Streetwise Professor

February 22, 2020

Yes, American Military Leadership Has Been Strategically Inept, But Don’t Blame the Service Academies.

Filed under: History,Military — cpirrong @ 6:31 pm

I read this article about a West Point professor’s jeremiad with interest–I may buy his book.

I agree in part, but disagree in large part.

Prof. Bakken is obviously quite cynical about USMA cadets. That is a very common attitude among civilian faculty (who are much more prevalent at Navy than at Army or Air Force). I have personal experience along these lines.

As many of my readers know, I went to the Naval Academy, but punched out before graduating. I don’t know if any of you know that years later I was interviewed for, and offered, the Admiral Crowe Chair in the economics department at Navy. When I was interviewing, I met with all of the civilian economics faculty, many of whom had been my profs at Navy. At first I was shocked at their cynicism about the Midshipmen. But upon a little reflection, it made total sense. The intense competing demands on Middies’ time (and USMA and USAFA Cadets’ time) leads many to cut corners, and academics is where a lot of the corner cutting occurs. Most distressingly, this leads to chronic violations (with varying degrees of severity) of the Honor Code. The faculty are not stupid. They know this occurs. They also know that the officers who run the academies know, but tolerate it. Hence the cynicism.

I completely get it.

Prof. Bakken laments the insularity of the military, and its alienation from civilian culture. This is understandable, but I would make two remarks. First, causality runs both ways: much of the alienation is due to a degraded civilian culture and civil society that too often scorns and denigrates those who serve. Second, there is nothing new under the sun: a truly professional military is always alienated from civilian culture, and arguably has to be to be an effective fighting force. Martial virtues and civil virtues are very different. The military almost have to see themselves as men apart.

Prof. Bakken focuses on the failures of the American military leadership as strategists. I agree, but it is simplistic to lay this at the feet of the academies, for a variety of reasons.

First, whereas once it was the case that virtually all the flag officers in the military were academy graduates, that is hardly the case today. Indeed, two of the examples mentioned in the article–Tommy Franks and Colin Powell–were not ring knockers. Franks was an enlistee who became an officer via the Army’s Boot Strap Degree Completion Program. Powell went to OCS. If anything, these men’s careers are emblematic of the decline in the prestige of the academies. Whereas once they were a necessary condition for advancement to the highest echelons of military command, they are no longer so.

Second, even with respect to the academies, they are not, nor have they ever been, focused on strategic leadership. They train junior officers.

The disconnect between academy training and strategic education is perhaps most pronounced at Navy. Junior officers in the Navy are first and foremost engineers focused on making sure engines and reactors and boilers and electrical systems work. The education is highly engineering-focused, and exposure to higher-level strategic thinking is superficial at best. Even tactics receive short shrift. (80 percent of Midshipmen must major in engineering or the sciences, and engineering represents a large majority of majors.)

Army is somewhat different, because the billets Cadets take after commissioning require tactical expertise, so there is a tactical element to USMA curriculum that is absent at USNA. But at its origins, USMA was predominately an engineering school, and its top graduates went into engineering: those who scraped by in class went into the infantry. The consequences of this were seen vividly in the Civil War, where West Pointers (especially those who graduated near the top of their class, and were commissioned into engineering branches) were hardly noted for their strategic brilliance. The most prestigious graduates (e.g., George McClellan) were often strategically inept, or unduly cautious, or both. Many of the most successful commanders were at the middle or bottom of their class (e.g., Grant, Sherman, Sheridan).

The bottom line is that it is not now the case, and has never been the case, that the service academies are intended to, or designed to, shape strategists capable of winning wars. There is significant reason to doubt whether any military education system for 18-21 year olds can do so. The academies should be evaluated on the basis of whether they produce effective junior officers, a few of whom prove to have some strategic aptitude that may profit the nation if they are not so disillusioned that they leave the military before achieving positions that have strategic responsibilities.

I would also argue that the personal and mental characteristics that make good engineers do not make good strategists. The former are men of system with tidy minds. The latter are creative, unsystematic, and rebellious.

The more serious problem–and one that has plagued all militaries of all eras, not just the US military since 1945–is that the selection process for senior command that operates in peacetime invariably selects based on every characteristic BUT strategic leadership. For how can one identify such skill in peacetime?

This is why the beginning of conflicts is so often characterized by blunder after blunder, as those with the characteristics that are valued in the bureaucratic peacetime military prove utter failures in the crucible of combat. Sometimes a nation is lucky enough that after those failures are cashiered or reassigned to command backwaters that a strategic genius (or at least a strategic competent) can emerge.

But there is no way of designing military education, or the operation of a peacetime military, to prevent the blunders, or assure the emergence of a Grant or an Eisenhower.

So I can understand Prof. Bakken’s cynicism, and agree with his criticism of American military leadership since WWII. But expecting that changing the service academies will fix that is delusional. Ultimately the problem is that the bureaucratic imperatives and incentives of a peacetime military are inimical to the development and promotion of the truly exceptional individuals with strategic insight. Such men are rare indeed, and the things that make them rare also make them outcasts in a bureaucratic peacetime military.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Great post. First strike against Prof Bakken is he’s a law professor. Engineers may not be great strategists, but lawyers sure as hell aren’t even meeting that standard. Second, winning on the battlefield is the military’s job. Winning wars requires civilian leadership to achieve victory. I’m starting Churchill’s Duke of Marlborough His Life and Times. John Churchill won all the battles during the War of the Spanish Succession but the peace was lost due to the Grand Alliance’s weariness of war. Churchill predicted your Queen Anne war with France would go on forever—it lasted over a century until Waterloo.

    Comment by The Pilot — February 22, 2020 @ 8:18 pm

  2. Wellington was a successful soldier. He had studied in a French military academy but seems principally to have learnt his trade fighting in India. It must be harder for modern American officers because the wars they have to learn in have been either defeats, or victories but in wars that have lasted only one battle.

    I don’t think US naval officers have recently had any wars to have learnt in, have they? Am I overlooking something?

    Comment by dearieme — February 23, 2020 @ 11:04 am

  3. This blog is one hell of an education.

    In defence of the military leadership, in Iraq and Afghanistan they have been asked to do the near-impossible, if not the completely impossible. The best strategic leadership can’t make up for poor goals, poor planning and wall-to-wall political idiocy and myopia.

    As usual, it’s the grunts and ratings and fliers who have to bear the burden of carrying out difficult orders in impossible situations. That the academies train them to do their jobs under fire, to do them well and effectively, to hold it all together, and then to come home and continue to respect civilian government despite everything they’ve seen and been through – well, whatever its shortcomings that’s one hell of a military academic establishment.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — February 24, 2020 @ 2:37 am

  4. “In defence of the military leadership, in Iraq and Afghanistan they have been asked to do the near-impossible, if not the completely impossible. The best strategic leadership can’t make up for poor goals, poor planning and wall-to-wall political idiocy and myopia.”

    Here I was thinking that military leadership was all about not getting into a situation dictated by “poor goals, poor planning and wall-to-wall political idiocy and myopia.”

    Comment by David Moore — February 24, 2020 @ 2:51 am

  5. Yup, its a bit of a tall order to expect military academies to produce combat-ready, strategically competent, leaders in the space of, what, 12 months or so? I guess you need to look more closely at what happens to them after they graduate and how you develop deeper skills either on-the-job or in subsequent specialist training (presumably some academies have a role in the latter?)

    Personally, I think the US military’s sheer size and assumed dominance of the battlespace is a big part of the problem (not to mention inter-service rivalries). By way of example, have a watch of Apache Warrior on Netflix if you haven’t already. A classic example of a force riding into battle based on an outdated doctrine and no small amount of hubris, fully expecting the enemy to dutifully lie down and die for their cause. Instead the US force got its arse comprehensively handed to it (regardless how protagonists spun it).

    @deari – my thoughts too. If you wanted to pick one service where you’d almost guarantee not to see action, the navy would be it (apart from carrier ops and the occasional bit of long-range cruise missile action)

    Comment by David Mercer — February 24, 2020 @ 7:01 am

  6. @Ex – so were you opposed to the interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan, or just critical of the way they were scoped/directed/etc from on high?

    Comment by David Mercer — February 24, 2020 @ 7:08 am

  7. Engineers with their tidy minds can’t innovate. That is the most original thought I’ve heard in ages.

    Comment by Michael van der Riet — February 24, 2020 @ 8:53 am

  8. @David Moore,

    It’s the civilian politicians the military leaders report to, not the other way round, if the pols refuse their advise, it’s obey or resign. We have a preciously poor record on the resign part.

    Comment by The Pilot — February 24, 2020 @ 8:56 am

  9. A case in point about the loss of institutional knowledge.
    The last naval conflict fought by a 1st world nation was the Falklands war. Almost all the veterans of that war have now retired / died of old age. So any knowledge or experience gained in the only serious naval conflict in the last 50 years is now disappearing into the mists of time again.

    Comment by Nessimmersion — February 24, 2020 @ 6:31 pm

  10. Yup, its a bit of a tall order to expect military academies to produce combat-ready, strategically competent, leaders in the space of, what, 12 months or so?

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge – but the service academies are all four-year degree schools. The graduates I know thought of it as a 44-month program, since summers were spent on duty, not at home on a summer job.

    By way of example, have a watch of Apache Warrior on Netflix if you haven’t already.

    You do know the difference between fiction and non-fiction, right?

    Comment by dcardno — February 24, 2020 @ 11:17 pm

  11. “the service academies are all four-year degree schools”

    Not here in the UK they aren’t. Makes you wonder what on Earth they do for all this time. And these run alongside the myriad of ROTC programmes??

    BTW its okay to admit you haven’t seen the film. We won’t judge you much.

    Comment by David Mercer — February 25, 2020 @ 5:23 am

  12. ‘@Ex – so were you opposed to the interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan, or just critical of the way they were scoped/directed/etc from on high?’

    Didn’t have an opinion about Afghanistan, it all happened so fast.

    On Iraq, at the time I thought the invasion was justified by Saddam’s non-compliance with UN requests re. WMD. I thought the US would go in there, get rid of Saddam and his vile minions, and soon the long-suffering Iraqis would have peace, freedom and prosperity.

    How wrong I was.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — February 25, 2020 @ 6:25 am

  13. “On Iraq, at the time I thought the invasion was justified by Saddam’s non-compliance with UN requests re. WMD.”

    My thought exactly, at the time. Given the uncertainties of the post-9/11 global terrorism situation, the threat posed by Saddam possibly sharing WMD with terrorist organizations carried terrible consequences. Saddam bluffed by claiming WMD (also, Iran-Iraq War experiences with WMD), refusing UN inspections, and having demonstrably shared/funded terrorist enterprises. The U.S. called his bluff and raised him a war. Who would have guessed that the post-war would be so horribly bungled?

    Comment by ColoComment — February 25, 2020 @ 11:36 am

  14. “Who would have guessed that the post-war would be so horribly bungled?”

    Quite a few of us, actually. I agrees in principle with the intervention (one less murderous despot – what’s not to like?) but the whole WMD justification was frankly ridiculous. Anyone who believed this clearly wasn’t paying attention the ten or so years before. I may have said it before hereabouts but it might have helped if the intervention had been framed as a policing action rather the military invasion (the same goes for Afghanistan – TBH it was all going well until the notion of nation building came to the fore).

    I guess we’re all armchair generals nowadays…

    Comment by David Mercer — February 25, 2020 @ 2:38 pm

  15. Afghanistan should have been a quick punitive expedition and out. Instead it was a war of occupation. Bonkers.

    Iraq was a crooked, foolish, reckless war from the off. I’d have joined the big protest march against it in London if it hadn’t meant marching alongside mad mullahs and commies.

    Comment by dearieme — February 25, 2020 @ 2:47 pm

  16. Not here in the UK they aren’t….
    In discussion of a book sub-titled Dishonesty, Hubris and Failure in the US Military one struggles to find the relevance.

    Makes you wonder what on Earth they do for all this time.
    Pretty-much the same thing as students and professors do at any other four-year degree in a STEM-heavy school

    And these run alongside the myriad of ROTC programmes??
    If by ‘alongside’ you mean ‘in the same country and with similar demographics,’ then yes. If ‘at the same institution’ then, no.

    Comment by dcardno — February 26, 2020 @ 3:18 pm

  17. @dcardno My point was that the cadets must be under some form of military instruction/command for the entire period of their course, including holidays as you kindly pointed out. That’s an awful lot of contact time in which to develop the required military skillset, way more than you’d get if you went down the ROTC route. Maybe the staff – and kids – simply get bored or fed up with the whole rigmarole.

    FWIW, the usual deal in the UK is that you go to uni, with or without forces sponsorship (its increasingly rare nowadays), then go to one of the three colleges depending on your service persuasion. Who knows if this is a better system than the US – AFAIK there are no metrics measuring military cock-ups per cadet produced (Russia of course would lead the field if there were).

    Comment by David Mercer — February 27, 2020 @ 3:22 am

  18. @dearieme–The USN has not had a major peer-on-peer conflict since the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June, 1944, or the Battles of Surigao Strait and Leyte Gulf in October, 1944.

    Comment by cpirrong — February 28, 2020 @ 6:05 pm

  19. @David Mercer. Makes you wonder, eh? May I take that as a confession of ignorance?

    But this is exactly my point. The US service academies combine a standard bachelor’s degree curriculum (usually in a technical field) with a smattering of tactical and leadership (small unit) training. They are not now, nor have they ever been, incubators of strategic thought. And it is utterly pointless to expect them to be, or to blame them for American strategic failures, which (as several have pointed out here) are assignable to the political leadership.

    Comment by cpirrong — February 28, 2020 @ 6:16 pm

  20. Do war games help develop tactical or strategic thinking among MA graduates?

    Comment by Pat Frank — February 28, 2020 @ 10:20 pm

  21. Thinking more on military v political outcomes, and the current American election campaigns, I got to recalling that in the ‘way back Crazy Joe came up with a scheme to divide post-Saddam Iraq into three parts (Great Caesar’s Ghost, yah?) One each for the Kurds, the Shia, and the last for the Sunni. I think he’s just about lost all his marbles, but I wonder how well (or poorly) that plan might have worked?

    I’d love to hear all y’all’s thoughts on that… (if anyone’s still around here?)

    Comment by ColoComment — February 29, 2020 @ 10:13 am

  22. @Pat–Not really. They get at most a superficial exposure.

    Comment by cpirrong — February 29, 2020 @ 5:27 pm

  23. Great write-up as always, Prof.

    As a former enlisted soldier who although at one point in my youth was on a WP-oriented track, I changed focus and (long story short) ended up enlisting and serving between Gulf Wars as an FO for the Field Artillery. At my second duty station, in the ROK, fresh LTs who would have been my classmates had I stayed on-track began to filter into my unit in entry-level (for officers) leadership roles.

    This trajectory resulted in a fairly jaded perspective as to what the US military actually promises versus what it delivers: both to our country’s youth (who volunteer to serve) and to our population (notional safety and security against the nefarious global baddies). I’ve found that there is a very large gap between what the people expect of our military and what it actually “is”. This takes all shapes and forms, from the crunchy types who paint our military as “baby killers” (which until recently seemed to be dwindling in number), to the hero worshippers and military families, to the “tee-shirt patriot / fans” who think we should be “kicking some ass” at all times. I find that disconnect between expectations and reality to be quite unsettling on all accounts, and don’t think it bodes well for our future.

    I eventually found my way through an undergraduate degree and even an MBA (I was a student of yours), and don’t think I have ever read a better-balanced perspective on what our military academies produce, or a more fair commentary the state of our military than in the combination of the linked article and your commentary. People also tend to forget that our elected leadership more often than not hamstring our military’s ability to actually win the wars our men and women fight by making political decisions and by not doing an equal job of building consensus and support for fighting them to a sustainable, successful conclusion.

    Apologies for the rambling comments.. I definitely appreciated the read and soaked up the commentary.

    Comment by Matt M — March 10, 2020 @ 11:39 am

  24. Hi, @Matt. Great to hear from you. No need to apologize for rambling. Your comments are definitely on point, add to the conversation, and are much appreciated. Glad you liked the post. Hope you keep reading.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 10, 2020 @ 7:02 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress