Professional Military Education is a Learning Curve


“You cannot say later in life, I will study. You have got to start in the beginning.”

US General of the Armies Omar N Bradley said many years ago. It is axiomatic that a proper professional military education is designed to develop creative, thinking leaders. From initial training, a future officer’s career should be viewed as a continuous, progressive, process of development. At each stage that officer should be getting ready for the next stage.

The early stage of an officer’s career is an apprenticeship. “While receiving a foundation in theory and concepts that will serve them throughout their careers, leaders focus on understanding the requirements and learning and applying the procedures and techniques associated with a particular field. This is when they learn their trades as aviators, infantrymen, artillery men, or logisticians,”i the US Marine Corps says in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting. As they progress officers should strive to master their field and to understand the relationship between techniques and procedures within that field.

An officer’s goal at this stage is to become an expert in the tactical level of war. As the officer continues to develop, mastery should encompass a broader range of subjects and should extend to the operational level of war. “At this stage, an officer should not only be an expert in tactics and techniques but should also understand combined arms, amphibious warfare, and expeditionary operations. At the senior levels, an officer should be fully capable of articulating, applying, and integrating MAGTFii warfighting capabilities in a joint and multinational environment and should be an expert in the art of war at all levels,” the manual continues.

The responsibility for professional military education is three-tiered: “It resides not only with the education establishment, but also with the commander and the individual, MCDP 1 says. The education establishment consists of those schools or outside agencies established to provide formal education in the art and science of war. “All professional schools, particularly officer schools, should focus on developing a talent for military judgment, not on imparting knowledge through rote-learning. Study conducted by the education establishment can neither provide complete career preparation for an individual nor reach all individuals. Rather, it builds upon the base pro-vided by commanders and by individual study. All commanders should consider the professional development of their subordinates a principal responsibility of command. Commanders should foster a personal teacher-student relationship with their subordinates. Commanders are expected to conduct a continuing professional education program for their subordinates that includes developing military judgment and decision-making and teaches general professional subjects and specific technical subjects pertinent to occupational specialties,” the publication continues. Useful tools for general professional development include: supervised reading programs, map exercises, war games, battle studies, and terrain studies. Commanders should see the development of their subordinates as a direct reflection on themselves. Finally, every soldier, sailor and airman has an individual responsibility to study the profession of arms. “Self-directed study in the art and science of war is at least equal in importance to maintaining physical condition and should receive at least equal time. This is particularly true among officers; after all, the mind is an officer’s principal weapon (emphasis added).”

In The Challenge of Command: Reading for Military Excellenceiii, author Roger Nye forcefully makes the case that in order to be a real leader one has to do more than put on a uniform and insignia of rank. Only reading, contemplation, realistic field exercises that include after action reviews and other combat training can produce a true military leader. A true commander must be the tactician warrior, moral arbiter, strategist and mentor. Professional reading, according to Nye, is the duty of all officers.

In MCRP 6-11A, A Book on Booksiv, the Commanding General of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Lt Gen Paul K van Ripper, reminds that all warriors “our profession is warfighting, and, therefore, the emphasis of the professional reading program is on books that will make the individual .. a better warfighter. This is not homework; this is not drudgery. The selected books have been chosen for their intrinsic excitement as well as their content. Many of the books will be hard to put down.”

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, recognized education as a necessity for survival in trying conditions — and war certainly qualifies. He called education a “refuge in adversity,” while a mere “ornament in prosperity.” MCRP 6-11A reminds that both Napoleon and Alexander the Great were both students and adherents of the idea of self-education. The manual also reminds that warriors must not only be physically ready for war, but also mentally.

Mental readiness is attained partially through training, but primarily it is acquired as a result of professionally oriented education. “The ability to make clear and swift judgments amid chaos is what sets warriors apart. Training in the field and in wargames is important to improving our military judgment, but its development remains anchored primarily to a sound understanding of war. Through education we can equip ourselves to make sound military judgments even in chaotic and uncertain situations; it is here that professional reading plays a vital role. Professional reading enriches our knowledge and understanding of war and enhances our ability to make timely and sound military judgements.”
“How do we translate written words into sound military decisions? Obviously, the first step is to read. Then, we must relate what we have read to what we actually do in training.”

December 11, 2001