Don't Exile Thucydides from the War Colleges

Don't Exile Thucydides from the War Colleges

War games aren't a perfect tool for teaching strategy.

Last month at War on the Rocks , Marine War College professor Jim Lacey held forth on how to teach Thucydides. Read the whole thing and hurry back!

Let’s congratulate Professor Lacey for raising awareness about professional military education and the value of gaming at war colleges. Readers of his missive, however, could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that war colleges not named Marine teach the Peloponnesian War almost wholly through passive methods such as lectures: students come to class, a professor drones on for the allotted time, there’s a perfunctory Q&A, they go away. That’s what Lacey says he did when starting at Quantico a few years ago. Ergo, it must be what other military education institutions do.

Now let us give you a view from Newport, where the picture differs radically from the one Lacey paints.

Having afflicted our students with a passive learning experience, opines Lacey, we benighted old-timers are “fooling” ourselves if we believe they come away knowing “anything about Thucydides besides reciting the mantra ‘fear, honor, interest.’” Oh, and they might remember that “attacking Syracuse was bad,” even though “there were a number of good strategic reasons for Athens to attack Syracuse.” Who knew there was sound logic behind the Sicilian expedition ? “Certainly not any War College graduate over the past few decades.”

Thankfully, along comes Jim Lacey to save a complacent war-college professorate from our “mentality” that “things are fine as they are.” There’s just one problem with his tale of discovery and redemption. We and our illustrious predecessors in Newport have been teaching the Peloponnesian War for forty-plus years, since Adm. Stansfield Turner, then the president of the Naval War College, instituted a curricular revolution .

And never since 1972 have the faculty taught Thucydides—or any other segment of the strategy courses—solely through lectures. While lectures are used, they are but one element in the course of instruction. Their purpose is to fuel thought and debate in seminars while helping students compose essays wrestling with strategic problems.

Readings comprise another major element of the strategy courses. Students and faculty explore the strategic canon—Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Mahan, Corbett, Mao—of which Thucydides forms a part. They then harness the big ideas gleaned from the greats to analyze a series of historical case studies. Lacey maintains that war-college students can’t read all of Thucydides’ History. Not so. They’ve done so for decades in Newport, therefore they can.

Indeed, reading the whole thing represents the basic, minimum, irreducible requirement for teaching the Peloponnesian War effectively. And, because Thucydides thoughtlessly neglected to carry the story down to Athens’ fall in 404 BC, we assign another primary source, Xenophon’s Hellenika, to complement Thucydides’ chronicle. A few secondary selections to complement Thucydides and Xenophon, and we’re set for the writing of essays and for informed discussion in seminars.

Essays are another vital element of learning about strategy. Some students present essays in seminar each week, exploring topics listed in the course syllabus that the professors want to examine in depth in class. Yes, there is a question in our syllabus about the efficacy of invading Sicily. The Sicilian campaign constitutes just a fraction of the topics we examine in Newport. There’s far, far more to the Peloponnesian War than the Sicilian debacle.

For instance, we draw upon Thucydides to examine enduring yet pressing strategic problems. Among them are offshore-balancing strategies; quandaries confronting democracies making policy and strategic decisions during long wars; coalition management; methods for balancing resources and risks among different theaters of operation; defense of a maritime system (marked by trade, wealth and political openness) from fearful challengers; the repercussions when a sea power loses command of the maritime commons; command leadership in wartime; and the moral and ethical dilemmas confronting countries under severe security threats. This rich menu feeds the students’ appetite to know more.

Tutorials have long been part of the strategy courses in Newport, providing an opportunity for one-on-one contact with students. Naval War College students develop a paper over a two week-span. Before the essay’s due date, the writer meets with the seminar professors, bringing a formal outline for the paper. The professors probe the content and logic flow of the paper, and generally demand that the student defend or refine the approach before finishing the essay.

And lastly, every essay goes out to the entire seminar the day before class, becoming part of the required readings for the week. Professors typically integrate the essay into classroom debate and discussions, usually by getting the author to give a short “so what” assessment, applying what he or she has learned and then subjecting the paper to critiques from the professors and fellow students. These essays are graded, with the faculty providing line-by-line feedback on student writing and reasoning.

Lacey says, “Trust me, no one likes having their answers critiqued, least of all Type A colonels.” That may be true, but our students are seasoned professionals. They don’t throw hissy fits when they are graded because they respect the effort made by the faculty to provide feedback, as well as the grading system’s credibility and integrity. (Appeals of grades are few and far between.) While writing these essays makes heavy demands on the students, they are more than up to it.

Then there are seminars, another element of the strategy courses and the capstone event for each week. Seminars are not lectures or monologues. Professors are there to raise important problems in strategy, help students use ideas from the strategic canon to think through these issues, and correct errors of fact that may come up during discussions. ( The Germans did not bomb Pearl Harbor , for example.) There are no “school solutions,” or party lines, in Naval War College strategy courses.

Each element of the course equips students to think for themselves without indoctrinating them in what to think. We encourage them to take issue with professors as well as one another. That intellectual free play prepares them to act as effective devil’s advocates in real-world debates, dispelling the groupthink that can inhibit creativity and dynamism in armed forces and civilian agencies.