What Cadets Should Study – and Why Military History is Not Enough

Note: We’re revisiting some of our most popular material from the past 10 months for our newer readers; this was originally posted June 4, 2014. Enjoy!

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

My last essay – on a representative list of questions West Point does not emphasize – generated some  strong feedback.  In the spirit of discussion, I feel obligated to address some of these criticisms. For example, via email I received a message with this question:

“Is the reason why war fighting and academic education are stove piped, is because the Army doesn’t want officers to have to ‘think’ during combat operations?” 

There are clearly times when officers must respond reflexively and times where they ought to pause and consider the strategic effect of their tactical actions.  This is akin to the two systems of thinking Daniel Kahneman describes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Officers should always be thinking – the type of thinking will differ according to the military situation they find themselves in.  

The argument I advance is a simple one: West Point does not currently offer any regular study of modern war that is relevant to the needs of soon-to-be junior Army officers.  It should.  In fact, as I’ll describe at the end of this essay, and as the picture above depicts, this is an old idea that ought to return to cadet education.  To develop this idea, what will follow is a list of my responses to the comments (which can be viewed here) from the original essay.

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Well Met: Two Responses to the Six Word Strategic Challenge

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

I received a few responses to the post I wrote about maximizing our “nano cognitive surplus” (AKA doodling time during long-winded briefings). I proposed answering the question “Why war?” using only six words…here are a couple of the best responses:

*From Major Drew Betson:

“Values, Interests, Strategic Position Threatened? War.”

*Another came via email from First Lieutenant Sarah Grant – it was so good that I asked her permission to post in it’s entirety – which is what follows:

Sir,

A slight departure from thinking about the causes for which we go to war, to the mental/emotional tipping point that makes war palatable. Hopefully it still fits in the context of the thought experiment you proposed.

In response to the challenge of answering “Why war?” in six words, I propose the following, taken from the cheer originated by my alma mater and recently made famous by fans of the U.S. World Cup team: “I believe that we will win.”

What ultimately enables us psychologically to commit to war is a resolute belief that victory and the achievement of our goals is, somehow, a sure thing. Feasibility of success is a consideration in most “road to war” paradigms, from Just War Theory to the Powell Doctrine, but we don’t go to war when victory is only possible. The risks and costs of war are so severe that we only proceed with violence when we feel certain of eventual success. An absolute sense of self-assuredness is, in that sense, the tipping point between everything-other-than-war and war.

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Reader Riposte on Mission Command

Image courtesy of Wikipedia. An Interesting comment from reader Michael Krogh worth considering – in response to the recent short essay, “Mission Command is Not Enough.” “But isn’t Mission Command...

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Reader Riposte from The Best Defense: 68 TTPs too many!

Note: Hat tip to Thomas Ricks at The Best Defense for facilitating this important discussion – what follows is a response to an original essay published here on War Council.  Mr. Ricks was kind enough to grant permission to post here as well…so enjoy!

By Captain Jordan Blashek, USMC 
Best Defense guest respondent

Captain Jesse Sladek is the type of leader I would want as a commanding officer. ‘Just giving a damn’ goes a long way in leadership, and Captain Sladek clearly does. The learning curve for a new infantry officer is steep, and there is no substitute for a good company commander to mentor him through the first few months.

That said, I don’t find Sladek’s “69 TTPs” particularly useful. They range from insightful (#61: Often commanders … are not tracking the same reality as you), to obvious (#51Lead from the front), to uselessly vague (#57: Be aggressive). The majority are lessons every infantry officer should have taken away from the schoolhouse.

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Reader Riposte and Response: “The Decay of the Profession of Arms” – by Major Matthew Cavanaugh

Note: My friends over at The Bridge have recently published an essay by Major Andy Rohrer critical of my original position on “The Decay of the Profession of Arms.”  In good sport, I responded and thought those at the War Council might enjoy the short read that follows: 

These two essays run in parallel and there’s so much agreement between the two that it’s almost hard to write a response.  And I’ve only got 30 minutes, but, hey, when life gives you 30 minutes before work: write something for The Bridge. Better yet, do it for the War Council.

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, and here’s why. 

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