The Jesus Thesis and military education

Last spring, I was in the audience when retired Major General Robert Scales, the former commandant of the Army War College in Pennsylvania, made clear his emphatic disdain for any kind of tenure for civilian faculty in the U.S. professional military education (PME) system, and especially at America’s senior war colleges.

When it was suggested to him that faculty might need protection from the vagaries of student evaluations and whims, Scales was, to put it mildly, dismissive. He saw no reason to believe that faculty would ever be cowed by their military students or fear for their careers if they crossed them.

Well, someone should have been willing to cross one of the students who studied at the Army War College while Scales was the commandant there. As my colleague John Schindler discussed over on his blog at the XX Committee, apparently a Lieutenant Colonel Gregg Martin wrote his thesis in 2000 on “Jesus As a Strategic Leader.”

I am not kidding. I went and looked it up, because at first I thought someone was pulling John’s leg. Not only is the paper available online, it made the 2005 edition of the online satire of academia, the Annals of Improbable Research, which noted that Martin in a subsequent paper “refined the Jesus Model of Strategic Leadership.”

Yesterday morning, Tom Ricks (who was also on the panel where Scales derided the concerns of civilian teachers) took a look at Martin’s thesis as well, noting:

Parts of the paper read like parody. Not only are we told that Jesus assembled a “top team,” it turns out he would have made a good battalion commander. (All this time, I thought he had been a corporal.)” Jesus recognized the value of conducting AAR’s,” Martin writes. With a straight face.

Indeed, Jesus was practically an Army Ranger. He knew and taught the importance of traveling light, Martin observes. (Didn’t he say somewhere in the gospels, “Don’t forget nothing“?) He also understood the importance of taking time to recharge his batteries, we are told. And he knew how to pick his battles, rendering unto Caesar.

Judas is mentioned in the paper, but Martin does not grapple with the issue of how such a great strategic leader could be so wrong about one of his 12 closest subordinates.

I could go on. But it is like shooting fish in a barrel. At some point, one must just avert one’s eyes from this mess.

So why all the fuss?

Because Martin is now a Major General, who not only went on to serve as the Commandant of the Army War College, but is about to take over the presidency of thetroubled National Defense University.

Of course, it was all 12 years ago, and no one should be judged by one paper from graduate school. But Martin served as the Army War College commandant until this year, and so is going into his second back-t0-back academic appointment in the PME system. That’s why — I assume — people went and dredged up his prior academic papers.

For me, however, the real issue in all this isn’t MG Martin, or even Jesus Christ. Martin is clearly an intellectually able man and a seriously accomplished military leader: he holds a doctorate from MIT for Chri…erm, for Heaven’s sake. Indeed, Martin’s obvious military and intellectual capacity raise the underlying question that’s been sticking in my teeth since I first heard about this whole business:

How did this happen?

If the general had gone on to some minor assignment, or been cashiered as a mediocre officer, I suppose we could write the whole thing off as a fluke. But when a smart and capable man is allowed to turn in a personal testimony of his faith wrapped in Army-speak as a graduate-level thesis at one of the top PME institutions in the United States, something’s wrong.

I would argue that Martin’s thesis is an object lesson in what happens when civilians do not provide the oversight and quality control that maintain the standards of higher education, military or otherwise.

Apparently, then-Lt. Colonel Martin wrote his thesis with a Colonel Bill Barko, an Army health professional who has since retired and now works with the Army War College Foundation. In other words, there was no academic oversight of the Jesus Thesis: an O-5 wanted to write it, and an O-6 told him it was a neat idea.

This problem of military officers overseeing the academic work of other military officers has overtones, as John noted, of the scandal at the Joint Forces Staff College last year, which John commented on for The War Room, where an officer was teaching a course in how we needed to apply Hiroshima-like solutions to conflicts with the Islamic world, and not be overly bothered by little details like the Geneva Conventions.

Again, the issue wasn’t the course — well, okay, the course was by any standard utterly execrable, at least to judge by its inevitable PowerPoints and the account given by Wired’s “Danger Room” — but rather the fact that this could go on without anyone noticing until someone, finally, blew the whistle.

The instructor of that course, by the way, a Lt. Colonel Dooley, is claiming he’s “thinking” of using the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey. I cannot imagine the grounds for that suit; according to Wired, his lawyers put out a press release to the effect that they will accuse Dempsey of compromising “the final bastion of America’s defense against Islamic jihad and sharia, the Pentagon” to “the enemy.”

I would think the last thing that LTC Dooley would want is more publicity, but apparently, the people who push this kind of stuff in PME schools, as Mick Jagger once said of his fellow rock stars, don’t embarrass easy.

Anyway, the issue of civilian academic autonomy really matters here, because I’m nearly certain that the vast majority of my civilian colleagues in Newport or at most PME schools would have put a stop to that thesis and tried to wrestle LTC Martin into writing something that would require deeper thought, real research, and more personal detachment from the subject.

I say I’m only “nearly” certain, however, because when one of my Naval War College colleagues asked me the other day if I thought that Martin’s thesis would have been allowed at Newport, I admit I hesitated. I had no problem saying that there’s no way Iwould have allowed such lightweight work, either as a professor or as a department chair.

But I had to wonder: if I were a newer or younger faculty member, perhaps just arrived and on a three-year contract heavily dependent on teaching evaluations, would I really have had the fortitude to tell a hard-charging, bright young officer who was obviously going places that his thesis — extolling the virtues of Jesus Christ Himself — wasn’t even remotely appropriate as graduate work?

The contract system makes PME faculty highly risk-averse, as many current and former war college faculty can attest. Howard Wiarda mentions it repeatedly in his memoir of his time at NDU, and Newport professor Joan Johnson-Freese’s upcoming book is replete with examples across the nation’s war colleges in which PME faculty struggle against outright bullying — sometimes from zealously religious or aggressively political officers — while trying to maintain the quality and rigor of their institutions.

We’ll never know what would have happened had that young Lt. Colonel pitched the Jesus Thesis to a more experienced civilian teacher instead of to a sympathetic fellow Army officer. Given the dismissive tone of Scale’s remarks about faculty concerns, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking the conflict with a student over the strategic acumen of the Son of God all the way to the Commandant.

This is why PME institutions need faculty who can hold their own with their students without fear of reprisal or dismissal. Graduate students, even the brightest ones, can come up with some really dumb ideas. (I have the first draft of my dissertation proposal at Georgetown under lock and key; it had a really stupid title that I ended up ditching, and which exists only on paper since it was written in the pre-electronic era. I’m sure my advisor doesn’t remember that early draft, which is fine by me, and I shall carry it to my grave.)

I don’t know General Martin, and I don’t think a bad thesis — and it is, as John noted, wince-inducing — should forever be a disqualification for anything. I’d hate to be judged by some of the papers I wrote in graduate school, and Martin eventually completed a real degree at one of America’s best universities.

Still, the Jesus Thesis should be a warning about what happens when the students and officers in PME institutions are left to supervise and critique each other. The civilians not only bring important knowledge to the PME world, they bring perspective, and represent the people that military officers are actually sworn to serve. Their job is to make sure officers engage in a real process of education, not self-inflating exercises in pretentious and airy discussions about deities as battalion commanders.

Someone should have been on the ball at Carlisle when that young officer was writing his thesis. Clearly, a more aggressive insistence on rigor and real thought could have averted what to me looks like a case, minor though it is, of academic malpractice. Whether any civilian would have been allowed to take on a student so ardently committed to his faith — or whether he would have risked the wrath of a commandant who clearly didn’t think much of civilians — is another question entirely.

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