structure — of the college must evolve.

An exception to this criticism is the Art of War Scholars (AoW) program, which takes a small cohort of 10 to 14 officers and exposes them to a comprehensive history-focused curriculum. Designed to expose students to a variety of sources, the AoW program “uses a graduate level seminar format as the venue for in-depth analysis of historical monographs, current doctrine, staff rides focused on command decisions and frequent dialogue with topical experts and practitioners of the art of war.” The program holistically attempts to understand the “width, depth, and context” of relevant military history in order to prepare graduates for the future.

I had the great fortune to participate in the AoW program last year. After a ten-year career including three deployments as both an Aviator and Combat Engineer, brigade and battalion staff positions, and company command, the AoW program remains my toughest, most mentally challenging — and rewarding — experience. Each day students read approximately 100-200 pages of reading before conducting a graduate seminar with a staff or guest Ph.D., including military historians such as Williamson Murray and Brian McAllister Linn.

Echoing General George Marshall’s observation on how to discuss strategy, the first reading of the AoW program is from Thucydides. Seminar guests also included senior leaders such as LTG H. R. McMaster and GEN (ret.) B.B Bell. LTG (ret) Stephen Holder accompanied us on a four-day Vicksburg Campaign staff ride highlighting the Operational Art as employed by Grant. This trip was our third staff and we also received funds for thesis research. I was able to visit the National Archives and Library of Congress, as well as both the Air Force and Marine Weapons Schools. CGSC paid for all of this. Therefore, to say that the college does not value graduate-level education and experiences is not true. Clearly, with the AoW program the college puts money where its mouth is.

Lastly, I must admit I agree with many Ricks’ ideas on improving CGSC such as publishing “class rankings, top to bottom.” The history curriculum is lacking, especially in light of the caliber of the history faculty. Due to the prevalence of tactics instruction, Masters of Military Art and Science (MMAS) is only available with substantial work outside the classroom. In addition, assignment to the college as military faculty remains undesirable, a trend since the 1950s.  There are exceptions to this rule, but cultures are nothing if not persistent. As a result, the college fails to recruit officers to the History, DJIMO, and Leadership faculties, areas where contemporary and relevant experience is most needed.

From my experience, the college should realign its curriculum to include broader and more in-depth history classes, including more guest speakers and brown-bag style lectures. The seminar classes are great, but the limited duration (two hours per week) and small group setting combine to rush the program. The tactics courses should be removed entirely from the core curriculum and given as a stand-alone MDMP refresher. This would allow for operational and strategic-level exercises while also increasing the time available for both reflection and longer electives, perhaps three terms instead of just two.

Secondly, the amount of writing should increase and also include both contemporary and historical topics. This could be under the auspice of the MMAS degree or simply additional coursework. Third, the course prerequisites should be more substantive than reviewing slides and completing a quiz. They should include historical readings, writing, and the completion of a personal development plan for each student. Fourth, the college should focus resources into specialized programs like the AoW Scholars program. Creating two such seminars would be a positive step. Lastly, the seminars need to be broken apart more frequently to prevent complacency, perhaps by having electives throughout the year. CGSC already has a great faculty, the students should see more than their specific teaching team.

Many of these steps are not new recommendations; indeed, a major re-write of the first portion of the core already occurred. Nevertheless, CGSOC, like all institutions, must endeavor to continually evolve. It must do so in a manner that places long-term education ahead of contemporary tactics so that its graduates meet the intent laid out in the college’s mission and the AOC. Publishing these changes and making better use of its excellent faculty — particularly the underutilized history department — would go a long way toward answering some of CGSOC’s critics, even Tom Ricks.

Ricks is cutting — and accurate — in much of his criticism of CGSC. But his fundamental assertion that the program lacks intellectual rigor and is not a worthwhile experience is not only inaccurate, it flies in the face of recent changes described above.

Furthermore, his claim that CGSC has “lost its currency — no one particularly cares if you went there,” is incorrect and directly contradicts Army personnel changes made over the last few years such as board selection to attend the resident course and differentiating resident and non-resident graduates on Officer Record Briefs. For the last few years the refrain throughout the Army has been “resident matters again.”

Like most military experiences (both training and educational), CGSC rewards officers proportionate to effort expended. Yes, there are officers who fail to take advantage of the excellent faculty, particularly the History and DJIMO departments; yes, there are officers who view Leavenworth as a time to “take a knee” and don’t value the educational experience. However, these are largely cultural — and limited — problems within the officer cohort, not systemic problems with CGSC itself. A mature response from the college would be to accept that this happens as a matter of course while continuing to focus its attention toward enabling graduate-level student experiences. Doing so would help encourage an attitude of education as opposed to training at Leavenworth.

MAJ John Q. Bolton is a student at the Defense Language Institute-Monterey (Chinese) as an Olmsted Scholar. His previous assignment was as a student at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth where he received the George C. Marshall Award. He holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the United States Military Academy, an MBA from American Military University, and a Master of Military Arts and Sciences from the Command and General Staff College. An Army Aviator (AH-64D/E), his assignments include Fort Riley, KS with multiple deployments to OIF and OEF. This article represents his personnal views, which are not necessarily those of the U.S. Army, the Defense Language Institute, the Defense Department, nor the U.S. government.

Photo credit: Robert McGoldrick/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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