Why Military Education Isn't to Blame for Afghanistan and Iraq

U.S. Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Central Command assist with security at an Evacuation Control Checkpoint (ECC) during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan.
U.S. Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Central Command assist with security at an Evacuation Control Checkpoint (ECC) during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 26, 2021. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

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Strategic military success and failure most often lie outside of the bounds of solely military knowledge, expertise or execution. Purported failures in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan -- even the microcosm of Kabul -- are arguably symptoms of greater problems in policymaking, rather than shortcomings in professional military education.

Civilian policymakers may not always make the right call with difficult policy decisions in the eyes of the military professional. The military professional might even find those policies "stupid." Perhaps Gen. Douglas MacArthur was right and President Harry Truman was wrong about the need to fight the Chinese in the 1950s. Even if MacArthur was right, this did not protect him from being fired for insubordination.

A pair of articles that has recently appeared on Military.com ("Why Our Generals Don't Win" and "Why Our Generals Can't Think") penned by retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson were broadly critical of senior U.S. military officers and joint professional military education (JPME). The articles are built on a profound misunderstanding of history, civil-military relations, and what is and what is not occurring at JPME institutions. While a close examination and even criticism of both policymakers and military leaders regarding recent conflicts -- particularly the withdrawal from Afghanistan -- are warranted, the record upon which Anderson stakes his arguments must be clarified if we are to draw the right lessons.

In his Sept. 7, 2023, piece, Anderson explains to readers "Why Our Generals Don't Win." The author begins by correlating the "win" in Operation Desert Storm to the fact that the leaders of that era were not professionally or intellectually damaged by reforms in joint education and organization. Blaming the reforms of the Goldwater-Nichols Act for bloated staffs and misguided education, the author provides no evidence that Desert Storm military leaders possessed unique skills that directly led to that operational win. Arguably, the nature of the conflict itself -- given the unusually clear and limited policy goals -- led to unequivocal operational success.

Civilian national policymakers told the military to get the Iraqi military out of Kuwait. The military did so. Many would argue, however, that this was only a temporary "win" and that strategically it resulted in the need to go back 20-some years later. That is a policy issue, not a warfighting issue.

Anderson also points to the reforms as having resulted in deleterious effects on the military services, criticizing the Army, Navy and Marine Corps in turn. His claims about military failures come from a fundamental misunderstanding about who makes policy decisions and who carries them out.

At the direction of the commander in chief of the armed forces, the military conducted the Afghanistan withdrawal not from Bagram but from Kabul. In his second article, in which he explains "Why Our Generals Can't Think," Anderson claims that no general questioned that decision. Perhaps it is a statement about our current society that anyone, let alone a seasoned military veteran such as Anderson, would expect that an article in "The Atlantic" would provide insights into private and likely classified discussions between civilian policymakers and military leaders at the highest level regarding the decisions over war policies. The charge that no general questioned the decision to withdraw from Kabul rather than Bagram is spurious.

Further, comparing that decision to the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu -- with French losses in dead, wounded and captured in the tens of thousands -- borders on ridiculous, despite our shared national pain of losing lives in the attack on our forces during the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Along with Anderson's expectation that military advice -- and ultimately any military disagreement with civilian policymakers -- should be part of public debate is his suggestion that military leaders whose advice is not followed should resign. While military leaders must have moral courage, they should not publicly complain, resign or threaten resignation if they do not get their way in a policy decision. U.S. civil-military tradition, which begins with the U.S. Constitution, should not be changed into a system in which civilian policymakers are essentially blackmailed by the generals. Military leaders would never tolerate such behavior from their own subordinates. There is no reason to expect that civilian authorities should be beholden to such coercion.

While military officers have an obligation to refuse an immoral or illegal order -- something Anderson correctly states -- they do not have the right or duty to, as he claims, "say 'no' to a patently stupid order or plan." It is widely known in the military that the ranks above do not know as much as those in the trenches: They are "stupid," in Anderson's terms. "They just don't get it" -- says the private of the sergeant, the lieutenant of the major, the colonel of the general. If those executing military plans refused to do so on the grounds of believing the plans or their leaders were stupid, either nothing would ever get done or the military would need to reinstitute summary execution for refusal to obey orders. Neither of those are good options.

An officer's commission states that they are being bestowed "special trust and confidence" for a reason. Officers do swear an oath to the Constitution, not a president or king. But the U.S. constitutional system is also one of civilian control of the military. The general is not the arbiter of what is or is not constitutional. "We the people" have vested that power in three branches of government.

Moreover, a general who threatens resignation, especially during crises, does not serve his or her country or subordinates well. Readers should recall that Dwight Eisenhower (one of Anderson's examples of great generals) disagreed with the requirement from civilian leaders to liberate Paris during World War II. Eisenhower and other military planners worried that doing so would be a drain on resources necessary for more important military aims. In that case, the political and cultural significance of the objective -- Paris -- outweighed other purely military factors. This is not to say Eisenhower was wrong, but that military and political professionals quite often view problems with different lenses. In the U.S. constitutional system, if there is a difference of opinion, the judgment of those elected by "we the people" must carry the day. If that is not the case, our representative republic will be in peril. The issues at stake are bigger than Kabul or Bagram.

Anderson's criticism of Goldwater-Nichols having resulted in uniformed Navy leaders failing to build enough submarines is misplaced. Likewise, his dig against the Marine Corps' Force Design 2030 indicates bitterness that things are not being done the way the author would have them done, nothing more. The public fight between the Corps' traditionalists and those behind Gen. David Berger's changes also teaches us much -- but nothing good about the supposed military professionals having such a public display. Additionally, just as with attack submarines, if the U.S. Congress wanted the Marine Corps to have tanks and keep all of its Howitzer batteries, then the Marine Corps would have to do it. The Marines may not think it wise, but the Corps would have no choice. Just ask the Air Force about who really determined the long-overdue retirement of the A-10 Warthog and the production of a second F-35 engine. Military professionals give military advice, and civilian policymakers decide and fund.

Anderson next attacks the Goldwater-Nichols requirement that officers serve in joint billets for promotion to flag rank. He charges that "there is no empirical evidence serving in a role like the graves registration officer at Central Command" will provide the makings of a good joint commander.

Perhaps, but a stint at the American Battle Monuments Commission did not seem to impede the military genius of the future five-star general Eisenhower. He had never led so much as a fire team in combat before leading the Allied invasion of North Africa, and ultimately becoming the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe. However, "Ike" was a graduate of both the Army Command and General Staff College and the Army War College, though this last statement is just as much a declaration of correlation, rather than causation, as Anderson is inclined to use. Further, it was arguably Eisenhower's diplomacy with multiple national leaders and often shockingly self-righteous military subordinates, as well as his keen selection and management of such subordinate combat planners and leaders, that made him so successful in Europe against Axis forces.

While modern U.S. military staffs are arguably too large, blaming reforms made in 1986 comes with no real evidence. Claiming that "Rommel's Panzer Army" was smaller than current joint U.S. military staffs will be chalked up to a typo in the original article. However, Rommel's staff certainly was smaller than current U.S. combatant command staffs. It is also irrelevant. Rommel's warfighting experience was relegated to what he was able to affect in North Africa with his Afrika Korps -- a responsibility dwarfed in time and space by current joint commands.

It is also important to bring to the attention of readers the fact that Rommel lost. That Rommel was able to temporarily "[overrun] most of North Africa" is irrelevant. Drawing on the lessons of losers in terms of exemplary task organization is not the lesson to be learned for today's U.S. joint force.

The author then shifts gears with a non sequitur that the best warfighters in history were largely self-taught the profession of arms, but also that a large number of current officers have had no experience as staff officers. Anderson claims that on staff "is where the real mastery of grand tactics and operational art is learned. ..." Then why point to 10-month JPME programs as the sole source of blame for the supposed tactical, operational or strategic failures of current uniformed military leaders? JPME is certainly not perfect, nor is it perfectible.

A single academic year either mid-way or just past mid-way of an officer's career is insufficient to "master grand tactics and operational art." The timing is also much too late in a military career to suddenly provide "mastery" of such a complex profession. Officers are considered professionals and their individual PME occurs not once or twice, but over a career of service and leadership. That the "real mastery" occurs while doing is quite correct. JPME provides professional growth. If the seeds of the military profession are not planted and nourished early and continuously throughout a career, no 10-month program (master's degree or not) will suffice to make up for that shortfall.

Anderson also claims that JPME does not but "must include a serious study of military theory, history and staff planning." This author agrees and, along with a talented cadre of professors, teaches each of these subjects at JPME. Anderson also claims that the instructors at JPME are not required to be combat experts. This is true, but to say they are not, as he claims, "knowledgeable about the study of war" is inaccurate.

If the requirements to teach at JPME included combat experience, we would have precious few teachers. Not every combat veteran is interested in teaching at JPME. Moreover, many military professionals, though knowledgeable of combined-arms and other martial topics, are still not qualified to teach nor particularly adept at teaching any subject. Certainly, Anderson and the reader can point to many examples of highly knowledgeable, yet abjectly incapable, teachers.

Anderson's solution for JPME is "a program of rigorous reading of military history interspersed with periodic exercises that require the students to make sound decisions, and insist[ence] that they be able to issue clear plans and orders based on those decisions." Perhaps a visit to a JPME institution in the last 20 years or so would reveal these very things are indeed occurring. They were this author's experience as a JPME student nearly 20 years ago, and they continue to form the core of this author's teaching experience at JPME since 2008 at different institutions. Again, no 10-month program is sufficient for true mastery, but these facts suggest that Anderson's charges about what is occurring in our JPME programs are ill-informed.

Next, Anderson's critique of the failures resulting from the revolving door of leaders and units in Afghanistan seems valid enough. However, little evidence is provided to bolster the argument other than a claim that Gens. David Petraeus and Jim Mattis were exceptional leaders compared to the others who came before and after them. This claim borders on hero worship, as do the author's claims of the genius of flag officers of yore. One might ask what then explains these two generals' failure to solve the myriad problems -- military, social, political and otherwise -- in Afghanistan. The author answers his own question and rebuts his fundamental argument at the same time. It was "the stubborn incompetence and corruption of the Afghan government and its military." Therefore, it was not, as Anderson has suggested, an Army that can't plan, a Navy that doesn't build submarines, a Marine Corps that no longer has tanks, Goldwater-Nichols, JPME, or the size of joint staffs.

Anderson concludes, after providing no empirical evidence of his many claims, that "only the top 10% of field-grade officers" annually need to serve on a joint staff, thereby enabling the "slashing" of the size of staffs "without sacrificing quality." No explanation is given for what the right staff size is, what staff billets should be sacrificed, nor how that "top 10%" would be selected across each of the military services. Each of the branches has vastly different areas of "quality" and expertise required to execute its warfighting functions. What are the desired qualities of a joint (versus Army, Air Force, Marine Corps or Navy) staff officer? Is the officer going to the staff to provide advice and assistance to the commander, or to be groomed for command? To ask is to answer. Someone, unfortunately, needs to be assigned as the graves registration officer at U.S. Central Command.

Anderson's final claim is absolutely true: "A military professional must be a master of his trade." Any individual professional or service branch that would rely on one or two 10-month JPME programs to provide that mastery is delusional. Yet, the truth is also undermined by another misleading claim (and misreading of history) that the great generals "never served as joint officers before leading great armies and fleets to victory." Of course they didn't. There was no such thing as a joint staff as we now know it at the time. However, Eisenhower served in multiple staff positions prior to leading the greatest military force ever assembled (again, never having led anything or anybody in combat prior). Grant, Pershing and Nimitz all served in various non-leadership and non-combat roles. The real difference between their experiences and the experiences of today's military officers is that today some of the time that officers spend in staff roles is on a joint staff. Modern military operations require officers with at least a modicum of knowledge outside of their own specialty and service. We are a better force now than we were 80 years ago.

The wisdom of civilian policy decisions should not be conflated with the U.S. military's level of martial prowess. Anderson does make a solid point regarding the compressed timeline in which many things must occur in a modern officer's career. However, this is not a result of Goldwater-Nichols, but both the shortened time between promotions and the "up-or-out" promotion system. Eisenhower spent about 16 years of his career at the rank of major. Today's officers serve at the rank of major for about 6 years, give or take.

U.S. policymaking and military leadership are far from perfect. They deserve -- they require -- pointed criticism and careful reflection by civilian and military professionals. Policymakers, just like generals and admirals, make decisions with incomplete information, in rapidly evolving and complex situations. Carl von Clausewitz famously presented this as "the fog of war" -- a concept with which any JPME graduate is familiar. A selective and incomplete reading of history, doctrine, law and the U.S. Constitution are dangerous things to use as evidence to criticize policymakers and upon which to suggest sweeping changes to civil-military relations and warfighting. It only adds to the fog.

To blame a chaotic withdrawal from Kabul on Goldwater-Nichols, JPME or flag officers' experience on joint staff is not supported by the facts. Further, while it echoes apparently widely shared sentiments, to suggest that flag officers should resign or threaten to resign in protest of policies with which they do not agree is dangerous. The generals and admirals, though their preferred policies may indeed be the best path to military success in a given instance, are not elected by "we the people" and are not the ultimate decision-makers under the U.S. constitutional system.

-- Dr. Brent Lawniczak, Ph.D., is a retired Marine aviator and the author of the book "Confronting the Myth of Soft Power in U.S. Foreign Policy" (Lexington Books) and a number of scholarly articles in peer-reviewed journals. He currently serves as an instructor of military and security studies at the Air Force's Air Command and Staff College, where he also teaches an elective on the U.S. Constitution.

-- The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.

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