The Uniformed Intellectual And His Place in American Arms Part I
The Uniformed Intellectual And His Place in American Arms Part I
Crossing the Plains on an expedition to Utah [in the 1850s], Major Charles A. May searched the wagons in an effort to reduce unnecessary baggage. When he reached the wagons of the light artillery battery, Captain Henry J. Hunt proudly pointed out the box containing the battery library. “Books,” May exclaimed in astonishment. “You say books? Whoever heard of books being hauled over the plains? What in the hell are you going to do with them?” At that moment Captain Campbell of the Dragoons came up and asked permission to carry a barrel of whiskey. “Yes, anything in reason, Captain, you can take along the whiskey, but damned if these books shall go.”
In the epigraph above, taken from William Skelton’s splendid 1992 study An American Profession of Arms: The Army Officer Corps, 1784-1861, we glimpse in finely wrought microcosm the current of antiintellectualism that has coursed through American arms from its earliest beginnings to the present day. My purposes in this two-part article are to trace the origins and manifestations of this anti-intellectual bias within the American military tradition; to demonstrate the existence and pernicious effects of such an attitude even in the celebrated age of information now upon us; and to suggest measures for ensuring that the intellectual potential of the officers’ corps is capitalized on in optimal ways without impairing the warrior ethos of the profession.
Let us first glance at the historical antecedents of anti-intellectualism. Going back to medieval and even to classical times, a sharp distinction emerged between the so-called Active Man and Contemplative Man. Though these two opposed types were fused for a time in Renaissance Man through an expansion of Baldesar Castiglione’s notion of the ideal courtier (1528), the dichotomy was unfortunately too much a part of early human typology to remain submerged much beyond its famous exemplar, the English soldier-poet-courtier Sir Philip Sidney (d. 1586).
After Sidney and his circle of emulators passed from the scene, the Active Man and Contemplative Man reasserted themselves, with the seemingly natural tension between the two types generally manifesting itself within a soldierly context. The division has remained a prominent feature of the British, French and American military traditions, with the Contemplative Man often the victim of condescension if not outright scorn by powerful men of deeds who molded the early value system of the profession of arms during a time when the only cerebral quality found useful was likely to be guile.
The theme of anti-intellectualism in Western arms is a staple feature of military studies, so frequently treated in fact that to do justice to the applicable literature in brief compass presents formidable problems in winnowing and summarizing. The prevailing attitude toward military service held by British officers during the 19th century and the interwar period of the 20th was marked by a deliberate spirit of amateurism that celebrated honor, physical courage, skill in field sports, and above all one’s regiment, while deprecating professionalism, schooling and such qualities as “keenness” and “cleverness” (that is, intelligence). Correlli Barnett summed it up well:
Their traditions were against books and study and in favour of a hard gallop, a gallant fight, and a full jug. … The preference for character over intellect, for brawn over brain, has always taken the form of denigration of the staff college graduate and apotheosis of that splendid chap, the regimental officer.
The British officer’s calculated aversion to brains was noted by wartime Prime Minister Lloyd George (19161922), who caustically observed that the “military mind … regards thinking as a form of mutiny.” Closer to the present day, one commentator finds some abatement in the British military’s traditional anti-intellectualism owing to the cognitive demands of a modern technology-based force, but warns nonetheless that “the legacy of the aristocratic or traditional [that is, anti-intellectual] role model is far from dead.”
We need not pause long to examine the situation in France, since it paralleled the British experience in so many ways. One gains the impression, however, that anti-intellectualism among the French military never reached the depths of calculated dilettantism seen in the British. Still, Paddy Griffith in his detailed study Military Thought in the French Army, 1815-51 (1989) had to concede that “excessive intellectualism might be as much a qualification for premature retirement as illness, madness, or sloth.” Moreover, one notes the French predilection for stirring martial catchphrases which served as substitutes for penetrating tactical and strategic analysis; witness the celebrated cry of “Elan, Elan!” during the time of Louis XIII and later, and the clarion emphasis on an audacious offensive spirit toward the end of the 19th century: “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!”
In closing the book on the French experience, we should recall the pregnant words of Marshal Marie E. P. Maurice de MacMahon, who was later to lead the disastrous French “defense” at Sedan in 1870: “I eliminate from the promotion list any officer whose name I have read on the cover of a book.” It is an irony of ironies that during the German invasion of France in 1940, a full 70 years later, the fall of Sedan again figured so disastrously. In discussing the French doctrinal preparation for defense against the anticipated invasion, Robert Doughty in The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-1939 (1985) states that “the army thus implicitly accepted doctrine as a substitute for thinking and an alternative to creative, imaginative actions. … Few soldiers questioned the verities uttered in lecture halls or published in field manuals or official journals.”
As we turn to anti-intellectualism in the American military, things really get interesting because the contemplative officer in this country receives a double whammy. Not only is he a citizen of a country itself notorious for its anti-intellectual tendencies, but he has come into a military establishment that in many respects has been more retrograde in its receptivity to ideas than the European militaries. So far as American culture at large is concerned, one has only to examine Richard Hofstadter’s unflinching book Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963), particularly the two chapters titled “Anti-intellectualism in Our Time” and “On the Unpopularity of Intellect,” to be forcefully reminded that respect for the speculative mind has never been this country’s long suit. Hofstadter defines his subject as follows:
The common strain that binds together the attitudes and ideas which I call anti-intellectual is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.
I can promise that those who heretofore have taken pride in what they viewed as America’s superior regard for intellectual standing will wince and squirm as they read of the habitual condescending put-downs of the egghead, highbrow, bookworm, absent-minded professor, woolly-minded intellectual, pointy head, recluse in the ivory tower and all the other clever terms of opprobrium so frequently trotted out to stigmatize the scholar-thinker in American public discourse over the past 250 years.
There are reasons for our anti-intellectual heritage, of course, revolving mainly around the rough-hewn and homespun life incident to establishing ourselves as pioneers on the shores of a savage continent and then advancing the frontier across a dangerous wilderness extending some 3,000 miles (“O beautiful for pilgrim feet whose stern impassioned stress, a thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness!”). Such hardy folk are apt to be a bit earthy, more like John Wayne than Alec Guinness. But our pioneer days are long past, and though we as a people have excelled in the scientific and engineering aspects of cognitive endeavor, we still can’t quite let go of the notion that thinking for thinking’s sake is just not macho.
As with the European militaries, the literature documenting anti-intellectualism among our own uniformed services is embarrassingly rich, copious and conclusive. Bernard Brodie, for example, pointed out in his influential book War and Politics (1973) that “soldiers have always cherished the image of themselves as men of action rather than as intellectuals, and they have not been very much given to writing analytical inquiries into their own art.” This is not to say that articulate uniformed thinkers have been entirely absent from the scene—witness the writings of Emory Upton, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Billy Mitchell, Maxwell Taylor, Dave Palmer and, more recently, H. R. McMaster, Douglas Macgregor and Ralph Peters— but it is to say that to the extent that such uniformed writers have succeeded, they did so in spite of and not because of official encouragement.
In 1890, U.S. Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan published The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, the most influential book ever written by a serving officer with the arguable exception of Clausewitz’s On War. For this feat, his endorsing officer, Rear Adm. Francis Ramsay, rewarded him on his fitness report with the following glowing encomium: “It is not the business of a Naval officer to write books.” It is precisely this sort of attitude on the part of the bosses of military intellectuals that has led such thinkers as H. G. Wells to claim that “the professional military mind is by necessity an inferior and unimaginative mind; no man of high intellectual quality would willingly imprison his gifts in such a calling.” More amusing than Capt. Mahan’s poor fitness report but no less tragic in its import is this lament from a Navy officer passed over for promotion: “I cannot understand why I wasn’t selected: I’ve never run a ship aground; I’ve never insulted a senior officer; and I’ve never contributed [an article] to the Institute’s Proceedings.”
To illustrate the tenor of the anti-intellectualism that has afflicted the Army over the years, often manifested in revolts by traditionalists against the “book learning” that progressives were attempting to incorporate into an upgraded Army education and training system, let us savor a few nuggets from Carol Reardon’s Soldiers and Scholars: The U.S. Army and the Uses of Military History, 1865-1920, published in 1990. Col. George Anderson complained in 1898, even as the Spanish-American War descended upon the country, that “we are all too old to have wisdom crammed down our throats like food down the necks of Strasburg geese.” Capt. James Chester, an indefatigable foe of professional education, asserted that “while a man may be educated into a kriegsspieler [that is, wargamer], he cannot be educated into a commander of men any more than he can into a poet, or an artist, or a Christian.” Lt. C. D. Parkhurst stoutly affirmed “that the system of theoretical instruction, education, evangelization, and reformation now so eagerly sought by some few among us, is not needed.” As late as 1914, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Leonard Wood issued orders to the effect that “all military education must be severely practical; eliminate books as far as possible except for purposes of reference.”
The common thread connecting the thought of all such traditionalists, richly documented by Reardon, is that book learning was useless and that the only effective school of war was the battlefield itself. Today’s U.S. Army officers, who take for granted what is probably the best military training and education system ever devised by man, will be hard put to appreciate the extraordinary difficulty faced by lonely occasional soldier-reformers—sometimes assisted by visionary civilian leaders like Secretary of War Elihu Root—during their jousts in the 19th and early 20th centuries with a grudging institution that saw expansion of officers’ minds mainly in terms of on-the-job training.
But what about the modern era? Haven’t we wised up? To answer this question, we’ll first have to be a little more specific with regard to terms.
In its most basic sense, an intellectual is preoccupied with ideas and the play of the mind. This suggests a speculative mind, one given to reflection and efforts to see behind surface appearances. It suggests a mind that refuses imprisonment within conventional thinking or stale orthodoxy, but looks to see all sides of issues and insists upon discovering truth for itself rather than having truth prescribed. Moreover, it understands the complex, elusive and provisional nature of “truth,” intuitively grasping that things are rarely as simple as they seem. It suggests a mind that gives vent to the imagination, that is open to innovation, that seeks to be creative, that looks always for the best way to do things today rather than assuming that the well-worn path is preferable because it’s where we’ve always trod before. The interests and curiosity of the intellectual are not compressed within the narrow confines of today’s duty assignments, but rather range freely to all fields of disciplinary and cultural endeavor, not only for life’s enrichment—though that is vitally important—but also to provide the broadest possible context in which to measure and examine professional concerns.
The intellectual thinks beyond the sound and fury of the daily grind, hearkening to George Santayana’s caveat that if we “cannot remember the past we shall be condemned to repeat it,” but embracing just as warmly Alvin Toffler’s qualification that “if we do not change the future we shall be compelled to endure it—and that could be worse.” The intellectual is thus given to reading because, while personal experience is indeed an instructive mentor, it can never rival humanity’s collective wisdom and experience as reflected in books. The intellectual takes it as an article of faith that just as the unexamined life is not worth living, so the unexamined profession is not worth following. Hence he regards the pursuit of truth as more important than the trappings of rank and station. So far as the military intellectual is concerned, he is wed to the belief that in war against a competitive foe, we shall have to outthink that foe if we are to be successful in outfighting him.
That’s what an intellectual ideally is. Now let’s draw several important distinctions:
There are among the human race no pure intellectuals any more than there are pure men of action. There are no disembodied brains, divorced from human emotions, hormonal urges and fleshly thoughts, engaged solely in disinterested play of the mind on the eternal verities. Instead, we are all arrayed on a spectrum, falling somewhere in the broad middle far from the impossible extremes of pure brain and pure instinct. We differ only in that some of us are perched a little more pronouncedly toward one end or the other. So when we speak of intellectuals or men of action, it is important to bear in mind that such distinctions are matters of degree, of mere tendencies, not absolutes.
Closely related to the prior distinction, uniformed intellectuals are not nerds or geeks. Morris Janowitz in his classic study The Professional Soldier (1960) makes a sharp distinction between what he calls the “military intellectual” and the “intellectual officer.” By “military intellectual,” he means the sniffy, pedantic, professorial officer who can’t lead, can’t manage, can’t make decisions, and relates poorly to people, the type described by Brian Holden Reid in a wicked spoof as a “diminutive, blinking, bespectacled swot whose muscles compare with peas and who grows exhausted after lifting a knife and fork.” The “intellectual officer,” by way of contrast, is the solid leader who brings the intellectual dimension to his job, accommodating it to the peculiar needs and demands of the profession: “He sees himself primarily as a soldier, and his intellectuality is part of his belief that he is a whole man.” There were doubtless significant numbers of “blinking swots” inducted into the officer corps during World War II and its lengthy aftermath, and perhaps a handful a year still wriggle through the sieve today. But thankfully they are very few, so that Janowitz’s terminological distinction finds virtually no application in the contemporary U.S. officer corps.
Uniformed intellectuals today come from the same commissioning sources as the self-advertised warriors and men of action. They engage in the same sports, meet the same physical and medical standards, choose the same branches, negotiate the same obstacle courses, qualify on the same gunnery ranges, pass the same PT tests, parachute from the same aircraft, stomp around in the same muddy boots and shout “Ranger, Airborne, Hooah!” with the same lusty gusto. They receive the same professional acculturation, attend the same courses and schools, obtain the same degrees, receive the same early assignments, fight in the same wars and win the same medals.
The only external difference between the Contemplative Man and the Active Man in the officers’ corps today is that the former may seek a doctorate, teaching tour, fellowship, attaché assignment or other mind-expanding opportunities that the latter avoids like the plague because under the present career management system such excursions will time him or her out of transiting career wicket X, necessary if the officer is to remain competitive for brigade command and a possible star.
Interestingly, however, there is no evidence that the reputed Active Man fares any better than the reputed Contemplative Man as combat commander. It is astonishing to thumb through the biographies of the nation’s military heroes and be reminded of the essentially intellectual nature of many of them. Always a distinct minority, they survived the stigma of intellectuality because of their transcendent skill as fighters during times of national peril, and because in personality and demeanor their intellectuality was masked by an undeniable spirit of take-charge self-confidence.
Emory Upton, often referred to as “the Army’s Mahan” and the most influential writer-reformer-soldier this country has yet produced, was a fierce, skillful, innovative leader in the Civil War, commanding a 12-regiment assault column at Spotsylvania and winning his first star for “gallant and distinguished services.” He rose from second lieutenant in 1861 to brevet major general in only four years during action-packed combat service.
Joshua Chamberlain, a professor of languages at Bowdoin College when the Civil War commenced, volunteered for service and eventually rose to command of the 20th Maine. During the war he was wounded six times, had 14 horses shot out from under him, became the Union hero at Little Round Top during Gettysburg, and was awarded the Medal of Honor. He returned to academic life in 1871 as president of Bowdoin, writing several books and major papers. Featured in Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1975), a novel about Gettysburg, and serving as exemplar in successive editions of Army Field Manual 22-100, Military Leadership (October 1983 and July 1990), Chamberlain is today virtually an icon of the quintessential combat leader.
With the possible exception of Stonewall Jackson (himself, incidentally, a longtime professor at VMI prior to the Civil War), George Patton was the most pugnacious fighter-commander our nation ever produced. Yet, he was a true Renaissance Man: U.S. Olympian in the 1912 games in Stockholm, finishing fifth in the Pentathalon (riding, pistol shooting, swimming, running, swordsmanship), football player, polo player, boatsman, poetry lover, raconteur, writer, voracious reader, avid student of the military art and science, rare book collector and letter writer. Roger Nye in his incisive study The Patton Mind (1993) here sums up:
[Patton] has been celebrated as a highly energized and profane man of action—a doer rather than a thinker, many said. But he left behind the most complete record of exhaustive professional study of any World War II general—or any general in American history, for that matter. … Patton acquired and used a military library for almost daily study of his profession and [employed a] system of marginal notes and file cards to develop his thinking about tactics, strategy, leadership, and military organization. Those thoughts were expressed in a stream of lectures, staff papers, and journal articles, and also in diaries, poetry, and finally in a classic book, War As I Knew It.
John Shirley (P) Wood was also of two natures. On one hand he was a football player, shrewd tactician, Distinguished Service Cross winner and extraordinarily aggressive blitzkrieger who, as commander of the 4th Armored Division, spearheaded the reconquest of France by George Patton’s Third Army, for which Liddell Hart bestowed upon him such honorifics as “the Rommel of the American armored forces” and “one of the most dynamic commanders of armor in World War II.” On the other hand, Wood was a brilliantly precocious student (having entered the University of Arkansas as a sophomore at the age of 16 to study chemistry); a tireless tutor of less academically gifted cadets at West Point, earning the lifelong nickname P (for professor); a pioneer armor theorist; a devourer of books; a gifted linguist who read Charles de Gaulle on armor in the original French and Heinz Guderian in German; and a devotee of Rosaceae, or what we plainer folk call the rose family.
Maxwell Taylor was similar to Wood in having a divided sensibility. On one side, Taylor was a daring, dashing, athletic soldier, entering Italy behind German lines on a secret mission in 1943 and parachuting behind enemy lines into France on D-Day as commander of the 101st Airborne Division. But Taylor also had an intellectual and cultured side, spending 13 of the interwar years either as student or teacher, attaining fluency in several languages, writing two influential books, serving as president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York and performing the difficult role of U.S. Ambassador in Saigon during the Vietnam War.
The list of those American officers who possessed an intellectual sensibility but who, when the chips were down, proved themselves as illustrious combat commanders, goes on and on. Certainly their success validates Sir William Butler’s apt admonition that the nation which “insists on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards.” Not all writers and teachers are intellectuals, and not all intellectuals are writers and teachers. I have encountered intellectual instructors who couldn’t teach worth a tinker’s damn and intellectual writers who couldn’t communicate their names. I have known non-intellectual teachers and writers with a marvelous capacity for getting recondite points across to the most obtuse student or reader. I have known Ph.D.s on the staffs and faculties of service schools who, despite their impressive scholarly credentials, remained at heart administrators and paper-shufflers, forever discovering excuses for their failure to sally forth into the arena of intellectual inquiry, speculative thought or serious professional research.
If the intellectual is to earn his keep, he must discover ways to put his ideas and capacity for penetrating reflection at the disposal of the institution. That means having what it takes to convey his ideas and the fruits of his reflections in the appropriate forums. An intellectual who can’t or won’t communicate is like a breeding bull that can’t or won’t service.
Not all defense intellectuals are in the military. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that most of the bona fide defense intellectuals active in public discourse today are not in the military. The reasons have mainly to do with the services’ refusal to encourage military professionals to become the chief expositors of their own craft and with the increasingly cross-disciplinary nature of security studies. Setting aside uniformed officers, we can assign most defense intellectuals to the following categories, realizing that the categories are not mutually exclusive and that over time some individuals will fall into several of them:
- Retired Military Officers. Some of our very best intellectual work is now performed by retired officers. Examples are William E. Odom, Don Snider, Edward Atkeson, Huba Wass de Czege, Richard Hart Sinnreich, Lewis Sorley, David Jablonsky and Frederick Kroesen. The late Harry Summers was a signal instance. The big advantages of retirees are their maturity and candor, but the fact that we single out their candor as a particular advantage is silent testimony to the enforced reticence of active duty thinkers.
- Journalists. The large metropolitan dailies each have their specialists who handle most of the military reportage. These reporters, particularly those from the New York Times and Washington Post, often exercise considerable clout because it is they who shape the daily print news agenda and impart the spin on stories that together mold perceptions among national opinion-makers. Some, like Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post, branch out into books (for example, Ricks’ Making the Corps, 1997), which extends their influence further.
- Think Tankers. Perhaps no intellectual centers for security affairs have proliferated in the last 20 years to the extent that the think tanks have. Think tanks, broadly construed here to include various defense advocacy organizations and certain academic niches, are a haven for unemployed refugees from the federal government, for retired diplomats and military officers, and for civilian defense specialists who fail to receive tenure or a position on the faculties of civilian universities. They also often provide suitable sinecures for distinguished emeriti who in return for their names on the letterhead receive a plush office, a secretary, plenty of walking-around money and a promise of few distractions. The tanks come in all ideological hues, and they thrive on grant money. Many of the tankers do valuable work. Recently deceased Carl Builder, long-time denizen at RAND, produced the most insightful analyses of service cultures since Morris Janowitz, Samuel Huntington and Charles Moskos.
- Academics. University faculty, principally in departments treating political science, history, sociology, diplomacy, and international relations, have long been vocal on various national and international security issues. A particularly scintillating example is Professor Andrew Bacevich of the Boston University Department of International Relations. Without exaggeration, Professor Bacevich, U.S. Army retired, is providing reams of the most incisive military commentary being produced in the country today. More recently, with the emergence in the universities of accredited graduate degree programs devoted explicitly to military, defense, and security studies (Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies comes to mind), what once was a string quartet from the universities has now become a symphony orchestra. It is no longer unusual for civilian Ph.D.s from academe to challenge military officers even on their own narrow professional turf. They offer tough competition because in general they are better writers than military officers, more motivated to write, better educated, closer to research facilities and blessed with more time to devote to intellectual inquiry. This is one reason why the services should nurture their own uniformed intellectuals—they need people who can contend with civilian academics on their own terms.
- “New Mercenaries” and Contractors. The outsourcing phenomenon has now become a dominant feature of the new century’s downsized defense establishment. We hire civilians to do what was formerly military assistance and advisory work; we watch benignly as commercial firms (for example, Military Professional Resources, Inc.) serve as de facto general staffs for developing the militaries of second-world countries; we outsource to civilian contractors scores of essential functions once performed by the institutional Army, Navy and Air Force. And a great deal of this outsourced work is intellectual in nature—preparing curricular materials and presenting instruction; writing doctrine; conducting studies and analyses; supporting war games and exercises. Most military exercises today would never get off the ground, much less fly, without their well-oiled complement of civilian contractors.
In thus hiring outsiders to do its thinking, the services risk selling their intellectual souls to the devil of deprofessionalization. The Army defends the practice on the ground that contractors are usually retired military personnel, the implication being that actives and retireds are interchangeable parts. But such is not the case. There is never perfect congruence between the thinking, interests and outlook of a contractor, even one retired from the military, and the perspective of the active duty officer who lets the contract. The reason comes down to a matter of responsibility. The active duty officer has a solemn professional responsibility based on his oath of office and commission for the official tasks he undertakes. A contractor, however, even the most dedicated and conscientious one, has only a fiduciary responsibility. One obligation flows entirely from duty, the other largely from money. There can be no true comparison. I say this with no malice whatever toward our huge tribe of military contractors, of which I am a longtime member. But let’s face it, fellows, we no longer bring to the table precisely the same agenda we brought back in the glory days.
Drawing on its particular strengths but limited by its particular weaknesses, each of the five groups discussed above contributes usefully to the military marketplace of ideas broadly construed, but it is a sixth group—the uniformed professionals themselves—who constitute the preeminent and uniquely essential voice. For they comprise the only group with currency, immersion and expertise in today’s operational problems, the only group composed of active, practicing members of the military profession, the only group with the credibility that goes with wearing the uniform now, the only group with the constitutionally mandated mission of defending our country. And it is upon this group that the profession must depend for intellectual sustenance and renewal.
As was convincingly demonstrated by Andrew Abbott in his prize-winning book The System of Professions (1988), a would-be profession, to have any legitimate pretense of qualifying as a profession, “must develop abstract, formal knowledge systems from their first origins.” Otherwise, there are no criteria to distinguish professional activity from such manual trades as carpentry, plumbing and house painting. If the military hierarchy, under the banner “Only Warriors Need Apply Here!” systematically excludes from its hallowed higher ranks the one resource capable of conceiving and sustaining the profession’s theoretical base, it risks nothing less than institutional suicide.
An issue of Army Times that arrived in the mail recently features an article by David Wood with this little eye-grabber for a title: “The Lines Are Being Drawn in the Battle to Shape the Future Military: Will Air Power Win?” Army partisans better hope that some very fertile green-suiter brains survive to testify on Capitol Hill as to the enduring relevance of ground forces.
To be intellectual is not the same as to be intelligent. In fact, in the sense employed in this article, there is no intrinsic connection between having a bent for ideas and having a high IQ. There are engineers, for example, with impressive IQs who excel at applying borrowed knowledge toward solutions to practical problems in the workaday world, but who have no interest or aptitude for the intellectual, theoretical and conceptual work that necessarily precedes practice.
True, intellectuals who are creative at the highest levels of abstraction can be expected to have good intelligence, but such acuity is not what makes them intellectuals. After all, the intellectual Sir Isaac Newton, who first conceptualized the universal law of gravitation, co-invented calculus and became one of the greatest figures in the history of scientific speculation, had an IQ of only about 130, certainly sharp but not off the chart.
If high intelligence alone represented sufficient mental endowment, then the U.S. officer corps would be in good shape. Owing to the necessity of professionalization during the American Civil War, with another wake-up call during the Spanish-American War followed by the steady march of military technologization thereafter, the U.S. military parted ways with the dumb-and-proud-of-it dilettantism of the British and gradually came to acknowledge the essentiality of education and training among officers, with respect for the trait of intelligence itself being a logical concomitant.
Today, though bookishness and intellectuality remain on the condemned list, high intelligence itself is a prized trait, and indeed tests conducted on Army brigadier generals during the Leadership Development course at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina, reveal an average IQ of about 124, which for technical reasons Center officials say is “almost certainly” an underestimate. Yes, our general officers are a bright group and doubtless glad of it. To question the intelligence of any one of them would be construed as a deadly insult, almost as insulting as being called an intellectual.
Advanced degrees do not necessarily an intellectual make. In a further evolution toward rendering intelligence respectable, possession of a master’s degree has now become a de facto prerequisite for higher rank. To be on the safe side, virtually all serious operators manage to obtain this degree, in addition to the de rigueur baccalaureate. The degree field is irrelevant—just get the sheepskin. The services have been attentive to this impulse and have cooperated by awarding master’s degrees in strategic studies upon successful completion of the senior service college course and on a less inclusive basis at Leavenworth.
Very probably, we shall soon see a de facto requirement for two master’s degrees—one from a civilian institution and one from the military. The rage for advanced degrees has widened to embrace even the doctorate. Ph.D.s among the intellectually inclined are of course relatively common, but it is interesting to note that Ph.D.s among even the most inveterate operators are now cropping up on occasion.
Normally, we should rejoice at this proliferating thirst for higher education among our officer corps, but it does have a less noble side. Much of the impulse springs from career uncertainty—officers are hedging against the possibility of leaving the service at 30 years or earlier. This is perhaps understandable. But others are collecting advanced degrees as visible badges of professional merit, as obligatory or at least enhancing bases to be touched in their career progression.
Advanced degrees for uniformed officers, particularly the Ph.D., should entail genuine disciplinary expertise, a capacity to perform serious study in the degree field, and a bent for reflecting deeply on disciplinary issues as they relate to the military profession. In short, advanced degrees should expand the recipients’ intellectual capacities and hone them for professional utilization. Degree-collecting for other purposes may be understandable, but we should not mistake such degrees as sure evidence of intellectuality.