The future of America’s War Colleges – United states of America

Over the past several years, there’s been a rising anxiety among folks who watch and work in, America’s PME (Professional Military Education) system. At first, this might seem something of a paradox: America’s war colleges — the senior service academies that provide advanced graduate education to U.S. and selected international officers — have probably never been better than they are today.

But that’s misleading. “Better than ever” is a low bar to clear, because as recently as a decade ago, many of the departments and programs in the war colleges were in pretty sorry shape, and some still are.  Before the Goldwater-Nichols defense reform act of 1986, they were in even worse condition.

Still, back then it was a mess we could tolerate, ironically because the Cold War was so stable and predictable. If most U.S. military officers weren’t very good national security thinkers, well, so be it: there wasn’t going to be a lot of time (or need) to cogitate once the Soviet tanks started pouring into West Germany. Besides, there were plenty of civilian smarty-pantses, and they could run the country — couldn’t they?

Only the Naval War College, under the leadership of Admiral Stansfield Turner in the early 1970s, recognized that the poor intellectual preparation of U.S. military officers had left them unable to engage their civilian counterparts in the making of defense policy, resulting in the disaster of Vietnam. Whether the war was a good or a bad idea was no longer the by point; by 1972, it was a complete hash, and Turner found that instead of reasoned debate, the halls of NWC were full of shouting matches and even fistfights.

Turner decided to turn Newport into a real college. He knew that Vietnam and the general drift of the U.S. military in that time was the result of a dangerous civil-military division in the making of national policy, as he said at his first convocation in 1972:

Another sample of the ineffectiveness of our military educational system is our increasing reliance on civilians and on ‘think tanks’ to do our thinking for us. Do not misunderstand. These people have done outstanding work for us. We very much need their help and stimulation into the future. We must, however, produce military men who are a match for the best of the civilian strategists or we will abdicate control of our profession.

Turner was right. Unfortunately, a lot of senior military leaders have had a hard time buying that, and in the ensuing 26 years since Goldwater-Nichols, the cause of education has been an unnecessarily hard slog in the war colleges. And that’s especially a problem in a world as chaotic and as flatly hazardous as the one that we’ve inherited in the wake of the Cold War’s end.

How big a problem? Ask my colleague, Joan Johnson-Freese, who has written a remarkable book that just hit the presses yesterday. Joan’s become one of the leading voices on the reform of military education, and her new book, Educating America’s Military, is the first comprehensive — and fully candid — look at the modern U.S. war college system from the inside.

Other scholars, including Howard Wiarda, George Reed, and Diane Mazur have written extensively about PME, but Joan’s book is unique in several respects.

First, it’s written by a currently-serving War College faculty member. This is a bigger deal than it seems: war college faculties are not protected by traditional tenure systems, and so tend to keep their heads down when it comes to candid criticisms of their own institutions. (Howard Wiarda, for example, wrote a devastating memoir about the National Defense University — you can read my review of it here — but it was ten years after he left, and definitely had the tone of an angry tell-all rather than a more scholarly analysis.)

Second, Joan attempted to compare conditions across the war colleges as best she could. Again, this was a tall order, since people at other schools are reluctant to share their experiences openly. It may sound self-serving to note that Newport is the one senior PME school that really means to observe academic freedom, but the fact of the matter is that the Naval War College has always been more committed to this than its sister institutions. That doesn’t help much, however, when trying to write a book on problems in the system.

Finally, Educating America’s Military takes seriously the idea that the civilian academics don’t have all the answers. Indeed, if you’re a civilian faculty member anywhere, there are parts of the book that will make you itch: she is as unsparing in her analysis of the follies of the PhDs as she is critical of the military anti-intellectualism that is undermining Congress’s clear intent that U.S. military be educated men and women who know something about national security affairs.

Readers of this blog will recognize many of the pathologies of the PME system that Joan identifies, among them the box-check mentality that intentionally obliterates the distinction between “training” and “education,” the constant assauging of the fragile egos of the student-officers that keep the PME institutions in a state of constant flux as they seek to achieve complete customer satisfaction, the “faculty” positions maintained as jobs programs for unqualified military and executive branch retirees, and the top-heavy administrative bloat that afflicts all academic institutions, military and civilian.

Like Wiarda’s book about NDU — indeed, like any book that takes a peek inside academic institutions — there is a trove of wince-inducing anecdotes in Educating America’s Military. Because I worked closely with Joan as a fellow department chair in Newport, I witnessed many of these incidents first-hand, like this one:

As Chair, I attended a teleconference with other Naval War College leaders where we were instructed by a three-star admiral to “strip out the gold plating” in our curriculum. After it ended, a dumbfounded Navy captain in the group asked: “Were we just told not to excel?”

Similarly, in 2011, I was asked to comment on some Navy “cost savings” education proposals and told to keep in mind, “We don’t need Ferraris, we need Fords.”

On that last one, I also corresponded with the Navy official, Robert Kozlowski, who made the comment about “Fords,” and he wasn’t kidding. Joan didn’t include his name when she wrote the book, presumably because he was just floating some ideas. But in this quarter’s issue of the Naval War College Review, Mr. Kozlowski made his case publicly and explicitly, arguing that the goal should be to “build the purple” — i.e., joint — “Ford.”

This isn’t the place to take on Mr. Kozlowski’s arguments, (which include ostensibly more efficient changes like dumping service-specific ROTC training), but I can’t imagine Americans prefer that their military officers be the intellectual equivalent of clunky sedans rather than sports cars.

The larger point in any case, as Joan spells out, is that we’re hardly in danger of over-educating our officers: in today’s PME system, it can sometimes be a struggle just to keep the curriculum at the automotive equivalent of “four-wheels-and-a-seat,” much less a Ferrari.

Educating America’s Military also tackles directly the problem of trying to run a college with civilian and military faculty, who sometimes work magnificently well together, and other times can barely coexist in the same building. Her book should be required reading for anyone, military or civilian, contemplating a post in a war college:

Generally speaking, many military officers…. are process oriented, as following
process can keep them alive in high-risk operational situations. Such
individuals are well-trained and strong leaders, but neither equates to
being broadly educated.

Academics are broadly trained in their fields, although they also spend years developing specializations. Their careers are designed to investigate open-ended questions that often do not have clear answers. (In fact, they question everything, to the point that, sometimes, little gets done beyond raising questions.)

It’s important to point out here that Joan’s analysis doesn’t exactly glorify the academics at the expense of their military colleagues. Those striped civilian robes can hide as many sins as the shiny oak leaves on military uniforms:

Academics are sometimes seen by their military counterparts as self-absorbed,egotistical, elitist, and lazy – and some are. Academics are often elitists  regarding academic pedigrees and  always read the resumés of other academics with an eye toward “What have you done lately?”

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 the students, mimicking team-player congeniality, and taking on administrative responsibilities, rather than scholarly activity or teaching rigor.

Ouch. Any faculty member who has sat through endless hours of a dithering committee full of blowhards colleagues (including, no doubt, people who have had to sit through meetings with me) knows the painful truth of that description.

Make no mistake, however. The book talks a lot about what the war colleges do right, especially when it comes to teaching things that at least some civilian schools would rather shut their doors than teach — like the nuts and bolts of national security affairs. (Sometimes, when they try, the result is even worse than if they had just left it alone, like the flap over the “off the record” class taught by retired General Stanley McChrystal at Yale.)

America needs places where the study of international security doesn’t begin and end with interminable readings on abstract theories, and the war colleges have an important role to play in making sure that military officers are getting what they need to become senior leaders and decision-makers.

In the end, this discussion of two cultures in one institution is, in microcosm, a depiction of the American civil-military relationship in the 21st century: conflicted, competitive, sometimes brilliantly synergistic and at other times a comic-opera of stereotypical martinets and absent-minded dons.

Of course, the PME system has a purpose in all this: it is to educate America’s future military leaders so that they can cope with the security ambiguities of a far more uncertain world, be more effective in operating in the massive institutional labyrinth of the DoD, and help civilian and military superiors formulate effective policies.

Joan suggests several reforms, starting with someone — Congress? — who doesn’t have a vested interest for or against the War Colleges actually doing a major review that looks at educational outcomes instead of middle-management buzzwords like “return on investment” that have no meaning in higher education. (The Naval War College, as she points out, actually did hire consultants to come in and look at us for “best practices,” at significant expense. When the consultants concluded that we had too many administrators, the study was paid for and buried and we never heard about it again.)

Another idea is to separate JPME, or the Congressionally mandated “Joint Professionally Military Education” component, from the awarding of a master’s degree. It is a persistent and maddening urban legend that it costs something extra to give the MA at the war colleges — it doesn’t — and the introduction of the master’s degree two decades ago came by demand of the students, who didn’t want to spend a year studying and get nothing but a mark in a file.

Whether this is a good idea, I don’t know. It’s certain that the MA work has been dumbed-down at the war colleges; the students even at Newport do a fraction of the work normally required for an MA at a civilian school, and they do it in 10 months instead of two years. But something has to be done: as Joan has pointed out repeatedly, it’s statistically impossible to take a random group of military officers, push them all through the same program, and have all of them pass with a B or better.

The war colleges should give a graduate degree, and it should mean something. (And no, it shouldn’t be a “master’s of science in operational art,” which is one of the many proposals that were made over the years meant to gut the curriculum.)

When our officers graduate, they will go back into the senior ranks of a national security and defense system that is populated with smart civilians from good schools and programs, and they need to be able to hold their own with them.

Joan’s book is nothing less than an attempt to save the war colleges from themselves. It’s especially infuriating that a lot of people within the PME system like things just the way they are, and have criticized Joan (and Reed, and Mazur, and Wiarda, and Dan Hughes, and others), suggesting that their attempts to better the system are either because they “just don’t get it” or because they have some other hidden agenda.

When former Air War College professor Dan Hughes, for example, criticized the way things are done at the Air War College — an institution that’s had so many problems it’s been a favorite cause of defense writer Tom Ricks to shut it down — one Naval War College professor took after Hughes personally, an attack Joan quotes at length in the book:

“The whine from the Air Force civilian professor that made the rounds recently suggested to me, after looking at his vita, that he probably couldn’t get a research university job, ‘settled’ for the Air Force institution and never quite grasped the mission – and for some time too. More broadly, to some extent this may be explained by the second-tier status of some significant number of civilian faculty at JPME institutions, who, at least some of them, evidently could not gain tenured positions in mainstream academia, and yet yearned for some semblance of that life.”

This was posted at the Naval Institute blog — but only  after being circulated by email among some PME profs. As Joan noted: “Not only does this kind of ad hominem attack on a PME colleague reinforce the stereotype of civilian professors as layabouts who ‘don’t get it,’ but it is also a criticism that itself sounds resentful and angry.”

Such is the risk PME critics run. Joan, for her part, made it clear that she had no agenda at this point in her career, in which she’s served at three PME institutions, other than to better the education of her students and thus better serve the national security interests of the United States. (In case any of the more small-minded critics out there are wondering if she’s going to profit from the book, the royalties are being donated to the Wounded Warrior Project.)

And that’s really the point: the PME system is coming under scrutiny from its own faculty because we actually care about the education it provides and the impact it will have on our students and their ability to act as the armed stewards of our national security. If we didn’t care, none of us would bother writing about any of this stuff: there’s no upside in it, believe me. We would cash our checks, teach whatever some bureaucrat sent us over email every term, and send our students along on their merry way, whether they learned anything or not.

The war colleges are crucial institutions that provide a specialized education to military officers that they can’t get anywhere else. They need to survive, and they need to thrive, with better faculty, students, and curriculum. Sometimes, it looks like such a big a set of problems that it’s impossible to know where to begin.

Reading Educating America’s Military would be a good start. You don’ t have to be in the military, or an educator, to read it: if you’re just a citizen who cares about how your senior officers are being educated in the 21st century, get a copy.

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