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But the Soviet leaders may not have been that far off the mark. The Prussian top brass was famously well-educated, sometimes more so than civilian leaders. Carl von Clausewitz, the world’s most important military theorist, was a Prussian general. Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder), another leading military theorist, served as Chief of the General Staff. Perhaps history would have taken a different course if, during the 20th century, there had been more German officers of such intellectual and moral integrity. Alexander the Great, in turn, was a pupil of Aristotle, while Frederick the Great was an intellectual soldier-king who counted Voltaire among his intellectual sparring partners. Generals Charles de Gaulle and Dwight Eisenhower went on to lead their countries. But more typically officers have lacked the strategic view. They have also not been asked to offer one.

Yet at some point most civilian leaders need wise officers with whom to discuss strategy. That’s exactly the kind of advice Mattis, Kelly and McMaster provide to President Trump. Though they’re not doing so wearing uniform, the US armed forces have decided there’s potential for more men like them. Announcing a new PhD pilot programme last year, the US Marine Corps said its intent is to “create a cadre of high calibre officers with doctoral level credentials to serve as strategists in key billets throughout the Marine Corps and the Department of Defense. The end state is the creation of a cadre of experts in strategic affairs within the Marine Corps.”

This autumn two Marine Corps officers will begin PhD programmes — the Marine Corps’s inaugural PhD students. The two officers will pursue doctorates in fields related to military strategy and national security. Among the universities that will host Marine Corps scholars are American University and George Mason University, both located in greater Washington, DC. In Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, meanwhile, US Army officers will report for duty at the army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. They, too, are part of a pilot programme: their five-six year tour of intellectual duty will take them to civilian university PhD programmes.

Like the Marine Corps, the Army selects only its best officers for PhD training. Applicants must have served in Iraq, Afghanistan or another hotspot. Among other things graduates are expected to be “critical and creative thinkers grounded in operational theory, doctrine, and history” who are “physically and mentally tough”. While the PhD tour will take an officer out of field duty for several years, it’s not a desk-bound assignment. It’s a destination for the best and the brightest.

Indeed, the Marine Corps and Army PhD programmes are likely to remain small even if they become permanent. The military doesn’t need armies of strategists, but it needs armies of officers on operational duty. “There is no doubt that officers with double or multiple degrees are very beneficial to defence ministers and other decision-makers,” the Lithuanian former defence minister Rasa Jukneviciene told me. “A wider comprehension of supplementary fields such as international relations, economics and the technology sector helps the officers and the political decision-makers orientate themselves better in this challenging geopolitical life.”

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