Does the Military Really Need More Strategists?

My latest for War on the Rocks.

My latest for War on the Rocks, “Does the Military Really Need More Strategists?” was published yesterday. It’s close to 3000 words and builds on a long-running debate at WotR about reforming the professional military education system, making excerpting difficult. My argument, in a nutshell:

The U.S. military doesn’t need to produce thousands of strategists a year, which is a good thing because it cannot. Further, while the professional military education system is a vital part of educating strategic thinkers, the primary obstacle to producing strategic leaders is a personnel system that bases promotions on tactical competence over the first quarter century of an officer’s career.

[…]

I would suggest that, rather than attempt to create hundreds of strategic geniuses and then put them through their paces for 25 or 30 years of tactical assignments for which they may well be unsuited, we simply decouple the two altogether. Let outstanding tactical officers command our formations, from platoon through division, while allowing officers who show strategic promise to utilize their talents where they can best serve the nation. Indeed, we have done that with some frequency in the not-too-distant past.

Dwight Eisenhower, who wrote the U.S. war plan for both the European and Pacific theaters and served as the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, is perhaps the epitome of American strategic genius. He had essentially no command experience below the three-star level, having only briefly held company and battalion command (for five and four months, respectively). He had spent almost his entire career up to that point on the personal staffs of generals like Fox Conner, John Pershing, and Douglas MacArthur, or in very senior aide and chief of staff posts. He also excelled as a staff and war college student.

Eisenhower spent most of his career in an Army that was essentially a cadre force. In today’s Army, it would be impossible for someone who followed his career path to get promoted past lieutenant colonel, much less to the general officer ranks. That’s precisely the problem: Someone with his talents would have been squandered as a low-tactical staff officer and, indeed, he may well have grown bored. But, if the goal is to identify and nurture strategic talent, Eisenhower is precisely the sort of officer we want to retain.

Gen. George Marshall, who was Army chief of staff during the war, had a similarly non-traditional career. While he had more troop time than Eisenhower, serving as a platoon leader, company commander, and in multiple tours as a brigade and regimental commander, most of his career was nonetheless spent as a staff officer and aide to senior officers. He rose to five-star rank never having commanded a division, corps, or higher formation. Like Eisenhower, he had also excelled in school, graduating first in his class at the infantry school and staff and war colleges.

Gen. (ret.) Colin Powell, arguably the most highly regarded American military strategist since World War II, was also known as a “political general.” To be sure, he excelled in tactical command assignments from lieutenant to colonel. But his strategic acumen was formed in Washington assignments, including White House fellow, assistant to the deputy secretary of defense, assistant to the secretary of energy, senior military assistant to the secretary of defense, and national security advisor. Befitting the requirements of the modern-day personnel system, he served briefly as commander of both V Corps and Forces Command. But he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at 52, the youngest officer to hold that post to this day, at an age where his contemporaries were assuming division command. He likewise excelled in the classroom, earning an MBA at The George Washington University and graduating at the top of his National War College class.

Gen. (ret.) David Petraeus, the most famous general of the post-9/11 era, had a far more traditional career. He commanded at every level from lieutenant to four-star general. He did, however, spend far more time in school than his contemporaries. After graduating at the top of his staff college class, he went on to earn his master’s in public administration and PhD in international relations from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton and later completed a fellowship at Georgetown. Additionally, he served an unusual number of times working directly for influential generals. He served twice as a personal assistant to John Galvin, first as his aide-de-camp as 24th Infantry Division commander and later as his military assistant as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. He was an aide and assistant executive officer to Gen. Carl Vuono during his time as Army chief of staff. Later still, he served as executive assistant to the director of the Joint Staff and then to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Henry Shelton.

As those examples show, the professional military education system plays a vital part in producing military strategists. Just as important, though, is identifying officers with the intellectual and political acumen to succeed in that domain early and grooming them with assignments where they can utilize and build on their talent. Graduate education in top civilian universities, attendance at additional planning courses like the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies or the Marine Corps’ School of Advanced Warfighting, or grooming through something like the Army’s Strategist Functional Area program may also be quite useful. But this means accepting deviation from the cookie cutter personnel management system.

All of this focus on grooming strategic talent for the upper ranks of the armed services elides another important point: Strategy-making is increasingly the province of civilians. While it has been the case for generations that presidents and service secretaries make policy, the National Security Act of 1947 and the massive standing military of the Cold War, and beyond, led to the creation of massive professional staffs at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. There is a huge pipeline of talent coming from our top graduate schools through various programs like the Presidential Management Fellowship. Rather than spending their 20s and early 30s proving their mettle in tactical leadership billets, they start their careers at the strategic level, and the best enter the Senior Executive Service (equivalent to the general officer ranks) while their uniformed counterparts are still attending staff colleges.

We still want our senior generals and admirals to be able to perform at the strategic level, translating civilian-made policy and political strategy into military strategy and operational art. But proficiency at the operational and tactical level is the sine qua non of the officer’s career. Let’s not sacrifice what we’re demonstrably good at in search of a handful of unicorns.

Much more at the link.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Military Affairs, National Security, Published Elsewhere
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    Hey, it’s listed on Real Clear World, part of the Real clear Politics website.

    ReplyReply
  2. Jay L Gischer says:

    This reads a lot like an argument for diversity. It’s an argument that in more general terms says that “we are focusing our training/recruitment too narrowly, and thus excluding some people who could really help us”. I see this in other fields, as well. Though in most other walks of life there is cross-pollination – people switch fields back and forth.

    The rest is nuts and bolts which are specific to the particular situation.

    ReplyReply
  3. James Joyner says:

    @Kathy: Cool. It also made RealClearDefense. I neglect to check RealClearWorld most days.

    @Jay L Gischer: It’s not so much an argument for diversity as for specialization. We already bring in lots of smart people with strategic aptitude. It’s just that we select strategic-level leaders for their ability to succeed in a succession of tactical assignments over the first quarter century or so of their careers. Those who get PhDs, spend lots of time on staffs, or become strategic specialists tend to get off the fast-track and top out at colonel.

    ReplyReply

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