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The Thayer System

After two centuries of success, it might be time to make some changes.

12:00 AM, Aug 1, 2007 • By JOHN NOONAN
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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.

Those changes must be initiated in the leadership ranks, and they must be instituted in the infancy phase of officer development. That means that the Thayer system, and similar systems at sister academies, may need to be reshaped in order to better provide cadets with the appropriate tools for combating Islamic terrorism.

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.

Unfortunately, we are fighting a new war. Tomorrow's war. This is a war where we fight an enemy who understands that the battlefield lies in the human heart, not in the skies or on the seas. And while the liberal arts curriculum is precisely the school of thought needed to effectively prepare our cadets to fight in the 21st century, not one of the service academies offers a Bachelor of Arts degree.

An Army platoon leader would be better equipped to administer to tribes in Anbar province if he had a degree in International Affairs and a minor in Arabic. A Marine infantry Lieutenant might be more effective unifying warlords in Afghanistan if he spent his four years at Annapolis studying the history of central Asia. U.S. Special Forces have been deployed to over 180 different countries since 9/11, and, to be sure, the military offers them the education needed to meet that goal. But in all that training an academy cadet will only get as much foreign study as he can squeeze into his schedule between orbital mechanics and advanced calculus.

The British perfected this system at the height of their empire. Relying on a strong NCO corps (which America also enjoys), British officers were trained to perform the duties of regional governors while sergeants shouldered much of the responsibility for training and disciplining the men. That freed Lieutenants and Captains to manage tribes, recruit friendly warlords as allies, establish judicial systems and public works projects, and bolster the local economy. And look at the results. India and Pakistan were stable; the Muslim holy lands were quiet, and the Palestinian territories calm.

My alma mater, the Virginia Military Institute, understands that critical social element in officer development. VMI has a strong Arabic studies department, and their history and international studies curriculums are heavy in the military arts, national security studies, foreign language, and world history. VMI places a strong emphasis on study abroad opportunities, even if it means removing a cadet an environment of harsh military discipline for a semester. The methodology is simple: a cadet will benefit more from a semester in Morocco or Egypt than a semester spent shining brass and marching parades.