Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Education in the Military Environment

U.S. Naval War College
Newport, Rhode Island

College of Distance Education,
Graduation Dinner Talk,
17 June 2004
by Professor George Baer,
United States Naval War College

Reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.
Copyright 2004 George Baer.

First, I rise to congratulate you. You are part of a remarkable program, which you enriched by the professional experience you brought to the curriculum and the level of commitment and effort you have shown. Your commitment has been to the highest academic standards and to open, critical inquiry, the two most important intellectual approaches to the study of war. Your effort relates to the at least three years of your own time, supported by your families, to complete this course of study. The personal sacrifices you've made in order to achieve a Naval War College education are in some cases legendary. In fact, heroic: one carpool drove weekly from Portland Oregon to Everett Washington, 250 miles each way, and another Miami to Mayport, 372 miles each way. You have earned your diplomas, and the admiration of the faculty. Congratulations on a job well done, and thank you for your dedication to professional military education.

I want to say a word about the course of study you’ve just completed. As you know, we start with a classic Clausewitzean definition of war, as strictly subordinate to established political purpose. This is true. But in reality, the interaction of war and policy is more complicated. It is not a one-way connection. Rather, the formulation and execution of national military policy and strategy is a shared responsibility, shared that is between the military, the statesmen, and the public. (1) So this course is a way of preparing for this shared responsibility. Your cohort here tonight comprises active and reserve officers of all the services, members of the Congressional staff, and Federal officials. Our course is meant to serve you all. In this way, the CDE program, inherently joint, inherently civil/military, supports this shared responsibility for national security.

When I say the course support this, I mean: the course is pragmatic. It is to increase military effectiveness: to develop a habit of mind conducive to critical analysis, to good judgment, to understanding decision making, military capacity, and operations. It is, fundamentally, about establishing a useful intellectual process.

I'd like next to review how we use history in our curriculum. This is often misunderstood. We do not use history to provide lessons from the past. Instead, we use history to facilitate a process of thinking, a habit of critical analysis.

The NWC's use of history was founded to respond to two strategic crises.

The first was at the establishment of the College when Captain Mahan foresaw a national security crisis arising from hostile foreign fleets, and declared that one could inductively draw from the historical record a new concept of homeland defense and a new definition of national prosperity. He called this concept 'sea power.' At the same time, he thought that by studying naval history, officers could induce a transforming perspective on the operational use of naval force.

That is to say, Mahan did not view history as a self-committed discipline. He wrote history to inspire the navy through a new definition of national power. History was used as a method to illuminate the nature, use and limitations of sea power.

Ninety years later, thirty years ago, Admiral Stansfield Turner reformed the College’s curriculum in order to address another national crisis following Vietnam, this time a crisis in civil-military relations. Vietnam had destroyed the confidence of military officers in the government, which they thought had betrayed them, and in the civilian population, which they thought had deserted them. Turner sought to reestablish a healthy connection between officers and government by transforming a devitalized and intellectually stagnant War College in order, as he said, to “produce military men who are a match for the best of civilian strategists, or we will abdicate control of our profession.”(2) He turned to historians for help. Bill Emerson of Yale told him: “Make them [the students] read Thucydides.” As Turner said, “That remark triggered a revolution in the War Colleges.”(3) He created a new curriculum, framed by thirteen historical cases so studentanalyzeanalyize how nations fought wars. The first lecture in the new course was on Thucydides.

We have stayed true to this vision. History has proven its value to convey perspective, to develop an independence of mind, a flexibility of analysis, a habit of critical thinking. As Turner said: “Studying historical examples should enable us to view current issues and trends thorough the broader perspective of the basic elements of strategy.”(4) The course you have just completed is a direct and faithful descendant of Turner’s curriculum of 30 years ago.

So we are not engaged in academic history. Rather, pragmatically, we seek to learn how wars may be won and why wars may be lost. History is a pass-through of strategic and operational possibilities. History shows real people making real decisions in real wars, with real consequences. Students are often surprised to note that what is now the past was once an uncertain future. History shows us that war-fighting is always constrained, and contingent, and that those constraints have to be identified, worked around, and worked within. History shows the interaction of all elements of warfare. History is Joint Professional Military Education.

But this course does not draw specific lessons from the past, nor can it. Our use of history is future-oriented, but not predictive. We can not know the strategic situations you, or the nation, will face in the future. We can know what questions will prepare you to make effective judgments. From good questions come good answers. You have seen how questions define our themes, govern the course cases, and frame our analyses.

Does all this matter to military officers and civilian officials? I hope so.

The best evidence of our effect comes from our graduates, as they progress in their careers. They echo the story told by Admiral Bradley Fiske.

Fiske had entered the Naval Academy in 1870. In 1903, after thirty-three years of service, including action with Dewey at Manila Bay, then Commander Fiske was sent to a class at the NWC. Fiske recalled:

One afternoon during the course Admiral Luce made an informal address that gave me the first clear idea I had ever had about war and the way it is carried on. Before hearing Luce that bright summer morning, I had a vague idea that a war was merely a situation in which great numbers of men or of ships fought one another. I had no clear idea connected with war except that of fighting.

After the brief, but vividly illuminating, talk of Luce, I realized that war is a contest, and that fighting is merely a means of deciding the contest. I realized that, in every war, there is a conflict not only of purposes, but also of ideas, and that this conflict of ideas is not only in the causes of the war, but also in the way in which the contestants on each side wage the contest. I saw that in every war each side tries to effect some purpose, and that it merely uses fighting to effect the purpose. I saw that the side which understands its purpose the most clearly, which selects the best way of accomplishing its purpose, and which has the best machine ready when war breaks out, must win.(5)

That's professional military education.

In conclusion:

It is very difficult to discern permanent characteristics of war-fighting. Strategic and capability needs change with their context. The terms of judgment required for sound military decisions are those of (a) general wisdom and (b) professional skill. History contributes to general wisdom. History opens the military officer and civilian officials to alternative perspectives, to questions from outside the in-box. No one can tell you what you will find in the future, but we hope this course has shown you some things to look for, some questions to ask in any circumstance. That is all the faculty and the syllabus can do. The rest is up to you. And so is future history.

Thank you for your active and successful participation in CDE, congratulations again on your graduation, and good luck to you all.



(1) For a discussion of the concept of 'shared responsibility,' see D. L. Bland, "A Unified Theory of Civil-Military Relations," Armed Forces and Society 26:1 (Fall 1999), pp. 7-26.

(2) VADM Stansfield Turner, “Convocation Address,” NWCReview (November-December 1972).

(3) Stansfield Turner, quoted in The American Oxonian (Fall 1997), pp. 348-9.

(4) Turner, “Convocation Address.”

(5) Bradley A. Fiske, From Midshipman to Rear-Admiral (New York: Century, 1919), p. 362.


Click here to read the remarks made by Richard Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations, the following day.

Or, click here to read the remarks made by Rear Admiral Ronald A. Route, President, Naval War College, at the Naval War College graduation.

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