Professional Military Education Must Change

By: Seth Bush
PME must change

The time has come for the Army to admit that it needs a significant change to its professional military education system – not only what it teaches our leaders but also who gets admitted to our senior schools. As an organization, we focus too much on traditional curriculums and rank instead of allowing diverse thought and outside influence. As new and more sophisticated threats appear and multiply each day, so too must we adapt to meet these new challenges. To adapt as a force, we must welcome new ideas from those within our ranks and from those outside. The dissent within our younger soldiers and leaders and outside criticism must finally be listened to and used to understand Army leadership and thought flaws. Above all, we must allow a more youthful and more intellectually diverse group of individuals to be heard in order to continue our dominance as an Army and ensure our survival as a nation.

Tradition is an integral part of our culture of the profession of arms. We cling to our traditions like a shield to protect us from our detractors. Instead, the practices we should hold onto are innovation and adaptability instead of priding ourselves on learning and doing as our forefathers had. By clinging to our time-tested ways, we keep ourselves from reaching our full potential as soldiers and leaders. To change the culture of our professional education system, we must address two significant issues. First, we must admit that our curriculums are too rigid; they offer little room for intellectual growth. Classes have become pass or fail courses that do not stimulate critical problem solving or entice natural curiosity. Instructors must have greater autonomy to determine course structure and materials. Doing so will allow them to expand their course scope to address their class’s skills better. We must reinstate academic standings and publish them regularly to stimulate competition and organize a ranking system. This will create a more transparent view of the abilities and skills of the Army’s future leader. Second, we must stop focusing on rank or age as the single determining factor. Youth may be no guarantee of innovation, but age is no guarantee of experience. The history of our Army and our nation is proof that determination and adaptability outpace traditions and expectations. What this means is that we need to allow for mavericks in our schools and our ranks again, instead of allowing only Lieutenant Colonels, Colonels, and specifically selected academics from within the government or desired fields. We must expand to let those brilliant Captains and Majors and more academics into the War College.

The unpredictable nature of armed conflict only ever dictates the need for innovation and change in our understanding of ourselves and our enemies. As an organization, we have become complacent in our self-analysis, and we often repeat our mantra of the best trained, best equipped, and best-led fighting force ever to exist. Our enemies, to include non-nation state actors, grow more powerful and capable every day. Two decades of counterinsurgency and low-impact conflicts have eroded our fighting ability, and we have been compensating with technology and a false sense of certainty. If we do continue on this path and with this mentality, we will suffer the failures and costs of great powers have before us. A prime example is the British in the Boer War and the First World War.[1] Those same disasters and defeats are waiting for us on the other side of bloody conflicts and engagements that we can prevent if we learn from their complacency. An integral part of having a greater understanding is to expand the curriculum that’s taught and to give the instructors more significant input in their lesson plans. The professors will have a better understanding of the pace the classes proceed and whether to expand the material’s scope based on how well their students grasp the lessons. Including more junior officers and civilian academics from various fields will add to a diverse thought process and stimulate teamwork with different critical thinking styles.[2] The culmination of these changes will lead to a necessary and vital shift in the fields of study we provide for our senior and strategic leaders and a culture change in how we think about fighting future wars.[3]

The Professional military education process cannot continue, as usual, assured of the excellence and capabilities of the leaders it has produced. We must allow mavericks and new ways to flourish in our institutions and formations again. Of all the examples of outsiders who displayed a brilliance of command and strategic thought, none stand out so much as Ulysses Grant. Despite having no formal education past West Point and never having commanded anything past a Company, he would become the leading commander of the Civil War. Eventually, he would command the most massive Army the United States had ever formed at that point and lead it through numerous campaigns to win the war. Gen Grant embodies the maverick officer who, through skill and self-education, is desperately needed in times of crisis.

The culture we have grown accustomed to these past few decades will only hold us back in our future endeavors. At the same time, we cannot do away with our cherished seniority system and rank preferences. However, we must admit that it does not deliver the results we want as often as they should. The preferred Army concept of making a third-string quarterback your first-string because they’ve shown up to practice regularly and been on the bench the longest while patiently waiting their turn cannot continue to be our norm. The Army must allow those with unique skills and aptitudes to flourish past their present station. Despite their age and rank, it is time we admit that the Army needs Mavericks as much as it needs conformers.

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Seth Bush is a Plans Officers for the U.S. Army Reserve Sustainment Command where he oversees the initial mobilization plans for the Army Reserve Sustainment Command.  He is a CJO Leadership Fellow.



[1] Preston, R. A. (1980, January). Perspectives in the history of military education and professionalism [Memorial Lecture]. USAFA Harmon Memorial Lecture #22, United States Air Force Academy, Colorado, U.S.

[2] Lowther, A. (2020, May 28). Professional Military Education Needs More Creativity, Not More History. War on the Rocks.

[3] U.S. Army War College, & Arnold, E. J. (1993, April). PROFESSIONAL MILITARY EDUCATION:ITS HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT AND FUTURE CHALLENGES (No. 93–09855). Army War College.


Image from: U.S. Army Photo by Scott T. Sturkol, Public Affairs Office, Fort McCoy, Wis