Best Defense

An Appreciation of Recently Departed Lieutenant General John H. Cushman

Gen. “Jack” Cushman, former commandant of the U.S. army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) from 1973-1976, died earlier this month at 96.

Lt. Gen. John H. Cushman in the classroom. (U.S. Army)
Lt. Gen. John H. Cushman in the classroom. (U.S. Army)


By James R. Cricks
Best Defense guest columnist


Gen. “Jack” Cushman, former commandant of the U.S. army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) from 1973-1976, died earlier this month at 96. He led the college with great passion and intellectual courage out of the “tumult” of the Vietnam-era and the reorganization of an embattled army. As Thomas Ricks and Paul Herbert have extensively written, there were many heated arguments within the army about the direction of military education at Fort Leavenworth. Cushman himself commented that the story could not be told without describing his problems with the commander of the newly-formed Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), Gen. William DePuy, and “his with me.” Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Abrams, hearing of the intense discussions, asked, “What the hell happened out there at Leavenworth?” What happened was one of the greatest transformations the college had made in the past century.

Cushman had been a CGSC instructor as a Major in 1955. He was described as brilliant, creative, outspoken, and serious, with a burning desire to create a more modern college. In 1973 after three Vietnam tours, DePuy selected Cushman, a former colleague on the army counterinsurgency staff, to command Fort Leavenworth. Cushman envisioned continuing his high-intensity planning for “reformed-minded action.” The faculty soon found out the new commandant had one central focus, changing tactics at the college. Cushman was a late transfer to the infantry in 1951, yet he was self-identified as “the Senior Instructor.” He closely monitored every aspect of developing new tactics instruction, bringing in speakers like Gen. Richard Cavazos and often teaching in the classroom himself. Cushman insisted courses come from the reality of the modern environment and not based upon some abstraction of pedantic “scholasticism” that he and Gen. George Marshall objected to.

Cushman envisioned that the academic center of gravity had now shifted from the CGSC instructor to the student. The students should work harder than before, spending more time on homework and learning the fundamentals on their own.   There would not be repetition in the classroom. His new instructional goal as outlined in the 1975 Institutional Self Study was to, “Reduce the subject matter density in order to promote the opportunity for analysis and discussion in depth.” Departments would administer a grading system limiting “A’s” to less than 35 percent.

Cushman met many challenges as he extended his personal influence into the details of the program. The TRADOC commander wanted CGSC to train students for lower echelon combat using learned techniques whereas the commandant stressed education to increase the creative problem-solving potential of the force. Small group instruction was considered by some faculty to be a significant drain on their preparation time as platform man hours doubled. The commandant initially wanted to vastly increase the study and application of computers but the faculty was able to convince him that such a change would have taken too much student time. His ethics symposia series on officer responsibility was cancelled after two lively sessions and discussion-provoking written “Commandant’s Requirements” were discontinued. On the day Saigon fell, he gathered all students to talk about its sober implications and then told them to, “Now just go quietly out of here.”

Cushman wanted to bring CGSC into the mainstream of army activity and institutionalize this new approach to educating officers. Specialty classes would continue to take a prominent role and be refined throughout later decades. He led the push to acquire civilian historians so the level of applied historical instruction would improve for case study. Informal small groups, computers in classrooms, and problem-solving techniques would become the norm as his initiatives became more accepted. The Profession of Arms courses of study would expand and evolve into a new committee in the department of command. These CGSC changes were reviewed by 1975 DoD committee on excellence in education and became a model for intermediate military colleges.

TRADOC would force him away from the schoolhouse during his last months at Leavenworth and toward combat developments’ projects.  His office was moved from CGSC to Fort Leavenworth’s clock tower, possibly as symbolic evidence of a new prioritization. Thomas Ricks observed it was striking that official histories of TRADOC largely ignore Cushman while DePuy “looms large on nearly every page.”

Cushman had still left his imprint at CGSC after a turbulent tenure. As an insurgent-like instructor, dynamic commandant, and later as a thoughtful military writer, Cushman was a catalyst for necessary graduate school reforms. No longer would the whole student body be treated as if it were a single interchangeable part. Ivan Birrer, CGSC’s long-time educational adviser, commented that there was now a tailoring of individual student programs of instruction and a number of things “happened very quickly” to make the education significantly different from earlier courses. New ways of thinking were now being discussed frankly by Gen. Edward Meyer, Col. Huba Wass de Czege, and a fresh crop of independent leaders. As General Cushman later said in reflection, “I was in the process up to my elbows, often to their frustration.”

James Cricks has instructed at CGSC for over a decade in the department of joint, interagency, and multinational operations.  Previously, he served as an analyst at SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe] and U.S. European command from 1995-2007. 

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 @tomricks1

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