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Customer Review

on 10 November 2012
In this fascinating book, Muth presents a relentless attack on the US Army's system of officer education, constantly contrasting it negatively with the equivalent approaches in the German Army.

In essence, Muth argues that the system at both West Point (and similar officer cadet institutions such as VMI) and Fort Leavenworth was based on the twin beliefs that the best education for officers was through a mathematical / engineering paradigm, coupled with rigid peer discipline and total submission to hierarchy. This led to a reliance on rote learning of 'school solutions', with any alternative solution to a problem being by definition incorrect, and vicious 'hazing' of junior cadets by their seniors. This reliance on rote learning led to there being minimal pressure for instructors to be experts in their subjects or for the syllabus to reflect modern trends in warfare.

Muth contrasts this model with the cadet schools and war academy in the German Army. Here, he argues, great efforts were made to prevent bullying and to promote flexibility of thought. Instructors were selected on the basis of their educative and professional skill, there was an emphasis on the need for each unique tactical problem to have its own unique solution, with the solutions of the students treated as seriously as those of the instructor, and students were given responsibility based on their professional development, rather than simply their time seniority.

A particular contrast, resulting from these different traditions, Muth suggests, is that US Army officers tended to see battlefield problems as technical challenges, to be solved through mechanical application of staff doctrine, with minimal engagement with the troops, usually from the rear, whereas German officers sought to identify the crux of the situation, place themselves personally at that point and lead their men from the front.

While the book is relentlessly once-sided, Muth emphasises that he has had a love of the US Army since childhood and that current practice is very different from that he describes.

The work has several flaws. First, despite the title, the focus of the assessment of the German Army is largely based on the Reichswehr period between the two world wars, whereas much of the US evidence is taken from the period up to the First World War. Second, there might have been value in comparing the West Point experience with that of a British public school, where the emphasis on discipline and logical thinking (through the study of Classics rather than maths) may have led to similar narrowness of thinking, but which it can be argued did produce generations of subalterns demonstrating enormous personal bravery and commitment to their men. Third, the examples of combat performance feel somewhat limited, such that Muth's sweeping statements are not always fully evidenced. Finally, the limited evidence for the German Army prior to 1914, and the limited treatment of the negative perspectives of the cadet schools, suggest that the superiority of the German system may be overstated at times. The Reichswehr was an exceptional force, in a very special context.

In summary, a challenging and thought-provoking work, unlikely to win many friends in the US, but a very welcome investigation of a key area of performance that has previously been explored to only a limited extent.
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