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Teach Tough, Think Tough: Why Military Education Must Change

Posted by Joan Johnson-Freese on

The National War College at Fort McNair. The Army War College at Carlisle. The Naval War College at Newport. The Air War College at Maxwell Field. These are the launching pads for America’s senior military leaders. The Pentagon spends substantial monies on these august institutions but are their graduates getting the education they need and which the nation deserves?

In April 2010, the House Armed Services Committee issued a report titled “Another Crossroads” examining professional military education (PME) two decades after the landmark Goldwater Nichols Act, which mandated comprehensive reform of the PME system aimed at broadening the intellectual foundations of U.S. military officers. They concluded that, while improvements had been made, America could do better.

The report began with a quote from Thucydides: “The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.” Despite this ancient wisdom, however, the valuable mission served by PME is still hindered by a clash of cultures.

Military officers and professors have good reasons to be the way they are, but they are not the same. The two cultures are rewarded for doing exact opposite things: academics who do not raise questions are considered poor academics, just as military officers who can’t provide answers to their bosses problems don’t get promoted. In the war colleges this plays out as conflict that pits encouraging intellectual curiosity and challenging received wisdom — the very essence of academic inquiry, against the need to prepare graduates for their next assignment. In trying to accomplish both, differing attitudes, work habits, and cultures get in the way, which leads to conflicting goals as well.

The most extreme solution to this cultural clash was suggested last April, when defense journalist Tom Ricks blogged: “Need Budget Cuts? We Can Probably Start By Shutting the Air War College.” Ricks was reacting to a piece written by retired Air War College (AWC) Professor Dan Hughes, which painted an unflattering picture of that institution and questioned its value.

Professors were depicted as unqualified, students coddled, and the entire enterprise largely a waste of time. Ricks’ blog sparked a brief exchange among Professional Military Education (PME) professionals, generally refuting Hughes’ assertions and defending the PME system.
Ricks is wrong about closing institutions. Hughes’ assertions, however, reflects this underlying clash of military and academic cultures that needs a real discussion. I also taught at the Air War College, and my five-year tenure in the 1990’s overlapped with Dr. Hughes’. While personal experiences vary, mine was similar to his.

Three instructions in the required “teacher training,” for example, explained the AWC pedagogy. First, never use red ink grading student papers: direct criticism of military professionals would be insulting. Second, never cold call a student: not knowing the answer would be demeaning. Third, faculty were classroom “moderators,” not teachers. The classroom was for sharing student views, so faculty should speak minimally. This last instruction often resulted in 90-minute sessions where students mostly reinforced each other’s views and exchanged dead-wrong information, but this was equated to “education.” Though never encouraged to publish at the AWC, I was encouraged to play golf in the afternoon student-faculty team-building tournaments. And while there were dedicated and productive faculty and exceptional students, they excelled mostly through personal initiative rather than institutional support.

Perhaps things changed at the AWC after it was accredited to grant a Master’s degree in 2004. And each PME institution, of course, has its own character. But having now taught at three PME institutions over the past two decades, including chairing two departments, it is clear to me that endemic issues persist.

In a recent article, Gen. David Petraeus recalled his time at Princeton, where he once received a D on an exam. He considered Princeton both a humbling and useful experience, which prepared him to be not just a top military thinker, but competitive with the best and brightest anywhere. Conversely, retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters responded to this argument by asserting that civilian education is a waste of time; he referred to academics as “theory poisoned and indecisive,” and viewed the primary value of PME as student networking.

How was this situation created? In 1986, Goldwater-Nichols (and the “Skelton Panel” a few years after it) specifically mandated guidelines for military education toward to open the military culture and encourage intellectual integration with civilians and among the services themselves. Over a decade earlier, Admiral Stansfield Turner similarly reformed the Naval War College (NWC), warning that if military officers could not hold their own with the best civilian strategists, the military would end up “abdicating control over its profession.”

But the culture clash in military education begins early. Academics attend graduate school to become experts in specific fields. They learn specific languages or methods, conduct field work, regularly publish in their area of expertise and are recognized as experts primarily by their peers. They invest years in establishing their professional reputations. By contrast, military officers, while also specialists in various fields, are also taught that almost anyone with the right leadership skills can do almost any job with enough training. In PME, that means pilots, ship drivers, and logisticians find themselves going from an operational deployment one week to a classroom the next. (Teaching preparation sessions for faculty are informally called “bootstraps,” which says a lot in itself.)

The upshot is that expertise in PME institutions is sometimes attained simply by declaring oneself an expert. As a NWC department chair, I once provided the faculty a matrix of dozens of regional and issue-related areas of expertise and asked they indicate their primary and second fields. One retired military officer indicated a primary expertise in every category. Some military faculty attend doctoral programs, but many see attaining a doctorate as a capstone professional rank, rather than the start of a new career. This is not unreasonable; it is natural to invest more in a first career than a second. But for the academics, this is their first career and their primary identity as professionals, and because of differences in how each culture works, differences arise over how they view education.

Military operations generally focus on accomplishing near-term goals, involving check-lists and constant self-assessments. Missions are team efforts, so teamwork and unquestioned loyalty to the chain of command are essential. Academics, however, spend their careers investigating open-ended questions with no clear answers, in sometimes narrow fields. They work on odd schedules, taking advantage of insights or opportunities whenever and wherever they arise. They tend to build their reputations and complete their works through individual efforts. While too many academics are not effective teachers, almost all of them believe that the best teachers have broad intellectual curiosity and should have the breadth to teach beyond that day’s PowerPoint slides.

Although the military is focused on accomplishing the mission, they believe that close adherence to process and routine is important to their goals. Lone-wolf academics, by contrast, consider expanding knowledge in their fields – a new lecture, a publication, a conference presentation — as indicators of productivity, and how they were achieved is irrelevant. Within PME these differences often play out as differing work habits. For the military, being in the office to hold or attend meetings, review for and communally prepare for class, or be always available for student consultations equates with daily productivity, while academics consider the totality of their results a year or more at a time.

Military faculty play an important roles calibrating the delicate balance between theory and practical material by bringing operational relevance to the curriculum and maintaining links to operational commands. Few, however, have an interest in developing a substantive expertise –they see themselves as just too busy, and often see their academic colleagues as self-absorbed, egotistical, elitist and lazy – and some are. Academics read the resumes of other academics with an eye toward “what have you done lately,” and all schools, including the War Colleges, have their dead-wood “has-beens,” and “never-weres.” As in civilian universities, longevity for weaker PME faculty is based on popularity with students, mimicking team-player congeniality, or administration, rather than production or teaching rigor.

There is also a natural political clash of cultures that is rarely spoken of, but exists nonetheless. Academics are almost invariably the product of liberal institutions and therefore tend to be liberal, while military officers tend to be conservatives — the empirical evidence on that is indisputable. Both cultures tend to be insular and spend considerable time talking to people much like themselves.

At the Air War College, for example, a retired officer gave a too-liberal lecture, evident because at the end, the then-Deputy Commandant stood outside the auditorium yelling “get that f***ing liberal out of my building!” to the speaker’s hapless escort, in full view of the students and faculty. Everybody got the message. Likewise, when curricular materials are questioned due to “inappropriate” language or deprecating remarks about the military that the students might find offensive, there is a chilling effect on education.

Many will likely deny any contention of civil-military strife within PME, including for reasons of self-protection. Academic PME faculty are often on two- to four-year contracts; their pay is not in addition to a military pension. They fear losing their jobs if they are not regarded as not team players” — a deadly accusation in the military world — or if the students don’t “like” them. As a department chair I had many closed door discussions on these and similar issues (gender-related problems, for example), but few military academics are willing to speak openly. Dan Hughes did, but he is retired, and I have one of a very few effectively tenured positions at the Naval War College. But the careers of many others rest in the hands of administrators, themselves often retired military officers tasked to maintain harmony.

Without question, academia is burdened with cultural and procedural issues. Most issues, however, are addressed by tenured faculty and the administration, often in no-holds-barred verbal knife fights that can leave a lot of bruised feelings and animosity. Military commands, however, are traditionally valued for having a happy “command climate,” and so the administrators have vested interests in perpetuating the image that all is well. Problems, from sexual harassment to questionable hiring and ethical conflicts get buried, lest they reflect poorly on the command. (Retired admiral and former congressman Joe Sestak reportedly lost his last job in the Navy over “command climate.”) This attitude, however, both solves nothing and is a disservice to the students, and the Nation — which, after all, pays their tuition and expects results.

So what can done about these kinds of problems Hughes and Ricks identify? First and foremost, the military needs to decide what it really wants from education.

PME institutions, for example, like other academic institutions, are plagued by caring too much what the students like and want. Though brave leaders and professionals in their operational jobs, when officers come to PME, they become like most graduate students – tetchy. Individuals who work 60+ hour weeks at the Pentagon, or even have come under fire in the field, suddenly find it unbearable to take two exams in a week or to write an eight-page paper. Time becomes precious, and expectations rise: I have had PME students request that their readings be put on a CD to listen to in their cars. Grades, as at the best civilian universities, inflate while the tolerance for work shrinks.

Military students are comfortable with material that has clear-cut answers and they think is tactically relevant to their next assignment. They abhor ambiguity, and largely see the world in black and white terms. But as educators, our job is to get them over that, not play to it. Identification with the students can lead the military faculty to be sympathetic, perhaps overly so, wanting to mentor these younger versions of themselves. (Academic faculty who try to maintain what they consider a more appropriate student-faculty professional distance are often scored for it by their students and military colleagues as a sign of aloofness.) Students should come The point should be reinforced at all to the War Colleges expecting that this is a year of hard and necessary study — and not an exercise in building self-esteem.

Finally, education needs to be supported by higher command. Many PME students expect the War College to be a year off to relax and reconnect with family after long operational assignments – and that is what they are told so by detailers and senior officers who often did not attend, or want to attend, a War College themselves.

Princeton will never teach some of the required and highly specialized material available only in a War College, and in any case, there is not nearly enough room at the nation’s elite universities — which currently take only a handful of military students and cannot take many more– for the thousands of officers who pass through the PME system each year. Military education is not only necessary, it is a Congressional requirement and indispensible — but it could be more like Princeton and less like training.

Overall, only time can acclimate military professionals and academic experts to working with each other. But acknowledging the problem today would be helpful — and more productive than simply torching academics as pointy-heads, or issuing cavalier calls for shuttering the War Colleges. An open and cooperative discussion about better bridging the two cultures, facilitated by a senior military leadership that truly values graduate education, could go a long way toward improving the professional development and effectiveness of America’s senior military officers.

A 2010 blog post by Admiral James Stavridis, Commander US European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, succinctly stated: “The enormous irony of the military profession is that we are huge risk takers in what we do operationally — flying airplanes on and off a carrier, driving a ship through a sea state five typhoon, walking point with your platoon in southern Afghanistan — but publishing an article, posting a blog, or speaking to the media can scare us badly. We are happy to take personal risk or operational risk, but too many of us won’t take career risk.”

No one outshines the US military in operations, as Osama Bin Laden just learned the hard way in Abbottabad. Our men and women in uniform have no fear of the enemy. It’s time, then, to get them over the fear of the red pen, and to make sure military education squarely where it belongs: a tough milestone just as important as every other an officer of the US armed forces must meet in his or her career.

Joan Johnson-Freese, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a professor at the Naval War College, lecturer at Harvard and an expert on U.S. military space, Chinese space and the PLA.

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