In Response to Anti-intellectualism in the Army: Knowledge, Judgement and Strategic Thinking

Andy Rohrer’s blog and my own previous run in parallel and there’s so much agreement between the two that it’s almost hard to write a response. Rohrer’s essay is critical of “The Decay of the Profession of Arms” in that “the examples given by Cavanaugh…to illustrate bureaucracy’s effect — a nonsensical uniform regulation and a requirement to complete multitudes of paperwork to travel to Mexico — are not examples of bureaucracy stifling intellectualism; they are reflections of aversion to risk.” There is a genuine disagreement in this minor point of the essay — where Rohrer is gentle with these matters and considers them more or less trivial, my position is openly hostile. Here’s why:

Don Snider has often said that military judgment is the core of the expertise of the Profession of Arms. Bureaucratic policies which remove acts of judgment, particularly those related to safety and security, from commissioned or soon-to-be commissioned officers — naturally and subtly produce unthinking, uncritical leaders that constantly look upward for guidance.

Sure, it’s just a reflective belt. But each time that cadet puts the belt on in the middle of the day (for a 20 or 30 minute run) he has lost an opportunity to exercise independent judgment. Or, oppositely, when she goes out for a run in the very early morning, pitch black and foggy — that belt is likely insufficient for the environment she encounters — yet regulations counsel a single solution to all problems (and we wonder why we’ve been criticized for an overreliance on firepower in multiple strategic scenarios).

Brig. Gen. Samuel Koster in 1971 (NY Times)

There is, indeed, great agreement that an anti-intellectual (or anti-judgment) strain runs through the organization. Consider former West Point Superintendent, Major General Samuel Koster, commenting in 1970 “We’re more interested in the ‘doer’ than the ‘thinker’.” Or, here’s something I heard a fellow officer/faculty member say at academic policy meeting this past April: “We don’t want second lieutenant strategic thinkers [in the United States Army].” I think we do, that there is nothing more important, more central to our profession, than military strategic judgment. Even at the junior officer level — as they are the critical implementers of national policy through strategy.

Consider the following occurrence, employed in another recent essay of mine, reported by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair. On March 21, 2011, an Air Force captain took off as a navigator in an F-15 from a base in Italy “on his first combat mission.” He was heading for Libya and was eventually shot down over that country. Having had to bail out, Lewis reports that as the captain “floated down, he felt almost calm. The night air was calm, and there was no sound, only awesome silence. He didn’t really know why he’d been sent here, to Libya, in the first place. He knew his assignment, his specific mission. But he didn’t know the reason for it.” [Bold print added for emphasis].

This officer could have come from any branch of service. Here one finds a commissioned officer, a captain, a member of the Profession of Arms, on a mission in which he will very likely take human lives and destroy significant amounts of property on behalf of the American public. Yet beyond his immediate operational mission he can’t answer why it is that the American people have asked this of him. One could imagine that he’d spent years following established bureaucratic guidance from on high. And eventually, in Libya, he was wholly unable to connect his tactical actions to American national policy. Is this OK for the Profession of Arms? Should that sense of context not be a basic warfighting requirement for those with the privilege of holding a commission? As JFC Fuller put it in The Foundations of the Science of War (p. 96): “There must be a reason for each action carried out during a war, and…it must be a good reason or a bad reason; and if we have no reason at all, which has frequently happened in war, we reduce ourselves to the position of lunatics.”

If we desire to maintain our advantage over machines and drones, then this example from Libya is precisely what we do not want. The members of the Profession of Arms don’t simply “service targets,” just as they shouldn’t automatically put on a reflective belt. We ought to continually strive to be skilled and discriminate conductors of the symphony of violence — that also know why the orchestra has assembled for the performance. If we don’t live up to this ideal, then maybe it is time to start sending in the drones.

Matthew Cavanaugh is a US Army Strategist. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

njoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.