Ten Questions West Point Does Not Ask Cadets – But Should

Image courtesy of Flikr user United States Marine Corps. Image courtesy of Flikr user United States Marine Corps.

Note: We’re revisiting some of our most popular material from the past 10 months for our newer readers; this was originally posted May 30, 2014. Enjoy!

 At West Point, we often address cadets as “scholar warriors” or “warrior scholars.”  This phrasing suggests that our objective is to avoid a “broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man.”  However, in practice we develop these two characteristics entirely separate.  Rigid stovepipes individually serve military training ends and those related to academic education.

What follows is a series of questions, representing critical issues, all related to the use of force in the modern world.  They are at the seam between military and academic thought.  In my opinion, these go unaddressed in any comprehensive, sustained, and/or meaningful way during a cadet’s four years at West Point:

  1. What is the difference between a terrorist and an insurgent?
  2. How do unmanned systems impact modern battlefields?
  3. Where are the human cognitive, psychological, physical limits with respect to combat?
  4. How does information (Big Data and You Tube) affect the conduct of war?
  5. How should we measure tactical effectiveness in counterinsurgency operations?
  6. How does seapower and airpower contribute to landpower?
  7. In what ways does strategic culture influence military operations?
  8. How does logistics impact military operations in expeditionary campaigns?
  9. What is the proper role for civilians in military operations?
  10. What does “victory” look like in modern war?

These result from the rift between the academic and military program, which misses an opportunity.  This should be West Point’s comparative advantage relative to other commissioning sources: the unique faculty and staff is primed to leverage academic rigor for military purposes. The primary goal ought to be to help cadets understand today’s strategic context.  Until we figure this out, I’m afraid West Point will perpetuate an unacceptable gap in the space between the “scholar” and the “warrior.”

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

8 thoughts on “Ten Questions West Point Does Not Ask Cadets – But Should”

  1. These questions, with the exception of Big Data in #4, were all debated and discussed extensively when I was there from 2002-2006. Historical examples were even frequently given (by example, operational logistics necessary to carry out the Napoleonic campaigns – #8) to illustrate the timelessness of some of these principles. Not sure what has changed.

    Like

  2. Very good questions, relevant for all armed forces. However, #5 is hard, as in COIN warfare the strategic impact may not correlate with tactical effect and a strategic impact may appear without any discernible tactical effect. This is much due to a repeated delay in cause and effect. The effect of tactical ops may be measured by simple battle damage assessment, because they target tangible systems and units. Information and psychological operations target mindsets and require a change in that mindset to be discernible. This is an effect twice delayed or removed, requiring an understanding of measuring weak signals to be tangible. The main problem of measuring effects of COIN warfare lies within the development of valid and reliable measures of effectiveness as opposed to simplistic measures of performance.

    The question, edited, is still valid: How should we measure effectiveness in counterinsurgency operations?

    Like

  3. Your ten questions paint an enormously broad brush and are frequently touched upon, often in open discussion forums in the classroom, perhaps not always framed as you have structured them in the article, but strategic level concepts and problem solving are not left out of the West Point curricular equation as it seems you argue. I recall several case studies, both current and past, of military conflicts that were broken down specifically into tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war and thoroughly investigated at each level. Of all the questions you address, the question of "How does information (Big Data and You Tube) affect the conduct of war?" is not only the most important, but the least studied! There are ten sub-questions from this single overlapping question that could certainly bring more value to the strategic level understanding of modern warfare.

    Like

  4. Contrary to popular belief, West Point does not hold exclusive rights to these intellectual questions. And, for what it’s worth, cadets and junior officers are not necessarily equipped or expected to deal with these weighty issues. So, while you propose great questions, I don’t think we will find the solution in the West Point curriculum. I think this points to a bigger gap in the professional military education process and these questions would be better suited for the captains’ career course, or ideally, in an ROTC like masters degree producing program held in several different premier universities across the country.

    Like

  5. I am Class of 82. I think a lot of this was dealt with in my day (and still is) in the core History of the Military Art course and an elective I took, History of Revolutionary Warfare. (Obviously, the drone question wasn’t, but the broader question of the impact of technology on warfare was a fundamental theme of Art). I was an IMA adjunct faculty member in the Department of Social Sciences 2007-10, and many of these types of questions are dealt with in capstone seminars for the firstie Sosh majors. I think #3 doesn’t get answered until Ranger School, which does a fine job with 2LT’s.

    It’s also a question of priorities. How much can you fit into a 47-month curriculum, with so many competing, equally important subjects? Remember, most cadets come as physically fit and smart 18-year old kids who have not had basic calculus, physics, chemistry, English, foreign language, economics, history, etc., and many of whom don’t know how the first thing about being a Soldier. USMA does an excellent job of taking this raw material and graduating 2LT’s who are more than ready to assume their roles as Army officers. You’ve got your list of what you think are the most important things they should learn. I guarantee every department head has a similar list and wishes he or she had more cadet time to teach that department’s priorities. It’s hard to say yours are more important than, for example, interacting with civilians (who may or may not be noncombatants, and the distinction may not be yes/no) and NGO nonstate actors on the modern battlefield, or managing a maintenance program in a budget-constrained environment and in a long-deployment field environment, or leading diverse teams that may have more than one service and more than one nation represented.

    Thanks for provoking some thought.

    Like

  6. Sir, I think all the questions you posed minus perhaps the "Big Data" question and the "Logistical" question were answered well when I was at West Point, but that was also because I took an odd route to a Military History Major. I took courses in the History Department, the SOSH Department, and within the DSS realm as part of my major and I had to line myself up with classes that concerned some of these specific questions to get to the answers for 8 out of the 10. I do not believe however, as you said, that these questions are covered in core classes the way they should be. They may come up in random discussion, but as a topic of interest I would agree that they do not appear at all or often enough…especially the logistics piece. As Ike said, "Good generals study tactics, great generals study logistics." Also in response to some of your previous postings…we (USMA 2012) in most cases did not have the distinction between the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war presented to us until Cow (JUN) or Firstie (SEN) year in most cases.

    Like

  7. Class of 87 here, and I dealt with all of the questions above that were extant at the time. Speaking for myself, I took an entire elective on "The Soldier’s Load" which deals with #3 in great depth, and like another commenter and grad, History of Rev War as well. I can safely assume, based both upon the evolving mission and personal friends who are Ps and permanent faculty that their exploration and consideration of these issues have only gotten better. Like any educational experience, mileage may vary between participants, based on any number of factors, but I think the title is intentionally misleading click bait.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s