Educating Strategic Lieutenants at West Point

By Silverstone, Scott A. | Parameters, Winter 2019 | Go to article overview

Educating Strategic Lieutenants at West Point


Silverstone, Scott A., Parameters


The United States Military Academy has been developing commissioned officers for the US Army since the academy's founding in 1802. While the objective has always been to produce second lieutenants prepared for a career in uniform, West Point's approach to its leader development mission has changed dramatically over the past two centuries, and much of that story has been told elsewhere. (1) This article focuses on the decades since the end of the Cold War, a period of profound shifts in the strategic landscape, and the changing expectations at home about the strategic problems our military leaders must be prepared to tackle. As a result of these factors, the past three decades have been marked by deep reflection among academy leaders over whether the curriculum is adequately preparing our cadets for the professional demands placed on their shoulders after graduation.

This article emerged from a joint project that began in 2015 among a group of faculty members from different North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military academies who met periodically to discuss their respective academic curricula. Our initial goal was to share best practices for officer education at the precommissioning level. Even though our graduates have been working together in Afghanistan for years, and they share a stake in NATO's reinvigorated focus on territorial defense after Russia's annexation of Crimea, each academy knew very little about how its counterparts were preparing young officers for service, particularly in collective security initiatives.

Over the course of numerous meetings, we identified profound differences in how NATO members approach this task. This discovery led to a new set of comparative questions for discussion. First, how have changes in the international strategic context since the end of the Cold War shaped each academy's educational model, if at all? Second, how has the domestic political context of each member state shaped the way its military academies responded to the changing security environment?

This article contributes to the larger comparative study of strategic context and NATO military academies, and it addresses these questions for the United States Military Academy (USMA). This analysis is not the official position of the USMA, but rather my personal assessment after nearly two decades on the faculty. My goal is to pull back the curtain a bit to explain how this institution has wrestled with the fundamental questions of educating future US Army officers within a broader domestic and international strategic setting.

The article focuses on the impact of changes in the global distribution of power at the end of the Cold War that created new opportunities American leaders sought to exploit and the changing perceptions of the twenty-first century threat environment. Together, these threats and opportunities invariably expanded the mission of the US Army and forced USMA leadership to confront a central question: What capabilities do graduates need to carry into the field? Real-world events, including the Persian Gulf War and the subsequent focus on preparedness to fight major regional conflicts, in Korea and the Middle East; humanitarian intervention in cases like Somalia and Kosovo; nation-building and counterinsurgency missions in Afghanistan and Iraq; and a renewed emphasis on readiness for high-intensity conflict against near-peer competitors such as Russia and China, suggest the answer to this question is simply "more."

Further, domestic sentiment, favoring an activist foreign policy and continued investments in America's global reach, created a strategic culture that encouraged expanding the capabilities of the US Army. This article pulls these elements of strategic context together to explain the academy's response to the most basic questions of education and leader development in recent decades. In the end, it shows that despite changes in the international environment and in Army operations, West Point's educational model has remained remarkably stable, rooted in an enduring commitment to a rigorous liberal education as the best preparation for a career of service as a US Army officer. …

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