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Educating Future Army Officers

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Educating Future Army Officers in an Age of Global Terrorism

James J.F. Forest, Ph.D.[1]


        The success that the United States has had in the war on terror, and that it will have in the future, is due in part to the operational capabilities and intellectual capacity of our professional military. This article examines how West Point teaches future military officers about terrorism and counterterrorism. The views expressed are those of the author and not of the Department of the Army, the U.S. Military Academy, or any other agency of the U.S. Government.


The Academic Program at West Point

            The synergy that results from the linkage of the best operators in the world and the best intellectuals in the world is truly awesome and is sorely need in the fight against terrorism. West Point is a place in which this synergy is envisioned  -  a strategic collaboration between the academic professional and the military officer. Nearly two-thirds of the faculty are junior officers, mostly at the rank of captain and major, and today, many of them have recent combat experience from Afghanistan and Iraq. About 23% of the faculty are civilians and the remaining 12% are senior military officers at the rank of colonel or general. This partnership between the practitioner and the academic is meant to ensure the quality of the curriculum as well as its relevance to developing competence in the profession of arms.

In preparing this curriculum, the Department of the Army provides guidance about what is required for success in this profession. From this, we know that military officers need to develop physical fitness, academic skills and knowledge, and what we call military officership. Thus, the West Point experience includes developmental programs in all three of these areas. In the academic program area, we understand that the education of military officers requires an understanding of history, foreign policy, organizational behavior, and other disciplines relevant to the military profession. As a result, the West Point curriculum is multidisciplinary - very similar to most any other liberal arts college, but with an extra layer of plain old discipline thrown in there for good measure.

Cadets take a mixture of courses in the humanities, social sciences, math, engineering and the natural sciences. The content of these 30 required courses is organized around a set of ten multidisciplinary academic program goals (see Figure 1), based on our expectations for what an Army leader must know and be.



Figure 1: Academic Program Goals at West Point

Army officers must:



        moral awareness

        commitment to continued intellectual development

        effective listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills

and understand:



        patterns of human behavior

        mathematics and science

        engineering and technology

        information technology

Source: Educating Future Officers for a Changing World (USMA Office of the Dean, 2002).



These Academic Program goals have particular importance to developing an officers understanding of how to effectively combat terrorism. For example, an understanding of history, culture and human behavior is clearly vital for any effective counterterrorism effort. An officer must be able to effectively communicate his understanding in these areas to his soldiers, as well as communicate with other military forces and with local populations. In combating terrorism, creative solutions are often required to complicated situations, and as events like Abu Ghraib clearly demonstrated, military officers must conduct themselves with the highest level of integrity and moral grounding.

Todays military officers must also have a comprehensive grasp of asymmetric warfare principles and strategies. In addition to appreciating the enemys strategies, motivations, goals and tactics, we must develop an understanding for how complex, networked, decentralized, loosely organized groups operate. From this understanding, we can identify the political, cultural, organizational and financial seams within those networked organizations, so that ways can be found to exploit these seams in order to degrade their operational capabilities. Military officers also require an appreciation for systems thinking and the phenomena of second- and third-order effects. Military education programs must, therefore, stay abreast of new developments in the science disciplines, especially in networks and complexity theory. Future strategic decision-makers and operational-level commanders also require new kinds of pattern recognition skills in order to cope with future multidimensional warfare.

            In an asymmetric warfare environment, military officers at all levels require significant amounts of strategic-level situational awareness. For example, right now in Iraq, junior officers are in constant need of more strategic-level information. They need to attack the enemys strategy, not just the active fighters. At the same time, platoon sergeants are now making decisions that impact our nations political and military strategy. Military officers must know several kinds of geographies and histories (physical, political and cultural) in order to provide their soldiers with the necessary situational awareness. For example, knowing the political and cultural landscape is vital for understanding the range of possible tactics that are available to a local terrorist group, as well as historical grievances that may influence local support for insurgencies. Officers must also find effective means for the collection and integration of human intelligence. Not only must officers learn from local informants, but they also must learn from their soldiers. Situational awareness and intelligence can also enable officers to recognize the telltale signs of chemical, biological and radiological weapons development.

            And equally important, military officers must understand the non-kinetic dimensions of todays conflicts. An insurgency is conducted in numerous locations simultaneously, including the information battlespace. Officers must think in terms of influence and combined actions, as well as the impact that military operations will have on local perceptions. They must have a full appreciation of many forms of technology, and understand what skill sets are needed for conducting strategic communications and cyber-warfare. At the same time, military professionals must remember to avoid over-reliance on technology in their efforts to gain real situational awareness. Overall, future military officers must be able to anticipate and respond effectively to the uncertainties of a changing technological, social, political, and economic world: a world in which the military will play an increasingly prominent role in combating terrorism.


The Study of Terrorism at West Point

            It is within this context that, following the events of September 11th, we developed a program of study in terrorism and counterterrorism at the U.S. Military Academy. The Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point was launched in 2002 with a generous grant from Vincent Viola, a 1977 graduate of the Military Academy and the former Chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange. The CTC is almost entirely funded by private donations. Brigadier General (r) Russell Howard, the former head of the Department of Social Sciences, directed the center during these early years, and we were fortunate to bring on board as our distinguished chair Wayne Downing, a retired 4-star general and former commander of all U.S. Special Forces.

The CTC now employs a team of civilian and military faculty whose work is organized around four themes: terrorism; counterterrorism; homeland security; and, weapons of mass destruction. These faculty have developed courses, conducted research, and produced publications within the first three (under the guidance of senior advisors like Dr. Bruce Hoffman, Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, and Dr. David Franz), and the CTC has recently received a grant from the Sloan Foundation to develop courses and research on bioterrorism. These courses are offered to all upper-division cadets at West Point, and enrollment in these courses has (as one might imagine) skyrocketed from dozens to hundreds within just the last few years. The CTC has also recently inaugurated a new Minor in Terrorism Studies program - the very first academic minor program in West Points history.

New security environments and new roles and expectations require new forms of education for the military profession. Officers must have a total grasp of the struggle, not just the terrorist acts. Their education must help them answer a number of new and important questions  like: Why is terrorism being used as a tactic? What are the political goals of this group? It this part of an insurgency? What are the political, social, economic, cultural and  information dimensions of the conflict, as well as the security and military aspects? How do these interrelate? Questions like these frame the lesson topics that are included in the basic terrorism courses.

For example, in these courses we study the history of terrorism, using case studies to examine a diverse array of groups including anarchists, ethnic separatists, and religious extremists. We explore the organizational strategies of terrorist groups and the individual motivations of their members, and focus on specific dynamics such as recruitment, training, ideology, and communication. Cadets examine various facilitators of terrorism, such as transnational financial and criminal networks, and gain an appreciation for the organizational learning aspects of terrorist groups. Naturally, recent trends in terrorism are covered in these courses, and cadets conduct their own research about events in places like Spain, Indonesia, Britain, Pakistan, Nigeria, Egypt, Israel, and, of course, Iraq. We also examine local circumstances that support terrorism, including the political, economic and social conditions that existed before terrorism became a problem.

And, of course, we spend some time learning about U.S. policy for combating terrorism. We examine the U.S. National Security Strategy, the Strategy for Combating Terrorism, the Homeland Security Strategy, and so forth. We also explore the seven key dimensions of national power, emphasizing that the military is only one aspect to a Counterterrorism Strategy, the others being intelligence gathering and sharing; diplomacy; legal/law enforcement; information operations; finance; and, economics. Overall, we spend very little time in these classes discussing the details of counterterrorism operations. Rather, our approach to the study of terrorism is built upon a conviction that training in tactics, techniques, and procedures in counterterrorism are only useful when the leaders have acquired an appropriate intellectual background and can master the competencies described above. Thus, we emphasize first and foremost the need to be educated, critical thinkers about terrorism and the reasons why some groups adopt a strategy of terror as a means for achieving their objectives.


The Road Ahead

        The worlds first historian, Thucydides, once wrote that "The nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools." In the war on terrorism it is vital for us to link the scholars and the warriors - the intellectuals and the operators. This is the purpose of places like West Point. Our Academic Program produces scholarly warriors, and our courses on terrorism are designed to develop the competencies that we believe military officers must have in order to deal effectively with the global terrorist threat.

Sun Tzus insistence on knowing yourself is critical to the success of any military organization. The education of future military officers must foster a commitment to critical, reflective analysis on structural and cultural challenges. The leaders of the Academic Program at West Point are also engaged in a process of reflective analysis. As we learn from our assessment of various performance measures, including interviews with former battalion commanders about the West Point graduates who have served with them, we will continue to refine our educational programs and courses in ways that will ensure our graduates ability to meet the present and future challenges of the global security environment with increasing sophistication and success.




Dr. James Forest is the Director of Terrorism Studies at the U.S. Military Academy, where he leads educational and research initiatives for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He can be reached through his website Teaching Terror.




[1] An earlier version of this essay was published as How to Think Like a Terrorist, in The Officer (April, 2006) p. 36-37.

© 2012 High Priority Targeting, Inc.