US Officer Education

As an officer benefitting from a minority within the US Army fighting an internal insurgency for enlightened policies toward officer education, this article from the Army Times gives me hope. While I have not yet been able to locate a copy of the House Armed Services Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee’s report online (if any readers find it, please post a link in the comments

UPDATE: Thanks to Christopher for the link to the report (more to follow once I’ve had a chance to read it).

Here is what the Committee’s website says about its mandate to look at ‘professional military education’:

Professional military education is the backbone in the development of the nation’s armed forces and the quality of that military education distinguishes U.S. forces around the world.  The committee remains committed to ensuring that the quality and availability of professional military education programs remain a priority for the services and the Department, even during times of high-operational tempo, when the Department may be tempted to shortchange educational opportunities to provide manpower in the short term.  As part of its oversight responsibilities, the committee will actively engage in monitoring the rigor and relevance of the curricula being offered at all levels, including those provided to meet joint professional military educational requirements.  Additionally, an important part of this program includes opportunities for service members to attend advanced civil schooling in a wide variety of disciplines, including the liberal arts, and the committee will explore innovative approaches to providing such opportunities to the widest group of service members possible.

From personal experience, I can assure you that there are parts of the US Army that undoubtedly ‘shortchange educational opportunities to provide manpower in the short term’. It was no small fight to get me back to graduate school; more of my peers deserve the opportunity and the military needs well-educated officers for 21st century wars.

The article above fails to put into context the important civil-military aspect of having more serving officers in civilian graduate schools. I stopped being a civilian the day I put on a uniform over 13 years ago. Immersing myself in civilian culture for a couple of years as a student is a good reminder of the society I’m supposed to be serving, and reminds them that those in uniform are not uniform, but individuals like them. Culture gaps do exist and this helps to ameliorate them.

One of the blocks I had to check before getting here to London was the captain’s career course, the second significant block of training for US Army officers.  It was treated as a respite from operations rather than an opportunity for professional enlightenment, in my experience. It is hit or miss at the ground level (‘Relevance’, yes. ‘Rigor’, not so much.), so I would welcome increased congressional oversight in this area broadly to ensure the taxpayer is getting maximum return on investment. Unfortunately, the only way to create more time in an officer’s career for education is to have more personnel to cover the same number of operational requirements while a portion of the force is in school or training. Even in the relative surplus that is the American defence budget compared to the UK’s, that’s a big ask.


15 thoughts on “US Officer Education

  1. Paul T. Mitchell says:

    “That’s a big ask”: all too true, especially in small militaries. The US has the benefit of a congressional committee, with teeth, that oversees PME. In many other states, PME is entirely the province of the military and is subject to either neglect or institutional parochialisms. Worse, when there is a “big ask” at stake because of high op tempo, only political leadership and vision will create the opportunities necessary for advanced education for the military, either in the professional school house, or within civilian universities.

    • While you and I agree about the benefits of oversight, even in the US there are many within the military who chafe at the congressional ‘intrusion’ into the mythical Huntingtonian professional sphere.

    • Christopher says:

      BTW, they get the opening quote wrong–was not Thucydides. It was from Sir William Francis Butler in his book from 1901, CHARLES GEORGE GORDON. Page 85 of the Google Books version will show the exact quote.

      This quote has been “corrected” for many years, especially with invention of the googles on the interwebs.

    • I see that quote attributed to Thucydides all the time, but never found the original source. Thanks for clarifying!

    • Person says:

      I think that asking someone to prove a negative is not really how it works. Instead one would either find the bit of Thucydides of which it is a translation, or the earliest English reference.

  2. Jon says:

    You note “the important civil-military aspect of having more serving officers in civilian graduate schools.”

    One argument I heard in Washington against this movement was that because there was such a need for mid-career officers in the field, the lessons they learn at a civilian institution aren’t relevant for today’s fight. I’m dubious about that assertion, but I also understand the fierce urgency of the need for boots on the ground.

    Would there be any civilian-military culture gap benefit to allow non-government civilians to attend military schools? Who, if anyone, would benefit from sending a portfolio manager or an HR professional to CGSC/ASCS/USNWC?

    On a related note, why don’t more government civilians (State Department, USAID, DOJ, etc…) attend these schools? Given the importance of civilian expertise in governance for today’s conflicts, is there any kind of upward trend in their attending these schools?

    • Gunrunner says:

      “Would there be any civilian-military culture gap benefit to allow non-government civilians to attend military schools?”

      ICAF does have a program where representatives from industry attend the year-long school. In fact, a person in my office was notified yesterday that she is to attend the next ICAF course.

    • David Brooks picks up the topic in his column yesterday, arguing that those best able to respond to the failures of 2004-05 in Iraq were those who ‘had been steeped in Army culture but also in some other, often academic, culture’.

      As to why there are not more civilians (whether private sector or government) at military schools, it’s a mix of factors, I think. It doesn’t get you promoted as a gov’t civilian and you’re right that it’s not entirely relevant to general civilian employers. The military probably secretly doesn’t want too many civilians to really understand what the military does, either, as it’s a threat to professional autonomy.

    • Jon says:

      Gunrunner: You’re right- I knew that. I should have clarified. That goes right to Cap’n Hyphen’s point about the relevance of these schools for civilian employment and professional development. There is a strong argument for a civilian working in the manufacturing/logistics/industrial arenas to attend school with other manufacturing/logistics/industrial professionals. There isn’t too much in the non-government civilian world that we can make the same arguments for in the case of attending schools like ACSC or CGSC.

      Cap’n- Why is bridging the civilian-military gap an acceptable argument for sending military professionals to civilian higher ed institutions and not for sending a civilian to a professional military school?

      We’ve also heard that far too many military officers are discouraged from attending civilian institutions due to fears of slower promotions or being taken out of the fight for too long.

      Shouldn’t there be some incentive for government civilians (especially those that are needed in PRTs and int’l development work in dangerous areas) to know how to work with/understand DOD personnel? I know that there has been talk of a Goldwater II to include civilian government employees, but that hasn’t gone too terribly far as of late.

      I guess I’m just hoping that this could be more than a one way street (though that one way street is far too narrow at the moment). So few civilians understand military service, military strategy, or military culture, I don’t see how only sending military personnel to civilian institutions will make the difference we need it to in the U.S.

    • Gunrunner says:


      The relevance of PME schools for civilian employment and professional development is two-fold. One, the military students gain tremendous insight into the world of industry as it relates to the national security needs and strategy of the United States. Two, the civilian students come away with many dispelled misperceptions and bias regarding opinions formed by watching too many movies (over-simplification).

      Basically, they both establish professional relationships and knowledge that endure and build a trust that is deeply rooted in understanding each other’s world.

      Regarding the apparent bias related to sending professional warriors to civilian institutions, of that my experience differs. In the Air Force there is much encouragement to complete advanced university education, and in fact, it is rare to find an officer (Major and above) that do not have at least one masters degree. In-residence assignments are highly sought after and reflect the Air Force’s faith in the officer, an officer that is identified for senior leadership within the service. Select few officers attend PME in residence, it is even more rare to receive an assignment to a civilian university–underscoring its high esteem (at least in the Air Force).

      But keep in mind, being a warrior is their first obligation.

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  4. morgan says:

    When reality conflicts with what your grad school professor pontificates, I hope common sense prevails and your place reality over professorial thesis.

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