Thursday, August 2, 2007

Dump the 'Thayer System'? Yeah, like 100 years ago...

I normally don't read the Weekly Standard, but Op-For's John Noonan wrote an interesting piece about reforming the current professional military education (PME) system by dumping the 'Thayer System':

FOR NEARLY 200 years, cadets at the United States Military Academy have been guided by the "Thayer System," a rigid structure of unyielding regulation, austere discipline, fierce loyalty, and strong emphasis on math, science, and engineering. The method is calculated to produce Army officers of the highest caliber. And the system has worked. West Point graduates constitute some of the most celebrated, highly decorated officers in American history. No doubt if you traveled further back in time, West Pointers would rank amongst some of the finest combat leaders in the history of warfare.

Thayer's system has changed little since it was implemented shortly after the War of 1812. Like war itself, West Point traditions and culture slowly evolved over time to meet and conquer the new challenges that the profession of arms demanded. But today we stand at a point in history where technology, the decentralization of military force, and the abandonment of the established, traditional law of armed conflict is changing warfare in such a swift and profound way that the U.S. Armed Forces will either have to adapt or face a slow creep towards irrelevancy.


The core of the Thayer system--discipline, honor, and ferocious loyalty to the Constitution--must never change. That's precisely why the system has stood as it is for so long; America will always need men and women who live by the stoic creed of duty, honor, country. However, one of the cornerstones of Slyvanus Thayer's system, his dated academic infrastructure, no longer meets the needs of the mission. The same can be said for nearly identical curriculums at Annapolis and Colorado Springs.

West Point and all of the service academies promote math and engineering above all other disciplines. Thayer wanted math savvy artillery officers. The Navy sought officers with a firm grasp of engineering to keep their ships running and navigate the seas under the harshest of combat conditions. And the Air Force desired officers capable of operating the service's cutting-edge technology. It's the perfect academic infrastructure for a young cadet, if we expect him to fight the Cold War.

I completely agree with Noonan and what's more, there is plenty of evidence to show that adherence to the engineer and math-heavy French tradition of PME has enabled a number of military disasters. First, a brief history lesson on PME:

Despite the sizable number of British-trained military officers in the Continental Army, the U.S.'s first military academy at West Point has been largely modelled on French PME traditions since the 16-year (1817-1833) superintendency of Sylvanus Thayer. Thayer was an engineer and mathematician by trade and his views of PME were heavily influenced by the two years he spent studying at the French military academy E'cole Polytechnique.

The French institution itself was founded by a pair of Revolutionary-era mathematicians. They established a curriculum that emphasized the sciences, civil engineering, and Vauban's classics on fortifications and siege warfare -- which ironically contrasts with the French army's exploitation of maneuver warfare under Napoleon.

Thayer's West Point curricula reflected much of what he had learned in France. His influence over the school was extended by Dennis Hart Mahan, a graduate during Thayer's reign who spent 40 years teaching from the French tradition at West Point.

Mahan emphasized the ideas of Antoine-Henri Jomini, a French-Swiss military theorist who attempted to capture Napoleon's genius by reducing it to elements of geometry. Having taught virtually every Union and Confederate commander of the Civil War, Jomini's emphasis on interior lines and strategic bases is fairly evident in many Civil War engagements. For those who have picked up Bruce Catton's A Stillness at Appamattox, you can imagine that many of the trenches around Petersburg resembled the teachings of Vauban.

It would not be a stretch to argue that the French PME tradition and French conceptions of strategy and maneuver factored two of the bloodiest, least decisive land wars in history: the American Civil War and World War I. American commanders in the 1860s were so indoctrinated by Mahan's teachings that Abraham Lincoln to turn to a drunk and someone who had had a nervous breakdown in order to wage total war against the South.

The French commanders that presided over the meat grinders that were the Battle of the Somme, the Great Retreat and the first Battle of Ypres were also students of Ecole Polytechnique and disciples of Jomini.

The take-home message of all of this history is that the French PME tradition has a poor history of success and should have been abandoned a long time ago. Understanding the science and engineering of warfare is important, but as Sun Tzu aptly put it, so is understanding your potential adversary. It is high time West Point (and the other military academies for that matter) offer more robust curricula in the social sciences, history and (gasp!) the humanities.


Gramarye said...

*nods thoughtfully* It does seem to follow the old 'when your only tool is a hammer...' scenario.

Granted, I know just this side of nothing about the American military academies -- what is their language training standard like? Google informs me that West Point cadets, for instance, are only required to take two semesters' worth of language instruction and anything after that is optional. Your thoughts on this?

Robot Economist said...

gramayre - What you don't know is that because of their tight schedules, cadets who want to take more than the required amount of language instruction can only take a max of two years. As an Asian specialist, I can tell you that two years is not enough time to build up an intermediate grasp of languages that use Chinese ideographs.

I know a few recent West Point grads that were dying to learn Arabic and Chinese at West Point, but were only given a handful of language-learning opportunities.