Ike Skelton will probably best be known for his tireless advocacy on behalf of the constituents of Missouri’s 4th Congressional District and his important work in drafting and implementing the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. But Skelton should equally be known for his championing of education in the armed forces and his lifelong study of history.
He grasped intuitively what few politicians or senior military leaders understand — that a nation’s destiny is intrinsically bound up with the intellectual vitality of its officer corps.
Here, just think about the differences between Vietnam and Desert Storm. Historians who ply into the antecedents of these two wars find a generally moribund military intellectual life preceding the former and a time of great intellectual ferment, particularly in the Army, preceding the latter.
Despite such stirring, Skelton recognized in the late 1980s that the services had not placed their most competent and upwardly mobile officers in the classrooms of their educational institutions.
Thus, their ability to contribute to the dialogue of informed strategic thought had atrophied since the days of World War II. “Where are the (George C.) Marshalls?” he asked pointedly from the House floor, knowing full well there weren’t any.
Skelton set about with a vengeance to upgrade military education by spearheading a congressional panel to investigate it.
He took the panel on the road, with its first hearing at Fort Leavenworth, home of the Army’s Command and General Staff College. I was present at that hearing and watched Ike exercising congressional oversight authority like a fencer with a quick, sharp rapier.
He knew that men like Troy Middleton, one of the Army’s finest regimental commanders in World War I who was destined for senior command in World War II, had spent multiple years teaching during the interwar era.
He also knew that the Army had not invested that kind of human capital in its educational establishment for a long time.
Similar scenes played out in other service venues. His biggest influence was probably on Air Force education.
When General Charles Boyd was appointed to command Air University in early 1990, the guidance he received from the Air Force Chief of Staff was simple and direct: “Get Skelton off my ass.”
Boyd complied by establishing a new school for strategic studies and populating the university with an infusion of terminally credentialed civilian faculty.
Skelton loved history. Among his favorite childhood memories were the times his father, who had served on the USS Missouri during World War I, would let him wear his sailor’s hat.
These experiences made the young boy feel directly connected to the men with whom his father had sailed.
He later wrote that it “was as if whispers of warriors floated inside the hat — whispers of important lessons learned through experience in battles past.”
This appreciation of the past lasted a lifetime.
In his speech accepting West Point’s 2012 Sylvanus Thayer Award, he said the aspiring officer should “become a prolific reader of the history of warfare.”
Skelton suffered from polio contracted at age 15, but he gave us all a shining example of what can be accomplished by someone with a sound mind, a good spirit, and a penchant for service.
Harold R. Winton of Alabama is a historian and retired Army officer who taught for a number of years at the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth.