Education: The Military’s First and Best Line of Defense

The idea now prevalent among some defense officials that formal classroom-based education is either expendable or unnecessary flies in the face of millennia of historical precedent. Brilliant strategists and military leaders not only tend to have had excellent educations, but most acknowledge the value and influence of their mentors. The roll call of the intellectual warriors is perhaps the best argument in support of training armies to think: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Robert E. Lee, Erwin Rommel, George Patton, Chester Nimitz.

In stark contrast we can cite familiar military leaders whose educations were, shall we say, lackluster: the Duke of Wellington (he beat Napoleon–barely–after a slugging 7-year campaign), Ulysses Grant, George Custer, Adolph Hitler, Hermann Goering, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Manuel Noriega. For these men, military victories were often a matter of luck over tactics, overwhelming force over innovative planning, and soldiers more fearful of their masters than of the enemy.

I am a moderate, neither “red” nor “blue,” with leanings in both camps. I firmly resist a draft, but support (and was once part of) ROTC. When I read that Columbia University had voted overwhelmingly to ban the Reserve Officer Training Corps from returning to the campus, I felt that the concept of academic freedom itself had been violated. It is not the university’s place to impose value judgments or decree on moral issues. Instead, universities were intended to be places where minds could visit among a broad range of viewpoints, hopefully to pick and choose the best parts from among them. By banning a campus ROTC contingent, Columbia has denied students that choice, and as an academic I am ashamed for them.

ROTC has much to offer university students, including (perhaps especially) those not enrolled as officer candidates. As a thirty-something graduate student working on my master’s degree, I enrolled and participated in two ROTC history classes being taught by a multi-decorated Marine colonel, himself a holder of a master’s degree in history. The things I learned about military implications of the battles we studied, the social effects of each decision, and the pains taken by most leaders to secure better materiel and intelligence for their troops far exceeded anything taught in the history department’s coverage of the same incidents. It was from that extraordinarily patriotic U.S. Marine career officer that I learned, for example, that during the War of 1812 the U.S. invaded Canada and, when it discovered it could not succeed, burned the national Parliament buildings. It was for that last action that British soldiers later pressed on to Washington and set fire to the U.S. Capitol and White House.

Does any of that make a difference? Indeed, I think it is crucial to national survival that soldiers and the public know the big picture behind events that become rallying cries later. After 9/11, a precious few people asked the loaded question, “what have we done to incur this attack?” The overwhelming response was to stifle such questions–the U.S. were the good guys, and those religious fanatics were angry because they were jealous of our luxury and wealth–and simply treat the attackers as nameless, inhuman enemies. There was no question allowed as to what the real problem might be, only that the U.S. must attack them and annihilate aggression. But what competent physician, I ask, treats only a symptom but ignores the cause of the disease? According to numerous studies commissioned by the UN and other agencies, the most important change that would most work towards eliminating poverty and war would be the universal access of women to an education.

We may “Remember the Alamo,” but how many recall that Texas was neither part of the U.S. then, nor was it trying to become a state. It was seeking independence as a nation so it could maintain slavery, which Mexico had outlawed. When we “Remember the Maine,” do we also recall that the ship probably was sunk by an engineering problem, and not from Spanish sabotage? That the war was pushed by U.S. hawks and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hurst, knowing that a war would greatly boost newspaper sales? We must learn from history, because we are already doomed to repeating it. The 9/11 attack was carried out predominantly by Saudi Arabians, but the U.S. response was to attack Iraq. Despite a preponderance of evidence that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, the American public still preferred the fabrications about anthrax attacks, WMDs, and terrorist training camps.

So what of military plans to merely enlarge the distance learning programs to replace classroom instruction? As a career teacher, I risk sounding like a ludite when I disparage distance learning. In my experience, there can be no substitute for a human-to-human interaction, where ideas can be immediately seized, argued, and revised. Seeing the emotional expression of classmates when one discusses controversies ranging from “just wars” to the use of nuclear weapons to the pros and cons of a given policy simply cannot be part of an electronic lesson. There is simply no substitute, for example, to having a combat veteran point out “I was there” in a class when another student has presented the sanitized version of a controversial event. That level of emotion will not come through a cable modem. We are already becoming extremely dependent upon the impersonal Internet, so how much more non-human contact can possibly be good for our psychological, especially empathic, development.

Historically, one of the first casualties of war–after truth and diversity of opinion–is basic humanity. In wars, our soldiers do not kill Germans, French, British, Indians, Japanese, or Vietnamese people. Almost from the beginning, they instead fight krauts, frogs, limeys, savages, nips, or gooks. How much more difficult is it for a poorly educated soldier to understand the enemy when the enemy has been made subhuman? How, ultimately, can the war be won and, more important, peace maintained if we cannot understand (but not necessarily agree with) the enemy?
It is unfortunate that the senior military officers so often bear the brunt of public hostility for actions made by civilian authorities. The present administration is among the most academically impoverished in U.S. history, while the senior officers are among the most highly educated. While it is true that some soldiers actually enjoy combat, the vast majority would welcome, nay embrace, a career of unbroken peace. The intelligent career soldier trains to protect that which he or she most values, knowing that wars are inevitable. Most pray that they need never fight, but stand ready to put their lives on the line should the rest of us need protection. Rather than reduce, compromise, or restrict education to these defenders, I would argue instead that they all receive free access to our universities and colleges. The academic world needs to get behind a unified message: education is not a privilege; it is the first and best line of defense.