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From left to right: David Petraeus, James Mattis, and H.R. McMaster (©US armed forces)

In October 1987, a 35-year-old PhD student at Princeton University submitted his doctoral thesis, a discourse called The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: The Study of Military Violence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era. A large number of doctoral dissertations have dissected the lessons of Vietnam, but few have been as influential as this one. That’s because the student was David Petraeus, a US Army officer who many years later commanded the war in Afghanistan and was subsequently appointed director of the CIA.

Petraeus conducted his PhD studies not during a career break but as a serving officer. And when the so-called War on Terror took him to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the top post at the US Central Command, Petraeus could develop a military strategy partly based on his PhD conclusions.

Back in 1987, PhD student Petraeus was an exception. Exceptionally few officers in the US Army, or anywhere, took a turn as academics. One of Petraeus’s rare warrior-scholar companions was H.R. McMaster, a fellow US Army officer who in 1996 gained a PhD from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Like Petraeus, McMaster analysed which military lessons would be learned from Vietnam. And like Petraeus, McMaster went on to become a general in the US Army. The tough-talking officer is now President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, and his PhD findings are certain to have informed his thinking as Trump prepared to re-engage the US military in Afghanistan. McMaster’s fellow cabinet member James Mattis, meanwhile, is also a combat-hardened former general with scholarly leanings. Mattis’s reading list for US Marine Corps soldiers and officers is devoured by military disciples around the world.

McMaster and Mattis are not mere office-holders; they play crucial roles within the Trump administration, where they along with General — now White House Chief of Staff — John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are said to form the “Axis of Adults”. Indeed, relations between America and the world would be critically worse without the generals.

Other political leaders could equally gain from the advice of sage officers. Civilians are, of course, perfectly able to govern on their own, but they lack professional officers’ detailed understanding of armed conflict. They would benefit by military men on their side who would not only be logistical servants figuring out how to arrange the already-decided-on boots on the ground. “The [Soviet] military top brass was against [the Afghanistan] war, well aware that we were getting ourselves into combat operations that would take place in difficult, unfamiliar conditions,” an ex-Red Army marshal told Russian TV in 1990. “We feared that the whole Islamic world would rise up against the USSR. That we would lose face in Europe. We were told firmly, ‘Since when do our generals interfere in politics?’ We lost the battle for the Afghan people.” Perhaps if the Soviet generals had also had academic credentials the civilian bosses would have heeded their advice.

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