Education serves as key to military success

  • Published
  • By Col. Brett Morris
  • Air Command and Staff College
Success in modern warfare demands the rigorous preparation of leaders that comes only from education. In fact, the uncertainty and complexity of modern warfare make a good education equally, if not more, important than training. While highly trained leaders may prove tactically successful, only the educated can expect strategic success. Remember, Pasteur's dictum still holds true, "'luck' favors the prepared [read educated] mind."

Training is invaluable. It develops technical and operational competency through the practice of skills. It relies on defining conditions and circumstances in which these can be effectively employed. However, in complex international situations to include combat, training alone can lead decision makers to rely on an inflexible checklist mentality that fails to challenge assumptions or to create innovative alternatives. Evidence of this problem is implicit in such training phrases as "Read a step; Do a step; Eat a banana." Such rigidity lies at the heart of many military failures.

Too often those who rely on training alone fail to grasp the significance of education as a uniquely different process with distinctly different ends. While training says, "Do Y for success in situation X," education recognizes that future success cannot be assured by following unquestioningly the checklist of today. Rather, good military education leads to the recognition that such training-based thinking leaves the door open for our enemies to develop successful tactics, techniques, and procedures against us.

Successful education leads students to develop a broad base of understanding and skills from which to integrate new knowledge, analyze new conditions, ask critical questions, and develop successful responses. 

Drawn from the Greek concept of liberal education, this view of preparing the mind for the unknown fueled such military successes as Alexander the Great to win unprecedented military and political victories, even in places like Afghanistan. 

Such education relies upon a grasp of history, not as a set of facts but more importantly as a means to understand human nature and thinking in practical settings. Such education also relies upon a good grounding in the sciences, which helps one to adapt and integrate both new and old technology as well as defend against it. It even includes the arts. While the American military has long dismissed the advantages inherent to understanding the language, literature, art, etc. of an enemy, it's now trying desperately to remedy that error today, because of the failures that have come from it.

Most importantly, a good education drives students to ask hard questions. Unlike training which looks for correct questions to be asked as a means to evaluate student understanding, a good educator looks for questions which may be good because they synthesize material to develop questions never before asked. Even more distinct from training are those questions that bring light to bear on the foundational assumptions of the student's experience. This opens the door to new understanding of both potential strengths and weaknesses. A good education even encourages questions that acknowledge a lack of understanding but seek to remedy that lack. For in asking questions come answers to new problems.

Imagine how differently some of our current conflicts might have gone if such questions had been asked instead of military plans being based upon untested assumptions. A good education often trades the certainty found in blissful ignorance for the uncertainty that comes with recognizing the diversity and adaptability of human nature. However, in this "educated uncertainty" also comes a drive to close the gap by integrating knowledge, analysis, and action in new forms to meet new challenges.

Good military education has often spelled the difference between success and failure. The campaigns of Alexander, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Lee, Patton, Giap, and others reflect this truth. Each used their education to prepare plans that adapted to meet the challenges of complex campaigns. 

Arguably, today's conflicts show marked differences that rise from how well questions were asked and answered in the planning phases. While training teaches how to run the planning process, education tells what information to use and what questions to ask in making decisions. Clearly, because of this we see differences in the conflicts of Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and the Pacific. If anything, our highly adaptive enemies drive us to learn and adapt or to decline and die.

As our world grows more complex, good military education will continue to grow more important in ensuring success, especially as the United States grows less able to win conflicts by outproducing or outspending its enemies. Quite literally, education will also spell the difference between life and death for many. When asked how much educated men were superior to those uneducated, Aristotle answered, 'As much as the living are to the dead.' To extend that to military leadership, it might be said that an educated military leader more accurately determines who lives and who dies, rather than trading off the lives of his own troops to learn lessons he should have already learned.