The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Beyond the Cloister

Civilian graduate programs broaden a soldier’s horizons.

Published on July 1, 2007

It stands to reason that at a time of significant change in the parameters, methods and social context of war there should be a debate about how best to advance professional education in the U.S. military. A significant aspect of that debate concerns the relationship between the Services and the civilian academy. The American Interest is therefore pleased to present two pointed views on this topic, one by U.S. Army General David H. Petraeus and one by Ralph Peters (Lt. Col. USA, Ret.).

The most powerful tool any soldier carries is not his weapon but his mind. These days, and for the days ahead as far as we can see, what soldiers at all ranks know is liable to be at least as important to their success as what they can physically do. Some key questions before the U.S. military in changing times therefore must be: How do we define the best military education for the U.S. armed forces, and what are the best ways to impart that education? What should be the ideal relationship between soldiering and the schoolhouse?

This is a vast and complex subject, involving many different skill sets in various settings. I want to focus here on just one aspect of that subject: Do military officers benefit from attending a civilian graduate school after having learned their trade as warfighters and during a period in their careers that permits them to spend a year or two “away from troops?” The short answer is yes (while noting that we must, again, first focus on being competent in our warfighting skills). The benefits of civilian education are substantial, and I have been and remain a strong proponent of such opportunities for officers. I have applauded vigorously as the U.S. Army has begun implementing a new program to allow several hundred officers from the so-called basic branches—infantry, armor, field artillery and so on—to attend civilian graduate schools each year, with full funding, and to then be able to rejoin a tactical unit without having to first do an academic or staff tour that “employs” the skills they’ve gained in graduate school, as was the case in the past.

[credit: AFP/Getty Images]

There are at least six reasons that civilian graduate schooling is valuable for our officers. The first and most important is that a stint at graduate school takes military officers out of their intellectual comfort zones. Such experiences are critical to the development of the flexible, adaptable, creative thinkers who are so important to operations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Warfighting must certainly remain the primary focus of military leaders. However, as the U.S. Army’s new leadership manual explains, our officers need to be capable of more than that. They need to be “pentathlete leaders”—individuals who, metaphorically speaking, are not just sprinters or shot putters but can do it all. We need officers comfortable not just with major combat operations but with operations conducted throughout the middle- and lower-ends of the spectrum of conflict, as well.

That is why it is so important to get the officers who will be our future commanders and leaders out of their intellectual comfort zones. Most of us in the military live an existence that is beautifully captured by the “grindstone/cloister” metaphor that an old boss of mine, General Jack Galvin, used to use. What General Galvin meant was that military professionals often live a cloistered existence that limits what we experience first hand. At the same time, we have our noses to the grindstone, which tends to make us unaware of what we’re missing. We don’t pause and look up often enough, because we don’t have the time. When I was his aide as a captain, General Galvin often urged me to raise my sights, to look out beyond the “max effective” range of an M-16 rifle. He was the reason I went to graduate school, and I have been indebted to him ever since.

Of course, officers can—and do—go outside their cloisters and prod those in the younger generations to stretch their minds and imaginations without going to civilian graduate schools. We bring provocative speakers to our war colleges and staff colleges. We develop ambitious curricula to stimulate our officers’ thinking. We publish thought-provoking, sometimes critical, articles in our military journals. And we provide assignments deliberately designed to broaden our officers’ development. At the end of the day, however, few if any of the experiences we can provide within our military communities are as intellectually stimulating, challenging or mind-opening as a year or two at a civilian graduate school. One reason for that is simple enough: When an officer leaves a lecture or a seminar room within a military environment, he or she returns to the familiar cloister and grindstone. When that officer leaves a lecture or a seminar room in a civilian graduate school, he or she is living an experience beyond the cloister. Just as the best way by far to learn a foreign language is to live in the culture where the language is spoken, the best way to learn about other worldviews is to go to and live in another world.

The second reason civilian grad school is so beneficial for those in uniform flows directly from living outside the cloister. Through such schooling our officers are often surprised to discover just how diverse and divergent views can be. We only thought we knew the contours of debate on a given subject. We discover not only that some very smart folks see the world very differently than we do, but that they also see it very differently from each other. Debates we imagined to be two-sided turn out to be three-, four- or more-sided.

This is a very valuable experience in and of itself for those of us in uniform who will work and live in other cultures overseas. If the range of views within our own country is greater than we supposed, that can only help prepare officers for an even wider range beyond our shores. It is also worth pointing out that the array of foreign students in civilian graduate programs is far broader than in our military education institutions, even greater than the relatively diverse (for military schooling) student populations at the National Defense University at Fort Leslie McNair in Washington, DC, the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California or any of the others. That’s another plus.

None of this is meant to imply that all those in uniform see issues uniformly. But we probably do tend to be less diverse in our thinking than those on most college campuses. After all, in the military, teamwork is not only a virtue, it is a life-and-death prerequisite of success. It is natural, therefore, that the trust soldiers must have in each other limits somewhat the boundaries of disagreement. That’s not true on a college campus. The academic world at its best is supposed to push the envelope of inquiry as far as it can, whatever dissensus may result. Being part of a wide-open culture of discovery can be a very stimulating, challenging experience for those of us who attended West Point, which (tongue in cheek) we felt represented 150 years of tradition unhampered by progress. Of course, West Point has changed enormously over the years and it is a true national treasure, but despite the varied curriculum and experiences it provides, it is not an institution that puts creativity, individuality and discovery before all else.

A third reason grad school is good for our officers is that, depending on the program, such study provides a fair amount of general intellectual capital and often provides specific skills and knowledge on which an officer may draw during his or her career.

It is sometimes said that the study of history, or government and politics, or other social science and humanities disciplines can help us ask the right questions, but cannot provide us specific answers to contemporary challenges. Certainly, a typical grad school experience—especially an interdisciplinary one like that provided at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School or SAIS at Johns Hopkins or Harvard’s Kennedy School—does help us to ask the right questions. However, in many cases, graduate school also provides real skills, knowledge and expertise on which one can draw in developing answers to those questions. I can give examples from my own experience.

When I first went to Iraq in 2003, my colleagues and I were repeatedly greeted by Iraqis—in the case at hand, in Mosul—who would say to us in the course of conversation: “We love democracy!…What is it?” I particularly remember being pulled aside after a provincial council meeting by an Iraqi business professor from Mosul University who cautioned, “You know, general, this idea of free markets scares some of these individuals.” I was not surprised, because as a Princeton international relations/economics Ph.D. (and later an assistant professor at West Point) I was well aware of the uneven spread of liberal ideas. And I was not totally at a loss for answers, for I found myself recalling concepts from political philosophy and government courses. I knew how to covey basic ideas about majority rule and minority rights; about the exercise of basic freedoms and the need for limits to avoid infringing on the rights of others; and about the virtues of market-based economics.

Basic concepts from Econ 101 helped me plenty. Had I not remembered, for example, that injecting more money into an economy without increasing the amount of goods in the marketplace does nothing more than produce inflation, our early effort to get Iraqi government salaries paid would have been for naught. We would not have re-opened the border for trade with Syria as soon we did. By the way, we did ensure, in re-opening that border, that all existing UN Security Council resolutions governing trade with Iraq were observed—thanks to some of the 28 great operational lawyers we had with us and a vague recollection of international legal concepts left implanted somewhere in my brain from a grad school course (and in this case also from a stint on the Joint Staff).

More than that, it was clear to me from my first days in Mosul that we needed to provide some basic instruction on concepts we take for granted in the United States—in our national version of a cloister. So we brought to Iraq Colonels Mike Meese and Rich Lacquement, two fellow Woodrow Wilson School Ph.D.s, for several months in the summer of 2003 to help the new provincial council establish small business programs, put together investment deals and so on, until the formal USAID and Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) initiatives, like the Research Triangle Institute’s democracy program, could be established. Those two officers joined Cornell Ph.D., Major Ike Wilson, our Division Plans Officer. Major Wilson demonstrated “pentathlete” leadership capabilities in adapting the Bosnia Multi-year Roadmap to northern Iraq and creating a campaign plan for northern Iraq relatively quickly after our arrival there. And there are plenty of other stories of how grad school helped a number of us—for example, about the value of knowledge that officers picked up in writing about past counterinsurgency operations, especially about lessons learned from Vietnam and Central America.

A fourth benefit of graduate school is that it helps our officers develop and refine their communications skills. As officers progress, their ability to communicate effectively—orally and in writing—takes on increased importance. Expressing oneself clearly, concisely and effectively is of obvious importance to leaders of all sorts, and it grows in importance with seniority. Indeed, if there is one area in which the students in our professional military education programs probably need to improve across the board, it is that of writing skills. That is a concern outside the military, as well. Several civilian graduate programs now provide writing coaches and former magazine or newspaper editors to grade papers on their grammar and effectiveness in presentation, in addition to the grade given on the substance of the paper.

Fifth and very much related, graduate school inevitably helps U.S. military officers improve their critical thinking skills. This is, of course, not just a result of specific courses designed to develop research and analytical abilities. Students learn not only from books and professors; they also learn from each other. The debates and discussions inside seminar rooms and in every grad school coffee room, cafeteria and hangout are invaluable to all students. That is also why the intellectual development of our officers is best facilitated by graduate programs that do not have too many members of the military in them, so that those from the military can’t hide behind their buddies. Officers should be repeatedly challenged, and they must develop their own intellectual arguments and positions.

In my own experience, I found the most valuable situations to be those in which exceedingly bright senior professors held views substantially different from my own. I developed a particular friendship with one such professor at Princeton, one of the country’s leading international legal scholars at the time—even though we truly saw the world through different lenses. In the end, we decided that we never disagreed on anything but substance.

I happened to be taking a course with him when the United States invaded the island of Grenada in 1983. Now, some of you will remember that the legal underpinnings for that action were not the most robust to have ever justified an American military operation. Indeed, it later turned out that U.S. officials had actually written the request for American intervention that the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States submitted back to the United States to get us to intervene against one of their own member states. Nor was the action anchored in the most rock solid of ground when it came to traditional norms associated with the just war concept. Nonetheless, I wrote a paper for that professor entitled, “The Invasion of Grenada: Illegal, Immoral, and the Right Thing to Do.” It was great fun to write, and decent enough to earn an “A” despite a conclusion I know the professor did not share.

The sixth way grad school produces better military officers is that it typically imparts a degree of intellectual humility—not at all a bad quality in those who may be charged in the future with some very weighty responsibilities. I certainly found my own experience at grad school to be quite humbling at times—starting with the “D” I got on my first advanced micro-economics exam. This frankly surprised me, for I went to grad school following a year at the Army’s Command and General Staff College, during which I won the so-called “white briefcase.” I stood first in our class of a thousand or so students, so as I entered grad school I believed I was a reasonably thoughtful fellow. The econ exam was followed quickly by a comment by Professor Richard Ullman, who was also the editor of Foreign Policy magazine at the time and eventually became my dissertation adviser, on a paper I wrote for him: “Though this paper is reasonably well written and has some merit, it is relatively simplistic”, he observed, “and I am left feeling that the whole is less than the sum of the parts.”

I eventually did fine in Professor Ullman’s seminar and even got an “A” on the final exam in advanced micro, but grad school has a knack for taking one down a peg, and I found the experience quite salutary. Put differently, grad school forces a person to redefine upward one’s own internal standards of excellence. That’s a very healthy experience, so much so that I especially recommend it for all young captains who think, to any degree, that they’re the stuff—which is to say, every young infantry captain. Of course, I also recommend it for aviators of all ranks and services—that should almost go without saying.

Sending American military officers to graduate school also benefits our country as a whole by helping to bridge the gap between those in uniform and those who, since the advent of the all-volunteer force, have had little contact with the military. The truth is that, just as the military has developed certain stereotypes of academics, journalists and other civilians over the years, these groups in turn hold certain stereotypes about those in the military. It’s important that we in the military understand those we serve—the American people—and it is equally important that our citizens understand those in uniform who have raised their right hand and sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.

That’s a big reason I was willing to speak on a number of college campuses between my tours in Iraq. My own experience represents a bridge between the two worlds of the military and the academy. I plan to make similar trips again once my present tour is ended. And I also plan to speak to my junior colleagues often as General Galvin spoke to those of my generation, and with a similar message. The future of the U.S. military requires that we be competent warfighters, but we cannot be competent warfighters unless we are as intelligent and mentally tough as we are aggressive and physically rugged. We will become that way not merely by observing the differences between the military and the civilian academic world, but by experiencing them first hand.

General David H. Petraeus is currently commander of Multi-National Force–Iraq.