Image provided by Flikr user US Army. Image provided by Flikr user US Army.

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

*Editor’s Note: Those who have followed the WarCouncil site know I’m an assistant professor at West Point, where I teach DS470: Military Strategy.  Unfortunately, I find myself at the end of my three year teaching tour, and this summer I will move on to the Korean Peninsula. At the end of each semester, I give my cadets a letter – which I’ve reproduced below. I wish I could have handed out more of them, taught more cadets (really, where does the time go?); which, I suppose is what motivates me to make public something that is fairly personal. I hope the letter is as useful to a reader as the experiences that led to it’s creation were to me…  

From Personal Experience to Course Concept

I was twenty three when I went to war and I was terrified.  I acknowledged I could die, but my sense of invincibility led me to think it would happen to someone else.  The fear was from the unknown. Even after West Point and Officer Basic Course, war was this vast, black hole, completely unfamiliar to me.  I even went to the doctor to investigate the possibility that my recently surgically repaired knee would keep me at home.  I physically couldn’t run and quietly hoped I wouldn’t have to go. My hopes were dashed when I got a jar of pain pills and the doctor assessed I was “good to go.” 

The depth of what I understood of war was: kill bad guys + take capitol = victory parade. I can’t recall thinking any more than that.  It took until my second year, in Tal Afar, Iraq, to recognize that war was about more than the “bad guys” I could see.  The Regimental Commander ensured that each trooper knew our unit’s mission was to enforce the current United Nations Security Council Resolution in Iraq.  War became purposeful; the implementation of policy with force.  This revelation assuaged the loss of good soldiers and extinguished some pain in my personal life.  It also has, years later, driven me headlong into designing a course which would steer you right where I went wrong.  My purpose in designing DS470 was that my unknown would be your known.

I started with the basics.  Why does military strategy matter to cadets?  My logic chain: B.H. Liddell Hart wrote, we fight for “a better peace.”  We prepare because, as Colin Gray sagely observed, “War is eternally and universally possible because human beings in politically organized societies can always be sufficiently motivated by some mixture of ‘fear, honor and interest’ to choose to fight.” Thus, in order to “preserve our civilization,” Reinhold Niebuhr considered that, “we take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions.”  Our country, on Plato’s counsel, develops you to be America’s special class of “guardians.” West Point’s Mission plainly states that it develops “commissioned leader[s]” and “professional…officer[s] [for] the United States Army.”  In sum, my experience with war, balanced against demands from the West Point Mission and Defense & Strategic Studies Program, led me to this specific course policy end state:

Each DS470 graduate understands, analyzes and can effectively communicate both the relation of tactical action to American national policy and the use that is made of force in the international system because as commissioned officers they will directly contribute to the nation’s strategic performance in war.

What I Hoped You Would Learn from the Case Studies 

First, I hope you learned the tasks specified in the course policy above.  Of course, there was much more to the class than was codified in the syllabus.  My wish is that you internalized military strategy’s importance to you as a commissioned officer, as, Colin Gray noted, “Military officers perform the strategic function at every level of command, from a platoon on upwards.”  I also wanted the historical case studies to be as visceral as possible, so that you’d really get a sense for war and strategy.  Though unpleasant, this does include positive benefits.  David McCullough described this during his 2003 Jefferson Award Lecture, “The Course of Human Events,” which is worth quoting at length:

Among the darkest times in living memory was the early part of 1942, when Hitler’s armies were nearly to Moscow. When German submarines were sinking our oil tankers off the coasts of Florida and New Jersey, within sight of the beaches, and there was not a thing we could do about it. When half our navy had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor. We had scarcely any air force. Army recruits were drilling with wooden rifles, and there was no guarantee that the Nazi war machine could be stopped. It was then in 1942 that the classical scholar Edith Hamilton issued an expanded edition of her book, The Greek Way, in which in her preface she wrote the following: ‘I have felt while writing these new chapters a fresh realization of the refuge and strength the past can be to us in the troubled present.  Religion is the great stronghold for the untroubled vision of the eternal, but there are others too. We have many silent sanctuaries in which we can find breathing space to free ourselves from the personal, to rise above our harassed and perplexed minds and catch sight of values that are stable, which no selfish or timorous preoccupations can make waver, because they are the hard won, permanent possessions of humanity.  When the world is storm driven and the bad that happens and the worse that threatens are so urgent as to shut out everything else from view, then we need to know all the strong fortresses of the spirit which men have built through the ages.’

History reminds us that others have been through worse.  It can also help to prepare us for what may come. DS470 was intended as a parallel effort – a “guide” or “aid to judgment” when combat becomes confusing (as it undoubtedly will).  To round out the thought, President John F. Kennedy kept a small sign on his desk that displayed the Fisherman’s Prayer: “O God, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.” This overwhelming feeling, at some point, will invade your psyche.  When it does, I hope the North Star you may have gained sight of in DS470 will be there to point the way.

What I Hoped You Would Learn From Me

These last words contain the essential lessons I tried my best to instill in you over the past forty gatherings.  First, I wanted to show you how important I considered the subject matter while at the same time never taking myself too seriously.  Second, beyond this particular course, I hoped you would see how much I love to learn.  President John Adams once wrote of the value of the “liberty to think for [one]self,” and that the greatest gift of all is that of an “inquiring mind.”  Benjamin Franklin agreed, and defined true education as “an Inclination join’d with an Ability to serve Mankind, one’s Country, Friends, and Family; which Ability…should indeed be the greatest Aim and End of all Learning.”

The ability to learn is a precious gift that you alone are responsible for. Mark Twain’s comment, “I never confuse my learning with my education,” is something I try to live by.  You should too; find what philosopher John Dewey called “plasticity.”  Dewey said this was an openness to being molded by experience: “The inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling.” Read newspapers, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, travel, and live a life that embraces the mind you’ve been given.  Above all, listen to Laurence Sterne: “What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life by him who interests his heart in everything.”  Be passionate about your life and use that energy to learn new things that you care about.

I consider it a privilege to have helped guide your learning this short while.  I truly enjoyed class – I’m not afraid to admit that I genuinely felt a flash of sadness when the last cadet of the day walked out the door.  I often worry that I haven’t done enough to prepare you for what may come.  Paraphrasing T.E. Lawrence helps a bit: it will be your war and your platoon, and my time to develop your understanding of military strategy was always limited.  I really did my best and can only hope that was enough.

In parting, remember that Aloha means both “goodbye” and “hello.”  This may be the end of DS470: Military Strategy – but it is just as much the beginning of military strategy for you.  Make sure you visit and keep at it.

I look forward to two things after this fortieth meeting: writing recommendations for all of you and proudly announcing, “I taught that cadet in my Military Strategy class!”


MATTHEW L. CAVANAUGH                                                                           MAJ, FA59 (Strategist)                                                                              Assistant Professor                                                                                         United States Military Academy

*Note: I’m turning over my Twitter handle – @TheWarCouncil – to the War Council site shortly; if you’d like to keep up the relationship, please consider following me on Twitter @mlcavanaugh. Thanks!

Major Matt Cavanaugh lecturing at the University of Utah. Major Matt Cavanaugh lecturing at the University of Utah.


1 Comment

  1. Matt,

    Thanks for your quick and informative response. I will be using this to help with my teaching of strategy, operational planning, maybe even op design that we teach here at JCWS. Thanks, Bill.

    V/R McKean

    Bill McKean, LTC, USA (Ret)
    Assistant Professor
    Joint and Combined Warfighting School (JCWS)
    Joint Forces Staff College (JFSC)
    National Defense University (NDU)
    Norfolk, VA 23511
    (757) 443-6292

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