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From left to right: David Petraeus, James Mattis, and H.R. McMaster (©US armed forces)

In October 1987, a 35-year-old PhD student at Princeton University submitted his doctoral thesis, a discourse called The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: The Study of Military Violence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era. A large number of doctoral dissertations have dissected the lessons of Vietnam, but few have been as influential as this one. That’s because the student was David Petraeus, a US Army officer who many years later commanded the war in Afghanistan and was subsequently appointed director of the CIA.

Petraeus conducted his PhD studies not during a career break but as a serving officer. And when the so-called War on Terror took him to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the top post at the US Central Command, Petraeus could develop a military strategy partly based on his PhD conclusions.

Back in 1987, PhD student Petraeus was an exception. Exceptionally few officers in the US Army, or anywhere, took a turn as academics. One of Petraeus’s rare warrior-scholar companions was H.R. McMaster, a fellow US Army officer who in 1996 gained a PhD from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Like Petraeus, McMaster analysed which military lessons would be learned from Vietnam. And like Petraeus, McMaster went on to become a general in the US Army. The tough-talking officer is now President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, and his PhD findings are certain to have informed his thinking as Trump prepared to re-engage the US military in Afghanistan. McMaster’s fellow cabinet member James Mattis, meanwhile, is also a combat-hardened former general with scholarly leanings. Mattis’s reading list for US Marine Corps soldiers and officers is devoured by military disciples around the world.

McMaster and Mattis are not mere office-holders; they play crucial roles within the Trump administration, where they along with General — now White House Chief of Staff — John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are said to form the “Axis of Adults”. Indeed, relations between America and the world would be critically worse without the generals.

Other political leaders could equally gain from the advice of sage officers. Civilians are, of course, perfectly able to govern on their own, but they lack professional officers’ detailed understanding of armed conflict. They would benefit by military men on their side who would not only be logistical servants figuring out how to arrange the already-decided-on boots on the ground. “The [Soviet] military top brass was against [the Afghanistan] war, well aware that we were getting ourselves into combat operations that would take place in difficult, unfamiliar conditions,” an ex-Red Army marshal told Russian TV in 1990. “We feared that the whole Islamic world would rise up against the USSR. That we would lose face in Europe. We were told firmly, ‘Since when do our generals interfere in politics?’ We lost the battle for the Afghan people.” Perhaps if the Soviet generals had also had academic credentials the civilian bosses would have heeded their advice.

But the Soviet leaders may not have been that far off the mark. The Prussian top brass was famously well-educated, sometimes more so than civilian leaders. Carl von Clausewitz, the world’s most important military theorist, was a Prussian general. Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder), another leading military theorist, served as Chief of the General Staff. Perhaps history would have taken a different course if, during the 20th century, there had been more German officers of such intellectual and moral integrity. Alexander the Great, in turn, was a pupil of Aristotle, while Frederick the Great was an intellectual soldier-king who counted Voltaire among his intellectual sparring partners. Generals Charles de Gaulle and Dwight Eisenhower went on to lead their countries. But more typically officers have lacked the strategic view. They have also not been asked to offer one.

Yet at some point most civilian leaders need wise officers with whom to discuss strategy. That’s exactly the kind of advice Mattis, Kelly and McMaster provide to President Trump. Though they’re not doing so wearing uniform, the US armed forces have decided there’s potential for more men like them. Announcing a new PhD pilot programme last year, the US Marine Corps said its intent is to “create a cadre of high calibre officers with doctoral level credentials to serve as strategists in key billets throughout the Marine Corps and the Department of Defense. The end state is the creation of a cadre of experts in strategic affairs within the Marine Corps.”

This autumn two Marine Corps officers will begin PhD programmes — the Marine Corps’s inaugural PhD students. The two officers will pursue doctorates in fields related to military strategy and national security. Among the universities that will host Marine Corps scholars are American University and George Mason University, both located in greater Washington, DC. In Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, meanwhile, US Army officers will report for duty at the army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. They, too, are part of a pilot programme: their five-six year tour of intellectual duty will take them to civilian university PhD programmes.

Like the Marine Corps, the Army selects only its best officers for PhD training. Applicants must have served in Iraq, Afghanistan or another hotspot. Among other things graduates are expected to be “critical and creative thinkers grounded in operational theory, doctrine, and history” who are “physically and mentally tough”. While the PhD tour will take an officer out of field duty for several years, it’s not a desk-bound assignment. It’s a destination for the best and the brightest.

Indeed, the Marine Corps and Army PhD programmes are likely to remain small even if they become permanent. The military doesn’t need armies of strategists, but it needs armies of officers on operational duty. “There is no doubt that officers with double or multiple degrees are very beneficial to defence ministers and other decision-makers,” the Lithuanian former defence minister Rasa Jukneviciene told me. “A wider comprehension of supplementary fields such as international relations, economics and the technology sector helps the officers and the political decision-makers orientate themselves better in this challenging geopolitical life.”

Estonia, meanwhile, has just introduced a doctoral programme at its defence college. “While there’s not sufficient evidence to my mind that top military leaders with PhDs make better decisions, it’s clear that additional education adds another layer of knowledge about the environment in which today’s armed forces have to fight,” explained General Riho Terras, commander of the Estonian Defence Forces.

For officers to be seconded to higher studies at outstanding academic institutions is a pioneering initiative by the Americans. So is the willingness of top institutions to host the officers. Many academics view the armed forces with a mix of arrogance and disdain. During the Vietnam War the US armed forces’ Reserve Officer Training Corps, which trains university students, was harassed and sometimes hounded off college campuses. Indeed, on many campuses the military remains unloved. But now some of the military’s best officers are on campus, not just as undergrads but as full-fledged doctoral students.

People around the world admire the efforts of McMaster and Mattis to prevent their civilian boss from shooting from the hip. Donald Trump won’t be the last civilian leader to nurture wild ideas about how a recalcitrant country should be treated. While European leaders usually take more moderate stands than Trump, as Jukneviciene suggests they too would be well-served by officers intimately familiar with not just, say, the operational requirements of multi-theatre warfare in Syria, but also the geopolitical history of the Levant. Clausewitz would, to be sure, have provided wise input on the matter. Soon, so may several US Marine Corps and US Army officers.
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