Tue, May 23, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Armed forcees need to stand alone

By James Holmes

There's a silver lining to the US' standoffish attitude toward military-to-military contacts with Taiwan: it discourages the Taiwanese military from growing too dependent on US support. The dominant partner in unequal alliances tends to subsume the interests and preferences of junior partners. Lacking a formal relationship with Washington, Taipei must trust in itself as it formulates policy and devises a strategy and forces to attain its policy goals.

Being forced to fend for yourself has its advantages. Taipei should capitalize on them.

Strategic thinking -- roughly speaking, the art of using history and theory to grapple with today's security challenges -- is in decline in the US national security community. Cutbacks in military education only compound the problem. Last year US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld instructed senior defense officials to "come up with some options how we might shorten professional military education or abbreviate it during stress periods."

There are two risks here. One, rising leaders will have too little time in the classroom to master military history or great works of strategic theory such as Clausewitz's On War and China's Seven Military Classics. And two, curriculum developers are eliminating history and theory in an effort to make military officers' coursework more "practical." As a result, even the time officers do spend in study will leave them ill-equipped to think deeply about their profession.

Their ability to ask the right questions about strategic dilemmas will suffer.

No doubt the exigencies of the moment -- Iraq, Afghanistan, the global counterterrorist campaign -- prodded Rumsfeld to curtail professional military education. The armed forces -- particularly the US Army and Marines, which have borne the brunt of the fighting -- need as many officers as they can get out in the field, allowing combat-weary units to rotate home reasonably often.

US forces grew accustomed to operating at helter-skelter tempo during the 1990s, when they deployed far more frequently than they had during the Cold War. It's possible to work around the demands of missions such as Somalia, Bosnia, or Kosovo, at least for a while. Officers can enroll in "distance learning" programs that tap e-mail, teleconferencing, CD-ROMs, and other information technologies. They can get by, more or less, without classroom study. The Pentagon's attitude toward professional education is more worrisome than bureaucratic adjustments to fill temporary personnel shortages. Senior leaders are deliberately encouraging myopia among the rising generation of commanders.

Obsessed with meeting the needs of the day, they have directed the war colleges to lower their gaze from the abstract, seemingly airy-fairy realm of history and theory to the everyday realm of operations and tactics.

War-college faculties are now purging much of the historical and theoretical content from the professional military education curriculum. As a result, declares professor Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University, "we are on the verge of producing a generation of officers as devoid of historical-mindedness as many of the civilians with whom they will work."

Having abandoned their intellectual moorings, the uniformed services will find it increasingly difficult to apply the nation's dominant power for political ends.

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