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Former Congressman Ike Skelton Dead At 81: Was a Longtime Advocate for Professional Military Education

Ike Skelton, who represented Missouri’s 4th Congressional District for 34 years, died Monday, Oct. 28, at 81. Skelton held a number of leadership positions, including four years as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. A strong advocate for rigorous professional military education, he helped craft legislation that substantially reshaped the career paths of the most promising military officers to ensure that opportunities to develop strategic thinking skills were increased. In a statement, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Skelton will, “always be remembered for his commitment to bipartisanship, his work to get our troops what they needed to succeed in battle, and his belief in the importance of professional military education.” Since his defeat in November 2010, Skelton had been working at the law firm of Husch Blackwell.

Ike Skelton

Ike Skelton served four years as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. U.S. Congress photo

Skelton received the first honorary Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies degree ever awarded by the Naval War College. We were privileged to have him contribute to our publication Naval War College: The Navy’s Home of Thought, and we are posting that article here so that readers can clearly see how deep his commitment was to the military and professional military education.

 

Study, Warrior, Study!

Professional military education was a focus of my work on the House Armed Services Committee for more than 20 years. Because professional military education is near and dear to my heart, I did all I could to support and help our war colleges fulfill their primary purpose – producing great thinkers and master strategists.

Now, I’d like to go into a little background to explain how Congress’ interest in the war colleges and professional military education came about. Back in 1982, Gen. David Jones publicly declared that the Joint Chiefs of Staff system was broken. Jones argued that the chiefs gave pabulum advice and watered down recommendations and didn’t fulfill the functions of the job. So Congressman Richard White, an Armed Services subcommittee chairman, held a series of hearings focused on the lack of jointness among the services.

When Congressman White retired, a House Armed Services Committee staffer by the name of Arch Barrett convinced me to get involved. One of the first things we did was write a bill to abolish the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After introducing that legislation, it didn’t take long for me to learn that not one member of the Joint Chiefs had a sense of humor.

But we continued our work, and under the new subcommittee chairman, Bill Nichols, we passed legislation in the House three times. Eventually legislation followed in the Senate, with Sen. Barry Goldwater in the lead. The result was a bill now known as the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which changed the entire culture of the military by creating jointness – not just in name, but in fact.

Frankly, some of the concerns I had 20 years ago still loom large. First, are our professional military education schools creating the strategic thinkers we need? And second, are the services identifying strategic thinkers and are these thinkers being offered the right career opportunities?

Professional military education was one of the ways Goldwater-Nichols sought to create jointness. Again, it was staffer Arch Barrett who urged me to dig into this issue. I was appointed to lead the House Armed Services Committee’s Panel on Professional Military Education,and we investigated all of the war colleges through numerous hearings, testimony, and interviews. Our most important recommendation was to reestablish rigor in all of the war colleges. This renewed emphasis on professional military education, including the instruction of history, became essential to career advancement in the military.

Frankly, some of the concerns I had 20 years ago still loom large. First, are our professional military education schools creating the strategic thinkers we need? And second, are the services identifying strategic thinkers and are these thinkers being offered the right career opportunities?

We simply can’t afford to squander the talents of our strategic thinkers and must make sure they are not discouraged in their military careers, whether serving in joint positions or in the services. Because our nation needs more strategic thinkers, we must support our war colleges and actively encourage service members who seek mastery in the art of warfare.

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