Small Wars Journal

Training or Educating: A Choice for Developing the Next Generation of Army Leaders

Tue, 01/17/2023 - 11:57pm

Training or Educating

A Choice for Developing the Next Generation of Army Leaders


Mark J. Lavin II

Are you informed by your experiences or captured by them?


As the United States Army simultaneously amalgamates new national and defense security strategies, learns relevant lessons from Russia’s War in Ukraine, and accelerates the fielding of the next generation of weapons systems, we must also prioritize our greatest competitive advantage, our people. The Army’s intellectual institutions are struggling to find clarity in a future of competition with peer nations and capable militaries. As pundits hail the successful predictions of Russia’s tactical actions in Eastern Europe, the Army’s intellectual institutions may overlook continued strategic blunders such as understanding how the intelligence community could be so wrong about the capabilities of the Russian military or how 20 years of blood and treasure achieved so little in Afghanistan. The Army’s intellectual initiatives and learning are further diluted by the allure of academic status and accolades. Choosing an identity for Army intellectual institutions at echelon (why) and then aligning core competencies (how and what) will eliminate superfluous efforts and achieve a universal purpose of winning the Nation’s wars and sustaining the Army’s greatest military advantage…adaptive leaders.


Background and Disclaimers

This paper is intended to demonstrate a need for a comprehensive effort like the 1978 Review of Education and Training of Officers (RETO)[1] and corresponding 1983 Army Staff College Level Training Study conducted by then Army War College Fellow, Huba Wass de Czege.[2] The international and domestic conditions have changed sufficiently in the last forty years to warrant a review of how and to what end we are developing our leaders and specifically our field grade officer corps. 


In my last year as a lieutenant colonel, I requested to serve as a faculty instructor at the Command and General Staff School (CGSS) following four years as a consumer of their efforts. As the Chief, Future Operations (G35) and later the Assistant Chief of Staff for Strategy, Plans, and Policy (G5) my teams were predominantly comprised of post Command and General Staff Officer College (CGSOC) and School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) trained majors. For the most part I was a satisfied customer because the talent of our rising officer corps is second to none. However, there was one common trait: lack of clarity in thought. I define this term as one’s ability to understand and communicate staff work, organizational process, professional opinions, and leader decision implications in a context that accounts for the nature of the operational environment, established policy parameters, military theory, and history. Said another way, a professional’s ability to show their math; not just have an opinion.


My ten months as an instructor at CGSOC were illuminating. Armed with Training and Doctrine Command’s (TRADOC) instructor certifications on the Adult Learning Model (ADM) and further pressured to pursue a parallel academic rank, I was entrusted with the Joint, Interagency, and Multinational operations instruction for a seminar of 16 students. The people whom I had the pleasure of teach beside are world class professionals driven by personal desires to empower the next generation of Army, sister service, and international leaders. The following observations and recommendations are oriented on the organizational necessities of the Army and do not reflect any perceived shortcomings of the incredibly talented cadre across CGSOC.


A Tale of Two Identities.


Training or Educating (What’s the difference). To most people these terms are synonymous; both involving teaching and learning. However, when designing organizational structures and expending finite resources (people/time/money) to produce individuals or teams with a specific skill set, these two terms couldn’t be more different. The January 2020 CGSOC Joint Professional Military Education (JPME)-I Reaccreditation Self Study highlights the distinct nature of these terms. Unfortunately, instead of choosing to be good at educating or training, the prescribed methodology for CGSOC is to balance and integrate “complementary approaches.”[3] Said another way, the one-year CGSOC program fits eight pounds of knowledge into three-pound brains. We can do better, and it begins with a clear purpose and function to drive decisions that innovate a culture of learning.[4]


Train to fight OR educate to think. Learning a specific skill utilized on the battlefield requires repetition, realistic conditions, and muscle memory. Learning how to think about war and subsequent battlefields requires reflection, research, and mentorship. Memorizing, through repetition, the intricate battlefield conditions and tactical actions of the forces commanded by Napoleon and Wellington may give you an expert appreciation of what happened at Waterloo, but alone cannot give an understanding of Napoleon’s revolution in military affairs or the impacts of the French Revolution on the character of warfare that remain today. This knowledge can only be achieved through research, reflection, writing, and engaging with a mentor who can enrich that learning experience. Similarly, reading, reflecting, and pontificating about the employment of weapons systems, particularly within complex environments of combined arms formations, will never give you a decisive victory over a skilled and capable adversary. Only through the crucible of training, repetition, assessments, and retraining can one achieve a decisive advantage and master the skills of fighting a crew, staff, or task force. Just ask the Russians in Ukraine.


Educate to fight AND train to think. The current Army professional education system is trying to be everything to everyone and unfortunately is slowly becoming a relic. The establishment of Army University, while at first was a noble effort to give service members and families an advantage when seeking degrees and opportunity in the world of higher education has grown to disproportionally influence policy decisions across TRADOC. To provide similar, if not superior, academic status as the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force, the Army University has expanded its scale and scope exponentially, blending the roles of commander, director, educator, and trainer. This is most notable at the executive level with the Commander, TRADOC serving as the Chancellor of Army University. The Director of the Combined Arms Center hold the office of Vice Chancellor and the Deputy Commandant of CGSOC is the Army University Provost[5]. A cursory comparison of their civilian counterparts at a civilian university demonstrates distinct differences in career development paths, professional expertise, and daily scope of work.[6] The point is NOT that Army senior leaders are unqualified for these positions, rather the unintended consequences of this structure has been the implementation of policies that educate soldiers to fight and train our people to think. Neither accomplishing optimal results. This is the cognitive dissidence that will ultimately erode the Army’s competitive advantage in the next 10 years.


There are two examples of CGSOC friction points that stem from this confusion. The first is the institutions inability to balance student time for reflection and study, with their classroom time to apply and process competencies such as planning and decision making. Often double booked based on instructor-student densities driven by accreditations, the work that doesn’t get finished is moved to homework and into direct competition with other efforts such as writing academic papers and projects imposed by multiple accreditation agencies. The result is that the learning is often ineffective because students will develop a survival routine that prioritizes everything or nothing at the same time. They become product vice content oriented and get captured by competing and redundant requirements that eventually force the learning experience into a routine of block checking and gamesmanship. Again, there is nothing nefarious about these realities rather another symptom of not having a guiding principle to prioritize toward. The second example was the incorporation external instructors for new curriculum dictated by senior Army leaders. The Army University chancellor in 2019 after concerns with CGSOC instructor qualifications, brought in training experts from the centers of excellence to educate CGSOC students on emerging warfighting concepts. Th outsourcing of academic tasks is a clear indicator of misaligned resources and intellectual confusion. A similar trend will emerge as TRADOC transform its mid-level courses and outsources education and training to units in the form of prerequisite distance learning requirements for prospective students.


The Bus to Abilene. It cannot be underemphasized that the collaging of education and training is neither a result of incompetence nor nefarious motives. The Army gets things done and the course of action that combines two distinct options is always the preferred and often directed method. Just like in Jerry B. Harvey’s 1974 article “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement,”[7] well-meaning professionals have perpetuated initiatives at CGSOC over the past forty years that have unintentionally resulted in saturated students, unfocused programs of study, and frustrated faculty either under resourced or unqualified to perform adequately. The creation and strategic implications of Army University is one example of good concepts with mixed results. The other is the SAMS Factor.


The SAMS Factor. The creation of SAMS will be codified as one of the most impactful innovations in American military history. Like the after-action review (AAR), history will show that SAMS had an exponentially greater impact on the successful employment of violence by the U.S. Army than most technological advancements. Given the geopolitical circumstances as well as the perceived state of training and education in the Army at the time SAMS was created, the true genius of Huba Wass de Czege was to both understand the needed skills of the Army officer corps in 1983, but also anticipate the limiting factors the bureaucracy would place on relevant solution strategies. Specifically, the establishment of SAMS was Huba Wass de Czege recognizing a need to return to a 2-year education model for majors that both trained officers to be tactically and technically proficient but also to be critical and creative thinkers. The establishment of SAMS as a pilot and then later a standalone course for a select group of officers was as much about addressing the Army’s cognitive gap as it was subverting to the bureaucratic resistance to change. Designed as building blocks, SAMS was the third phase of a complimentary education process that included the foundational course (now 12 years removed) led by the Combined Arms Service Staff School; teaching combined arms officers how to effectively operate at echelons above Brigade. Over the past 40-years, the SAMS curriculum, including the awarding of a master’s degree, has pollinated, and influenced the culture and vision of the entire Army University. Most influences have been positive. Others, like the fixation on master’s degrees and academic status have convoluted the CGSOC curriculum, overwhelmed the faculty, and confuses students. As in 1983, today the Army faces the same questions: where do we go from here and who is leading that charge?


Inflection Points come with hard decisions. Comprehensive adjustments must be made to address the evolving characteristics of warfare as well as the perceived cognitive dissidence in the Army education system. Tremendous investments are being made in Doctrine, Organizations, Training, Material, Personnel, and Facilities and the successful integration of these solutions relies on the adaptability of people which can only be gained through training and education. Moreover, as the Army’s modernization strategy comes into full view, the battlefield application remains fully reliant on adaptable and capable Soldiers and leaders.[8] The resources are available for the Army to align properly and effectively, it just requires thoughtful and comprehensive recommendations and hard decisions.


Where and how do leaders learn to fight and where and how do they learn to think?


The final section is a comparison of two options for developing junior field grade officers to be adaptable and lethal leaders: each compelling, suitable, and distinguishable. The hardest part is determining what competencies Army Junior Executives must perfect during the CGSOC experience, think or fight. If it is both, then the Army must find ways of dedicating more time. Each course of action below will drive change and increase reliance on either civilian institutions or military training and education centers across the force. If the Army chooses to study this paradigm and decides to both conduct better training and educate more effectively, then the Intermediate level education system must again go to a two-year experience. 


Course of Action 1. Training Focused instruction: How the Army fights.

  • Integrate instruction with the School for Command preparation while simultaneously resurrecting the learning demands of the Combined Arms Service Staff School.
  • Increase planning and scenario sets and reps.
  • Military Instructors need to regain the majority if not a 3/1 ratio.
  • Dissolve the master’s degree efforts at CGSOC
  • Add Staff Work instruction for Flag Officer headquarters
  • Military instructor positions must be career enhancing
  • Turn Military History and Military Theory into electives


Course of Action 2. Education Focused instruction: How the Army thinks.

  • New Departments with mandated civilian education requirements including PhD led syndicates.
  • Reduced Leadership, Tactics, and Joint Doctrine instruction
  • Create Military Theory department and instruction
  • Retain Military History but focus on actual history, not theory
  • Create International Relations and Political Science department


Choose a Direction of Travel and Resource the effort. If history has taught one thing it is that successful militaries have leaders who can both fight and think. Achieving this within the formations of the future begins with choosing an identity and purpose for the Army’s intellectual institutions and then aligning resources appropriately. The above is NOT a binary choice for the overall development of the officer corps, but a framework for how the Army develops mid-grade leaders for success and then adopt corresponding changes across the entire developmental timeline. There are equally compelling arguments for the Army to resource education or training at CGSOC. Whichever is decided, it cannot exist in a vacuum but reverberate across the Army’s professional development and education institutions. There will be second and third order effects that must be embraced or else the seeds of change will not take root. If CGSOC chooses to educate our officers, then the Centers of Excellence and pre-commissioning institutions must double down on training. Moreover, if education is the true focus for CGSOC, then how is the War College curriculum refined, or how do the Schools for Command Preparation or Advanced Military Studies evolve and further revolutionize our force?


End Notes


[1] U.S. Department of the Army. General Staff. Officer Training and Education Review Group.  Review of Education and Training for Officers (RETO), vol. 1-6 with appendices, Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington, DC, 30 June1978.

[2] Wass de Czege, Huba, Final Report: Army Staff College Level Training Study, pages 30-31, June 1983,, accessed 5 July 2022.

[3] U.S. Army Command and General Staff College: JPME-I Reaccreditation Self-Study 3 January 2020, p 11.

[4] Lavin, Mark, “Foundational Principles of Innovation”, accessed 26 February 2020,

[5] Army University Organizational Chart, circa October 2019.

[6] A review of leadership biographies at the University of Iowa, University of Missouri at Kansas City, and University of Northern Iowa shows a clear distinction. Academic leaders have extensive experiences in research, grants, and hold advanced degrees. Military commanders have extensive experience in operational and organizational leadership and while many have advanced degrees, it is not a requirement for general officers to attain a PhD in a specific research field of study.

[7]Harvey, Jerry B, The Abilene Paradox: the Management of Agreement,, last accessed 5 July 2022.

[8] Department of Defense, National Defense Budget Estimates for FY2020, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), May 2019, Table 6-19: Army Budget Authority by Public Law Title, percentages of current dollars for selected titles,; CRS research. The 2020 Army budget has 33% committed to personnel compared to just 6% in research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) and 14% in Procurement


About the Author(s)

Colonel Lavin is a US Army Strategist currently serving as the Assistant Chief of Staff, G5 Strategy, Plans and Policy for US Army North (5th Army). He most recently served as a faculty instructor at the Command and General Staff College in Leavenworth, Kansas. Previously assigned at US Army South, he served as the Assistant Chief of Staff, G5, Chief of Future Operations (G35), and the Strategy and Policy Branch Chief (G55). Former Strategist positions include as a Futures planner with the Army Capability Integration Center (now Army Futures Command) where he managed the Army’s future study program Unified Quest. Commissioned a CBRN officer, COL Lavin has held leadership positions at the company and platoon level including company command during Operation Iraqi Freedom II with the First Infantry Division. He has served as a Small Group Instructor and Army Congressional Fellow. His Joint assignments include Deputy Legislative Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Legislative Director for the Commander, US Forces-Iraq during Operation New Dawn.


It is always helpful to re-imagine Professional Military Education.  As a cornerstone of officer education, I presume Army leadership focuses on the effectiveness and relevance of any program that requires a massive investment of resources, such as CGSC and CGSOC.  In evaluating the efficacy or significance of any program, one must first understand some foundational truths about that program.

The first truth is that officers are not selected for academic acumen.  The path to selection is success in a company grade assignment.  A successful assignment might involve the soldier's basic branch, or it may be in a duty that has little to do with their branch or function, leading to a second fundamental truth.

CGSC, being part of the Combined Arms Center, is quite logically focused on Combined Arms, JPME, and parallel instruction on history, leadership, and sustainment.  CGSOC is not a branch-specific or branch-producing course.  To facilitate Combined Arms instruction, CGSS assumes that officers are tactically proficient as a company-grade officers in their basic branch.  The assumption regarding tactical proficiency is bold and often false.  As a remedy, significant efforts are made to make up for experiential deficits.  These deficiencies often involve a lack of fundamental knowledge or skills.

The SAMS effect is seductive, and the idea of re-making CGSOC to look like AMSP is nothing new.   My SAMS experience was an epiphany, but SAMS has an additional selection process beyond a centralized board evaluating a series of efficiency reports for resident CGSOC.  Mimicking AMSP involves a more rigorous selection process that fundamentally alters the nature of resident CGSOC.  Class size would be a tithe of the current size with commensurate reductions in knowledge and skills in any Field Grade cohort.

With all these impediments to evolving CGSOC, what can be done in continuing efforts to improve the course?  The first step may be as simple as answering two questions.  The first question is, what does the customer want?  The customer is not CGSS, CAC, the Army, or Joint Chiefs.  The customer is the Republic.  What do the people expect of their military? 

The second question is, what is CGSC?  Is it a college devoted to individual development that spends an unusual amount of time on military doctrine, or is it an Army Service School with a degree program?  Which of these identities best answers the requirements of the customer?

The most fundamental question is one of purpose.  What is the purpose of CGSOC?  Once resolved, the answers to the rest of the questions should fall out quite nicely.