You aren’t wrong: Our military officers actually seem to be getting stoopider

You aren’t wrong: Our military officers actually seem to be getting stoopider


By Maj. Hank Waggy, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest contributor

That the military needs intelligent officers is not a particularly controversial statement. Underpinning that argument, however, is the assumption that the military normally recruits, recognizes, and retains its intellectual capital. Two recent studies cast some doubt on this.

In his excellent new book, defense expert Eliot Cohen argues for the necessity of maintaining premier military capability. As part of that military capability, Cohen notes that the military “need[s] … professional officers with both operational and intellectual training as well as access to classified material and recent operational experience, to contribute to high-order thought about the nature of war.” Aside from noting that “by and large [the military] does not produce its own intellectual capital,” Cohen does not dwell on the issue. The situation may be far grimmer than Cohen states. More than merely not developing high-end intellectual ability, recent evidence shows that the military fails to recruit intellectual capability to the same degree as in by-gone generations and discriminates against the intellectual capital it does possess in promotions and selections.

In Joint Force Quarterly, Matthew F. Cancian showed the long-term trend in intelligence among Marine officers. Comparing the absolute scores on the General Classification Test (GCT), new Marine officers started a long-term downward trend in intellectual capability starting around 1980. Of concern, “two-thirds of the new officers commissioned in 2014 would be in the bottom one-third of the class of 1980; 41 percent of new officers in 2014 would not have qualified to be officers by the standards held at the time of World War II.” Though data for the other services is not available, Cancian suspects that a similar trend has occurred in them as well.

Ubiquitous college attendance likely contributed to the decline in officer intelligence, according to Cancian. Each service requires a four-year degree as a baseline requirement for commissioning; the pool of potential candidates expanded dramatically in the decades since 1980. No longer must one be of unusually high intelligence to graduate from college, nor does college graduation indicate high intelligence.

Cancian identified an additional dangerous trend. While average intelligence declined for new Marine Corps officers, elite intelligence levels also declined. “In 1980, there were 14 Marine officers entering who scored above 155 (on a test with a maximum score of 160). In 2004, the year of incoming officers who are now recently promoted majors, there were only two lieutenants who scored above 155. In 2014, there were none.” The Marine Corps may not have the intellectual capital it needs for the future.

Social trends likely played a role. Social scientist Charles Murray, commenting about the larger society, speculated that many more industries require high intelligence today than over preceding decades. There are a whole host of opportunities to use high intelligence that did not exist even a few decades ago. The military might have been a great option for those with high intelligence in 1980, but those same people have many more options today.

The military does not recruit as much intellectual capital in its officer corps as it once did. Work by Everett S.P. Spain, now a colonel on the United States Military Academy faculty and once a graduate student at Harvard Business School, shows that the promotion and selection system is systematically biased against those with high cognitive abilities. Joining with J.D. Mohundro and Bernard B. Banks in Parameters, Spain showed that the Army is much more likely to select low cognitive ability officers over their high cognitive ability peers. “[O]fficers with one-standard-deviation higher cognitive abilities had 29 percent, 18 percent, and 32 percent lower odds, respectively, of being selected early to major, early to lieutenant colonel, and for battalion command than their one-standard deviation lower cognitive-ability peers.”

Looked at as a whole, Cancian and Spain show a military both declining in average intelligence and biased against it. If true, the military would be ill-positioned to produce the strategic leaders it needs to navigate the complex world of the present and future.

Confirming or denying this hypothesis would certainly be a challenge. For one, separating intelligence from motivation is difficult. Standardized tests are predictable, allowing motivated students to prepare for the exam. Likewise, college GPA would be a troublesome metric, as schools vary widely in quality and grading criteria. While the services likely have some useful data, even accessing it would likely be a challenge. Where the Army keeps a copy of my ACT scores — required for ROTC a long time ago — could be anyone’s guess. While many mid-career officers have taken the GRE, that population likely only reflects individuals interested in graduate education. A comprehensive inventory of intellectual capital, particularly measured to allow year-over-year comparison, would be resource intensive. Others far more experienced than I have found it necessary, though in the intervening years we are no closer to doing so. More esoteric components of intellect, such as critical thinking and curiosity, defy easy measurement.

Some may wonder how the military could be declining in average intelligence, especially in its officer corps, when a large percentage of mid-career and senior officers now possess advanced degrees. Much of the increase in graduate education can be accounted for through degree-granting service schools such as the Air War College or Army War College. The rise of schools that grant college credit for military experience or training also plays a role. Meanwhile, the percentage of new brigadier generals who earned a degree through a civilian graduate school declined over the last two decades.

Some hopeful signs are emerging. Some of the “Force of the Future” initiatives recognized the role that challenging graduate education can play in intellectual development. The Army even sponsored officers to attend elite social science doctoral programs to assist in the development of strategic planners. The military may yet, as Cohen recommends, develop some of its intellectual capital. It remains to be seen if officers who participate in these types of programs will be punished by future promotion and selection boards, as Spain’s research suggests.

One must be careful not to fetishize intelligence at the expense of other traits, nor confuse graduate education with intellectual ability. Many variables go into developing future leaders within the military, and it is yet unclear whether intelligence is even among the most important. Charles Koch, describing his talent recruitment strategy for his various businesses, noted that he prioritizes values over absolute intelligence, which is why there are more Wichita State graduates at Koch Industries than Ivy League-educated individuals. The military, as a values-centric organization, may be in a similar situation. All things being equal, it is better to have intelligent leaders in the military. All things are never equal.

Recruiting, developing, and retaining intellectual capital within the military is a national security issue. The world is complex, and the military will need smart, educated leaders who can assist policy makers in navigating such an environment. Unfortunately, some research strongly suggests that the military has barriers to both recruiting the intellectual capital that it needs and rewarding that which it does have. Studying the problem — and owning up to it if it truly exists — would be a necessary first step.

Major Waggy is an Army Military Intelligence officer currently stationed in Colorado. A veteran of several tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, he will attend graduate school this fall through an Army program. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.

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