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WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 28: A protester disrupts the first hearing of the U.S. House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party as (L-R) Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, human rights activist Tong Yi, and Lt. Gen. H.R. McCaster (Ret.) testify, at the Cannon House Office Building on February 28, 2023 in Washington, DC. The committee is investigating economic, technological and security competition between the U.S. and China. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

A friend bemoans the apparent lack of urgency toward Communist China within the U.S. national-defense community and wonders whether any apathy is traceable to what’s being taught at professional-military-education schools such as my own, the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. 

My answer: Maybe. In part. 

That’s because we take a traditional approach to graduate education as best we may. Master’s-degree candidates come to Newport to learn how to think about the profession of arms, not what to think. After a year spent reviewing the history, theory, and practical execution of foreign policy, strategy and operations, we have handed each class an intellectual toolbox for thinking through such matters. But we do not tell graduates what to build with those tools. 

That’s up to them. 

Nor, to my friend’s question, do we indoctrinate them with a party line toward the China challenge or any other strategic question. That being the case, the graduating class departs Newport each June with a range of opinions about international affairs. Opinions vary on how best to cope with Beijing’s capabilities and mounting bellicosity

The clash of views makes the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, along with our fellow American and allied armed services — all represented generously in the student body — smarter as fighting forces. Much like the medieval Catholic Church’s concept of the “devil’s advocate,” which handed Church fathers a full range of opinions, pro and con, to weigh when evaluating candidates for sainthood, liberal education on strategy provides top political and military leaders a divergent range of views about any topic at hand. 

Encouraging heterodoxy represents our indirect way of combating groupthink at the Pentagon and out among the operational forces. The free play of ideas and perspectives gives America and its allies and friends around the world an intellectual edge over rivals such as China and Russia that do impose a standard way of thinking, marinated in ideological orthodoxy, on their soldiers, sailors and aviators. Beijing and Moscow close minds, shutting off creative avenues for international competition. U.S. professional military education does its best to open minds. 

So I doubt defense schoolhouses are fostering complacency toward China or any other potential foe. China is important, and we do spend quite a bit of precious class time each term exploring China-related topics. But neither do we go out of our way to counteract complacency in the larger defense community. If free-range debate is had, we rest content as teachers. 

If not education, what could account for lethargy within the defense apparatus? I would point to the culture that took root in the armed forces and the larger government and society following the Cold War, when triumphalism ruled the day and we talked ourselves into believing military history had ended along with the Soviet empire. To understand a person, the English historian G. M. Young was fond of saying, it is crucial to ask what was happening in the world when that person was 20. In other words, what happens during those formative years is emblazoned on your intellect and character. It shapes — or sometimes misshapes — how you interpret events later in adulthood. 

With the exception of very senior admirals and generals commissioned during the Cold War, the bulk of the officer corps joined the service after the fall of the Soviet Union, when, for example, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps leadership in essence told the sea services they need no longer bother preparing to fight to control the sea. The Soviet Navy was no more, and no “peer” navy was on the horizon to contest U.S. and allied control. Therefore, proclaimed sea-service magnates, the services had little need to prepare for high-seas battles. They could and should remake themselves into “fundamentally different” forces mainly occupied with molding events on land. Since top leaders had declared the sea a safe haven for the Navy and Marine Corps, the sea services mostly stopped practicing skills needed to fight hostile navies, and upgrading sensors and weaponry to support high-seas combat. 

That’s what was happening in the world when mid-career to senior officers like current Naval War College students formed their worldviews. Human nature being what it is, it’s hard to change your perspective on the world once it’s entrenched in youth. It often takes a jolt from real-world events. It’s one thing to know intellectually that China and its military pose a problem of grave moment in the Pacific. It’s another to feel that reality in your bones. You need proof from your own eyes. 

Beijing has played on that reality skillfully, refusing to provide unequivocal proof of its ill intentions. It makes a point of stopping short of provoking outright armed conflict with its neighbors and the United States, even while conducting itself more and more aggressively in the Taiwan Strait and China seas. Until it does something dramatic, vindicating prognostications about its capabilities and intentions, the post-Cold War culture of complacency may still prevail in Washington, D.C., and allied capitals. 

And Xi Jinping will smile. 

James R. Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a nonresident fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are not necessarily those of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or anyone else.

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