On May 11 th , Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, our nation’s highest-ranking military officer, will stand before the 2014 graduating class of Duke University and deliver the commencement address. General Dempsey will speak of the value of education, and the skills four years of learning at one of our nation’s premier universities have provided these students. The nation’s self-proclaimed “highest-ranking student” will implore the new graduates to go out into the world and make the most of their education, just as he did when he received a master’s degree at Duke in 1984.
To many, Dempsey is a model soldier-scholar, one who effectively blends the talents of an intellectual and a warfighter. A rare breed in today’s Army, soldier-scholars have achieved much success in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, with the Army’s priorities moving away from civilian graduate education, Dempsey would be wise to think of the captains and majors of our nation’s Army who won’t have the same chance at a graduate education that he did thirty years ago.
The Rise of Soldier-Scholars
General Sir William F. Butler once wrote, “the nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.” In recent years, with the rise of generals such as David Petraeus and H.R. McMaster, the line between the fighter and thinker has become blurred-and the U.S. military is better off for it.
Soldier-scholars in today’s Army stem from a long line of professors at West Point. Sent by their department to get a PhD at a top-notch graduate program, these officers would return to teach the next generation of Army officers. “I’ve always thought it’s been a strength of the Army that we do not have our own graduate school, as the Air Force and Navy do,” says Michael Meese, a retired Brigadier General who directed the Social Sciences Department at West Point. “Consequently, when Army officers get graduate education, they go to graduate school.”
Beyond teaching, these officers move between educating the next generation of officers to commanding their own soldiers in the field. “Of the professors that were at West Point when I was a cadet, four of them became division commanders,” noted Meese. General Martin Dempsey taught at West Point as well for several years before commanding an armored battalion and directed the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), the hub of Army education, before becoming the Chief of Staff of the Army.
Even more importantly, the soldier-scholars of today are proving their worth in the public eye. Major General H.R. McMaster, who holds a doctorate in military history from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, was selected as one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2014. His biography was written by none other than retired Lieutenant General David Barno, who received his master’s degree at Georgetown and commanded all U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. General David Petraeus also made Time’s list back in 2011, in which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hailed him as “the premier soldier-scholar of his generation.” Some may go as far as to say that Petraeus is the premier soldier of his generation, the first general to achieve widespread popularity since Eisenhower. So what makes these soldier-scholars different?
Civilian Graduate Education
In his 2007 article, “Beyond the Cloister”, Petraeus presented a lengthy argument for civilian graduate education, and lauded it for “taking officers out of their intellectual comfort zones.” Similarly, Michael Meese moved from serving as a battery commander to being one of only two military students at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. “Counterinsurgency, in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan was kind of like going into Princeton,” says Meese. “I didn’t know what the right questions were, there was substantial uncertainty.” For both Petraeus and Meese, entering into the uncertain environment at Princeton prepared them to grapple with new and difficult challenges on the battlefield. From two officers who led three and four highly successful tours in Iraq, respectively, and arguably turned around the war with the surge strategy they both helped to guide, this endorsement proves to be substantial.
However, the most important of Petraeus’s arguments appears to be the development critical thinking. “The debates inside seminar rooms are invaluable to all students,” writes Petraeus. In today’s fast-paced world, being able to think critically is absolutely vital to Army officers. “Education is what allows officers to be effective,” says McMaster in an interview with the Army’s Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis. “If you’re asking the right question, then you’re going in the right direction.” Dr. John Nagl, a retired Lieutenant Colonel, credits his time at Oxford with developing the critical thinking that allowed him to question the future of modern warfare when he saw the Iraqi Army fall in just 100 hours during Operation Desert Storm.
This development of critical thinking stands in stark contrast to the military’s in-house professional military education, or PME, system. As Michael Meese put it, “PME leans more towards teaching you the right answers, civilian education forces you more towards asking the right questions.” While PME makes sure that officers have mastered the art of warfare and its historical prescribed solutions, civilian graduate education provides a forum for officers to think broadly and ask big questions. Yet these two systems are not by any means mutually exclusive. “Both are extraordinarily useful for Army officers, notes Nagl. “Let them each play their particular roles.”
Due to budget cuts and the drawdown of military forces, the U.S. Army finds itself fulfilling Butler’s dire prophecy by drawing a line between our nation’s soldiers and scholars. At the peak of the Cold War, graduate education was seen as a priority for the armed forces. A recent study at West Point found that in the mid-1980s, the Army provided 6,000 graduate school slots for its officers every year. Today, that number sits at 412 annual slots for the Army’s largest program, with a few fellowships providing minimal additional opportunities. Moreover, the focus has shifted. The Army now prioritizes higher learning only for specific fields-doctors, lawyers, and others who need the specialized education.
In an effort to increase the retention rates of officers, the Army introduced the Career Satisfaction Program, or CSP, in 2006. The program, among other incentives, allows eligible West Point and ROTC cadets to agree to an extra three years of service in exchange for a fully-funded graduate school experience. The program allowed officers of all branches-infantry, artillery, armor-not just specialized fields, to receive a quality graduate education. At its peak, the program attracted 564 cadets to the graduate school option, and from 2006 to 2009, almost 2,000 cadets signed contracts. The CSP also allowed for officers to go from graduate school straight to an operational unit, utilizing their education in command and staff positions rather than teaching at West Point. Success of the program aside, sources at West Point confirm that the Army has cancelled the graduate school option of the program as a budget-cutting measure.
To be sure, some may say that civilian graduate school is a frivolous expense for our officers. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters went as far as to compare officers with PhDs to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, calling them “theory-poisoned and indecisive.” Yet just as Peters wrote those words, one soldier-scholar-David Petraeus-was leading a surge of American troops in a strategy he helped to devise, effectively using his theories to take action, quelling an insurgency and turning around a failed and embarrassing war effort.
The Future of Army Education
Today, America’s military faces an ever-changing and uncertain world. “Counterinsurgency was new and different for me, I don’t know what will be new and different for my son in 2020,” says Michael Meese (Meese’s son, Brian, is a First Lieutenant currently serving on a Forward Operating Base in Southern Afghanistan). Yet even surrounded by uncertainty, Meese’s education allowed him to ask the right questions and pursue the best course of action. In a time of drawdown for our military, we desperately need the most educated and prepared soldiers left behind. For Meese’s son and others of his age group, allowing access to high quality civilian graduate education might make all the difference in facing the uncertain threats soon to come.
General Dempsey, when you deliver the commencement address at Duke, consider the impact that your civilian graduate education had on you as an officer. Consider what that experience could mean to the majors and lieutenant colonels of our Army. Today, we need well-educated officers more than ever. As your contemporary General Petraeus once wrote, “the most powerful tool any soldier carries is not his weapon but his mind.”
U.S. Army Human Resources Command
U.S. Army Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis: http://talent.army.mil/
Personal Interview with Dr. Michael Meese
“Beyond the Cloister” by David Petraeus