Tilting at Windmills: Army Officer Education versus Training

In the timeless children’s classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, the character of the professor is attempting to explain how there can be parallel universes to the children, but is encountering disbelief. “Bless me,” he says, “It’s all in Plato.  What DO they teach them in these schools?”  Similarly, one could tell a young (or even old) Army officer, “It’s all in Thucydides.  What DO they teach in TRADOC [Training and Doctrine Command] these days?”  The idea of a classically trained Army officer has gone the way of the musket and horse.  When we “modernized,” we lost more than just equipment.  In the backlash against a purely, “Drill and Ceremony Army,” the study of classical literature was tossed by the wayside.

Plato and Socrates

“I just saw the new Captain’s Career Course modules; I’m gonna go swig some hemlock now.”

First off, what do I mean when I say “classical education?”  For starters, there are the Greeks and Romans.  One simply cannot get away from their writings, as they are still so influential today.  Shakespeare and the like make an appearance.  I would also include excerpts from the great philosophers and the literary greats of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century.  And of course the Renaissance writers, like Machiavelli (he would be required reading merely to know how to get around in the Pentagon).  A good background in logic is important, because at present that gift only lies in the non-commissioned officer corps.  And lord knows, some rhetoric might not be a bad idea, because if you’re going to brief a plan, you should be able to do it eloquently and without PowerPoint bullets.  The central theme of a classical education is that all knowledge is inter-related and follows a historical track, which is what teaches the classically trained student to be always seeking further knowledge.

The idea of training officers to study classics can be a jarring thought to some.  Many would call it a profound waste of time and money, and say that we can’t even get our officers to learn our own doctrine.  I think that is precisely the reason a background in the classics is so important.  Being well-rounded in classical literature, philosophy, and history does not train you to be a dinner party savant: rather, it trains your brain to think critically.  Critical-thinking officers are the most powerful weapons on the battlefield.

The Art of War does not merely lie in tactics and strategy; it lies in understanding the world around you, in understanding the human person and what motivates him or her, in knowing the fine line between audacity and foolishness.  Most importantly, it means constantly out-thinking your enemy and being adaptive.  The classics not only train your mind to think outside the box, but they instill a desire to continue to learn.  This drive towards self-improvement can pay major dividends on the battlefield, as officers always seek to “improve their foxholes,” as the Army saying goes.

Many might then say, “Ok, fair enough, but you can’t honestly expect the Army to force their officers to read Hegel and Herodotus, can you?”  Actually, I do expect that.  I expect that the Army will force their officers to be able to shoot straight, be physically fit, and be trained in their specialty.  Why is it so far-fetched that the Army expect their officers to also be able to think critically?  Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was the epitome of a classically trained officer.  He spoke seven languages and taught rhetoric and political philosophy.  He used he alert mind to create his dominance on the battlefield.  T.E. Lawrence is also a good example of a classicist at war (he studied at Oxford and translated the Odyssey).  Marine Corps officer Nathaniel Fick in One Bullet Away explains how study of the classics drew him towards military service.  A well-trained mind seeks a challenge, and the military has historically attracted such minds.  Granted it often repels them after some time because of rigid formality and the oft-present determination at higher levels to never change, but that’s another story.

As far as existing programs go, the Chief of Staff’s Reading List is a decent start, but it does not include intellectual domains other than history.  I would love to see it expanded to embrace other domains.  “Train as you fight,” the saying goes.  We do a lot of training in the Army, but we do less educating.  Surely teaching our officers to think logically and critically is more important than having them complete self-development modules that merely teach them to click “next” and use screenshots if they get test questions wrong?

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