The decay of the profession of arms By Maj. Matthew Cavanaugh

DeM Banter:  Something we have discussed at great length here at the m100Group.  Where is the innovation, the deep thinking, the dynamic, the disruptive?  As my good friend Elvis Costello once said…

So where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
 And where is the harmony?
… What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?
-Elvis Costello

Or… is this simply part of the decline….???  Thoughts? 

View OriginalForeign Policy / 8 Jan 14

The Profession of Arms is decaying (weakening or fraying — as opposed to a relative decline), and the primary causes are neglect, anti-intellectual bias, and a creeping, cancerous bureaucracy.

war-councilPermit me to explain, to diagnose the patient’s condition, in order to arrive at a common understanding of the illness. Let’s begin with the Profession of Arms: This is society’s armed wing, principally charged with guarding the safety and interests of that society. In some way, every political entity must use force or at least threaten to use force for it to survive in the international system. The members of the Profession of Arms are the custodians of the specific military knowledge that enables national survival. As Don Snider has put it, these commissioned members have one critical function, which is to successfully provide “the repetitive exercise of discretionary judgment[s] … of high moral content.” In essence this is military judgment, which today is decaying and being compromised through apathy, disregard for intellect, and a mammoth bureaucracy.

Symptoms: Where there’s smoke…
I teach a course called DS470: Military Strategy at West Point. I was accepted to the assignment in 2009, and attended graduate school from 2010 until the summer of 2012. While in graduate school, I read everything I could to prepare myself for teaching the course. The course includes a two-week block on the Iraq War, and in preparation I came across Professor Richard Kohn‘s scathing criticism in his 2009 World Affairs Journal article (previously a lecture), “Tarnished Brass: Is the U.S. Military Profession in Decline?” His commentary was stunning at times, and this line chilled me:

Iraq has become the metaphor for an absence of strategy…. In effect, in the most important area of professional expertise — the connecting of war to policy, of operations to achieving the objectives of the nation — the American military has been found wanting. The excellence of the American military in operations, logistics, tactics, weaponry, and battle has been manifest for a generation or more. Not so with strategy.

Not long after, I came across a troubling note from a peer (then-Major Fernando Lujan) already stationed at West Point. He wrote on this blog, “From my own limited perspective, I can say that the Academy is falling heartbreakingly short of its potential to prepare young officers.” He continued, “We lecture the cadets on professionalism but we practice bureaucracy. To summarize the difference, professional cultures debate, discuss, and continually innovate to stay effective in the changing world. Bureaucracies churn out ever-restrictive rules and seek to capture every eventuality in codified routines.”

Kohn and Lujan’s words alerted me to some anecdotal chinks in the profession’s armor. Moreover, as Lujan’s was only one piece of data I had encountered from West Point, I resolved to keep an open mind and see for myself what it was like there. I arrived in the summer of 2012 and now have three academic semesters — a year and a half — of experiences to draw upon.

…there may be fire.
Kohn and Lujan were correct. Bureaucracy abounds. A few quick stories: It took seven different forms for seven different entities to travel to Mexico for a family friend’s wedding (not including multiple required doctor’s visits). A fellow army major and member of my academic program had a lieutenant colonel chastise him multiple times for his athletic sock preference. On the same subject, cadets are required to wear fluorescent belts at all times while wearing physical fitness uniforms — even in broad daylight. I had a cadet wear one such reflective belt indoors while giving a class presentation — when I asked him about it, he told me he had knee surgery and the regulation permitted no deviation from wearing the belt. If that isn’t a clear indicator of the willful suspension of judgment for the sake of nonsensical bureaucratic rules, I’m not sure what is. Finally, and most importantly, in my presence a fellow officer and faculty member announced at an academic policy meeting, “we don’t want second lieutenant strategic thinkers [in the U.S. Army].” The symptoms are present — the bureaucracy is suffocating both military judgment and the Profession of Arms.

A second opinion
This isn’t new. Lloyd Matthews, former editor of the U.S. Army War College’s journal, Parameters, wrote an exceptional piece on a related topic in 2002, “The Uniformed Intellectual and His Place in American Arms.” Matthews recounts his experiences, similar to mine in many ways. He recalls General Alfred Gray, then commandant of the Marine Corps, complaining that there were “too many intellectuals” at the top of the military, that what we ought to have are some “old fashioned gunslingers.” He relays John Hillen’s remark that many senior officers would be “more comfortable with a copy of Bass Fishing magazine than with a book on military theory.” One other gem Matthews recalled was a “distinguished Army four-star” boasting “that he never read anything but the contents of his in-box.” The anti-intellectual bias in the military works in concert with the bureaucracy to form powerful restrictions on professional military judgment.

Why is this happening?


Major Matthew Cavanaugh is an Army strategist currently assigned to the Defense & Strategic Studies program at West Point. He is also the editor at — a non-partisan, multidisciplinary academic forum dedicated to the study of the use of force (primarily) for the members of the Profession of Arms. This essay is reprinted from that forum, with Major Cavanaugh’s permission. – See more at:

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