Small Wars Journal

The Militarization of the Ivy League?

Fri, 05/25/2012 - 7:29am

COL Gian Gentile, currently a professor at West Point but with extensive operational leadership experience - with extensive combat command time - asks why GEN Stanley McChrystal (Ret) is teaching an off the record course at Yale.  The essay is posted at The Atlantic.


By the late 1960s, the left-leaning ideological mindset that Buckley criticized no doubt encouraged the widespread opposition at Yale to the Vietnam Conflict --opposition that turned out to be justified by the facts on the ground in Vietnam. During those days, any notion that an American four-star general involved in the Vietnam debacle, someone like General William C. Westmoreland, should teach a course on leadership at Yale would have been dismissed out of hand as utterly ridiculous.

Fast-forward to 2012 and reality has been turned on its head. ...


McCyrstal is quoted as saying "the only reason I'm here to teach," compared with "somebody who's got a Ph.D., is because I've been through it."

McChrystal must have been through something ominous because, according to Elisabeth Bumiller's  Timesarticle, Yale University imposes restrictions on students who sit in McChrystal's classes, demanding that they take notes on an "off the record" basis -- i.e., not for attribution.



Mon, 05/28/2012 - 1:17am

Colonel- loyalty takes on new meanings in the world of SOF. Sorry you might be seeing that (or that might just be a personal attack on you coming from jealousy...)

I agree with you that the celebrity generals are abusing their positions- just as other celebrity academics. My other beef with the most recent celebrity generals is that they seem to use their success in Iraq as their bona fides- and yet the two most celebrated- Petreaus and McChrystal- were arguably losers in Afghanistan. Listening to McChrystal's standard guest lectures he gives at conventions seems to me to be one filled with "cool" anecdotes from JSOC along with standard "institution flattening" advice. While I struggled to i.d. one instance of his that could be connected to Afghanistan- mainly what I heard was Iraq and JSOC. I wonder why he wasn't able to do the same with ISAF in Afghanistan? More importantly, why isn't he being taken more to task for the lack of success in Afghanistan?

In my opinion both he and Petreaus have managed to sell the public on a perception that they won in Iraq and that they were unable to win in Afghanistan because of the politicians. I doubt we'll learn the real lessons we should learn from Afghanistan ever- if Vietnam is to be a guide.

gian gentile

Mon, 05/28/2012 - 8:42am

In reply to by joe_

Fair enough Joe, and i certainly respect your hard service to the nation.

I see your point of criticism toward my "ominous" line in the piece. It was snarky, but I can only offer in my defense that in a short oped sometimes snappy words and sentences get across meaning quickly and set up the argument of the piece, which that line did.

With regard to Iraq in other writings of mine on the Surge i have made arguments over and over again that the real effect of the Surge was the reduction of AQI through kinetic, tactical action, whether that be conventional or arguably as you suggest more importantly by sof.

I am sorry you dont care for officers who attend graduate school then teach at places like West Point. I personally think that such programs help the army rather than hurt it. As I said for me west point has been not so much a hiding out but a back and forth. Most officers anyway do a back and forth sort of thing from staff to line, and McChrystal in this regard was no different.

As for my time away from Baghdad, well yes you are right, 2006 is now six years past. But i humbly posit to you that at some point you will face the same problem with your combat experience which i admit is much closer in time to mine. But time keeps going and at some point you will be a long way away from it too.

thanks for the lively and hearty discussion.



I think my reference was more historical in nature, based on past reading, and past criticism. For example, while we largely agree that credit for the success of the "surge" in Iraq was largely misplaced, it was clear to me your analysis either ignored or was unaware that much of it was due to certain units stacking Iraqi and AQIZ INS like cordwood, night after night after night. The few killed far more than the many, and the C in COIN has always stood for Killing--a point usually missed in your criticism of COIN.

And whether you admit it or not, your criticism of McChrystal at Yale is personal, and part of your effort to maintain yourself as the celebrity critic of COIN, and part of a fear that he'll somehow influence young minds to disagee with you. It's petty, and beneath your platform at the USMA.

And my reaction was personal as well, both on the level of a McChyrstal knuckledragger loyalist, and as a non-academic who's 8.5 hours ahead of those on EST. I'm tired of the snarky professional commentariat, and the part-time warriors, and...all of it. The "McChrystal must have been through something ominous" line was bullshit, and you know it. McChrystal didn't use his active duty time to get his masters and doctorate at Stanford and bounce back and forth from West Point. 2006 in Baghdad was a long long time ago.


Sun, 06/17/2012 - 12:39pm

In reply to by joe_

Thanks for hitting this center mass. COL Gentile’s argument (his enduring theme), remains mired in an argument over tactics. In hindsight, FM 3-24 is certainly not without major short-comings. But it offered a solution, as imperfect as it was, when all others had proven inadequate. It was simply another tool--something to save us from ourselves after losing our momentum in late 2003-early 2004. We remained adrift through 2006. Our convention forces’ NTC solution…to master MDMP, create a better execution checklist, and try even harder/double-down solutions were bleeding us white. The historians will debate what happened in 2007 for decades. Imagine the alternative…we would now be on 18-24 month tours; FOBs would have greater luxuries than those in CONUS; we would be employing 500,000+ contractors; and mission statements will still read “close with and destroy the enemy (not that some don’t need killing).” Be it the surge, the tribes out west, or JSOCs ability to decapitate the many heads of the Hydra—the embrace of COIN worked at the strategic level. Yes, we probably need to get at least a HVY BDE or two back in what we once called the “band of excellence.” But to jettison COIN, for the second time in less than 50 years is foolhardy. Balance—that ever elusive state—is what we must seek. The arguments over the priority of poles will further challenge another generation of officers when confronted with a “wicked problem.”

gian gentile

Mon, 05/28/2012 - 8:29pm

In reply to by joe_


It is always a good thing to be killing the enemies of the USA.

Please do stop by, you have an open invitation to sit in on any of my classes and a cup of joe either before or after.

look forward to meeting you soon



Mon, 05/28/2012 - 1:24pm

In reply to by gian gentile


To my shame, I actually went to grad school, but, like here, I was just there for the arguments! I too enjoyed the exchange, and since I was the perennial devil's advocate in every unit I served in, I appreciate your jumping into the COIN fray. We're moving on to the SFA phase now, and it will be interesting to see if that becomes the new center of strategic debate. But there's still plenty of killing to be done...,just like in COIN. If I ever get close to WP, I'll see if I can grab you and Meese and go out for coffee.

gian gentile

Sun, 05/27/2012 - 9:46am


I am sorry you see it that way.

My Atlantic article contained no criticism of JSOC or any attempt to discredit it; where can you point to in the piece where I say anything of the sort?

The point of the article was directed toward academic freedom and what has happened to it at Yale University by requiring students to sign forms and agreeing to take the class on an "off the record" basis. If Yale wants the General to teach classes on leadership fine, or if they want other former military officers to teach fine too; just dont bed the dictates of academic freedom to do so. That is all that i am saying.

And for whatever it is worth Joe I have taught history at West Point on three different occasions: from 95-98 as a rotating faculty member; 2004 during a short one year stint after my return from Iraq the firstime; and now since 2007 after squadron command at fort Hood for three years (one of those years in west Baghdad in 2006). I think it is an unfair characterization of my time at west point as you say "hiding out." Instead i have done more of a back-and-forth over the years between the field army and west point from company grade positions in armor units to field grade time as a division planner, cav squadron S3, and BCT XO, then squadron commander as well. In fact in line with BG Arnold's call for transforming the personnel system, what i have been very fortunate to do over the years in this back and forth from west point to the field army would not be a bad model for some folks.


Please. This is private resentment and jealousy disguising itself as academic criticism. We get that Gentile doesn't like McChrystal, and doesn't want to give JSOC credit for much....which is a separate and more personal battle than COIN vs.....whatever it's supposedly matched against. We get that Gentile spent a huge chunk of his military career hiding in academia, while McChrystal did not--Gentile's pearl clutching at lack of academic credentials and teaching in ways other than Gentile is used to is tiresome and transparent as a way of once more highlighting himself as the brave dissenter to conventional wisdom.

gian gentile

Sat, 05/26/2012 - 7:11pm

In reply to by Bob W.

I disagree Bob W with your last paragraph in terms of academic freedom in the classroom. West Point is like any other college or university where it is fiercely protected in the classroom. Now outside of the clasroom well sure, after all it is west point. Inside the classroom however, no difference at all.

As to you point about bringing in guest speakers with such restrictions well sure that might be the case. If for example a guest speaker from Afghanistan in charge of strike ops was giving a brief to cadets then absolutely such restrictions would make sense (as they would at Yale too). But General McChrystal is teaching a bona fide class at Yale on leadership, and he is not simply a guest speaker. There is a big difference.



The previous comments about the advent of celebrity "gets" in the Ivy League is interesting; it is certainly more worthy of exploration than the idea that a not-for-attribution elective at a private college poses a threat to freedom, academic, intellectual, or otherwise.

Why is General McChrystal at Yale? Most would argue it's not because of his academic background, but specifically because of his involvement with recent (and still current) events, and public figures who are still in positions of leadership in the current administration. I've taken courses which consisted largely of public figures speaking in a not-for-attribution status as well. The argument for this environment is that in exchange for the not-for-attribution, you get frank talk from the speaker. General McChrystal is at Yale because of who he is, not because of his academic background.

I'm guessing that the Yale students who elect to take the course (and from all accounts it is a popular elective) are aware of the stipulations involved. If they find the aforementioned unacceptable, they can simply take another elective. I'm also willing to bet that if they want to reference something covered in one of General McChrystal's lectures in a paper, ultimately they can as well. How different is that than any leadership lecture series classes that military personnel attend during their intermediate level education and/or senior service college tours? I find it hard to believe that the United States Military Academy or other similar institutions never bring in guest speakers with similar ground rules. If they do not, I would argue that their students are missing out.

And as an aside, I would imagine that many American undergrads would find the environment at the United States Military Academy decidedly less free than whatever university they are currently attending.


Fri, 05/25/2012 - 4:11pm

In reply to by gian gentile

This all seems somehow appropriate for the school that educated Nathan Hale and plenty of spooky types since. The arrangement does seem less than ideal to me, but I think your suggestion that it will somehow lead to the seminar members being more likely to take McChrystal at his word seems way off base to me. At this point in their lives they know how to and are willing to approach the world critically or they don’t. This seminar isn’t going to change that.

gian gentile

Fri, 05/25/2012 - 12:52pm

But it is very much an issue of academic freedom at Yale University, which is basically what my piece was about.