Military Education

When I arrived at a state university to complete my college education, the ROTC program had just been dropped as a two-year requirement for male students. This was during the heady days of the war in Vietnam and anti-war demonstrations on college campuses. (I use “demonstrations” vs. “protests,” since to protest means literally to testify for, and demonstrators were doing everything but testifying for the war.) At the time, the thought that I could be required to wear a uniform and take classes in the “military sciences” scared me: this wasn’t why I went to college.

During my first two years at the school, I remember seeing this young man that lived in our dorm at the dining hall in full ROTC regalia. I didn’t know him, but I wondered how he felt strolling around campus in uniform during a time when the uniform was easily associated with that unpopular war in Southeast Asia. He was tall, strong-looking, with very red, albeit very short, hair.

In my third year, I stepped off a curb, only to pull back as a motorcycle went roaring by. On it was the same guy: now bearded, with his red, flowing locks caught in the wind. Obviously, he no longer wore a uniform.

In my classes were a number of veterans that had already served their two years in the Army. Some wore their hair in the style of the period; some wore it the way it looked the day they were discharged. The more I talked with them, the more I concluded that all they had in common was that they’d been to Vietnam and that they were going to school. They had widely varying opinions on why we were in Vietnam. They had widely varying opinions on college ROTC.

When I entered the Navy several years later (for a particular kind of training), I got a truncated version of a military education: in basic or recruit training, we were issued an edition of the Bluejackets’ Manual that had been printed when Adm. Zumwalt was the Chief of Naval Operations. It was already seriously out of date.

Now more than 30 years after and with an irony that doesn’t pass me unnoticed, I review training material for the Marines, and much of that is still out of date. I was embarrassed to ask a Marine if a DoD publication that was last revised during the Carter administration was the most recent one in his field; he said, sorry, yes. These days, the armed services are rushing to produce field manuals that include the lessons learned in Iraq. The tactical fountainhead for the Army and Marines is Fallujah, and those battles occurred almost five years ago.

Of course, any military education required in civilian universities would be the product not of field manuals but of commercial textbooks; written by civilian educators, under the scrutiny of an armed forces adviser or two: likely a retired officer or senior enlisted. Like cable and print news, textbook topics would be seriously watered down for public consumption. Any so-called military awareness would be reduced to a cheering section of eager students.

It is a sobering reality that there are few genuinely educational mass market books on military matters. Only two in the 20th century were written by active duty officers: “Winged Defense,” by BGen. Billy Mitchell (1924), and “Breaking the Phalanx,” by LtCol. Douglas Macgregor (1997). Both were highly critical of the established military order (Mitchell was court-martialed and found guilty of insubordination; to be sure, not for his book, but he’d been a thorn in the side of the Army and Army Air Corps long before that) and were little read outside the military community. The remaining mass market efforts are either accounts of historic battles or political treatises on the validity of war.

Because it is unlikely that a perfunctory education in military matters would include anything remotely critical of the armed services, we are left with a military education for the sake of a military education. Too many topics have been canalized into academic subjects for their own sake: the social sciences (especially psychology), history, economics, business administration, and literature; what used to be called the liberal arts. History is taught as a disconnected series of milestone markers by year: 1066, 1492, 1776, 1865, and 1918. As it stands today, a college education is little more than an advanced and more expensive version of high school.

A genuine military education is for people that wish to pursue the military as a career. Why would a general studies or a business administration major need to know Army strategy and tactics (the latter likely to be taught not at all), that Oliver Cromwell introduced uniforms to a professional army, or that Napoleon Bonaparte more or less invented the concept of rewarding his soldiers with medals? These again are disconnected highlights of history: those “nice to know” facts.

These days, I am unopposed to ROTC on campus or JROTC in high schools: if young people are interested in learning the manual of arms, the history of famous battles, or how to correctly wear a uniform, then fine. The people that make their armed forces a career like to think of themselves as someone special, and so they are. But the ever-widening cultural gulf between the armed services and the civilian population is the best reason for not forcing a vague introduction to the military on students that imagine themselves in careers of business or one of the trades.

Douglas Macgregor wrote that there is no constituency for military leadership: we civilians can influence Cabinet and Supreme Court appointments, but we know nothing about what constitutes a good or outstanding Army or Marine field officer. So few of us know precisely why a planned six-week incursion into Iraq in 2003 has become an almost six-year struggle. No “quick-and-dirty” introductory courses in military education would help to know.