Best Defense

Pentagon view: The role of the war colleges is to teach military professionals

Here is a post provoked by the exchange earlier this week about whether, in an era of budget austerity, the Air War College is an expensive luxury that allows officers to bond and re-charge their batteries. I suspect that might be done less expensively with a few keggers on the lawn of the officers’ club ...

mjl816/Flickr
mjl816/Flickr

Here is a post provoked by the exchange earlier this week about whether, in an era of budget austerity, the Air War College is an expensive luxury that allows officers to bond and re-charge their batteries. I suspect that might be done less expensively with a few keggers on the lawn of the officers’ club at Maxwell AFB.

By Tom Hone
Best Defense guest columnist

The task of the war colleges is to balance learning that is designed to encourage serious thought with learning that is supposed to make an officer or civilian a better leader in the various environments he or she will probably work in during his or her professional life. Ideally, officers and civilians who graduate from a war college will be better thinkers and possessed of a broad and deep knowledge of their profession and its place in American society.

To achieve these goals, war college faculties are composed of a mix of civilians, active duty military officers, and retired military officers with the skills required to create programs of learning for "students" who have already proven themselves as junior or senior officers or executives. Guiding these "achievers" through a course of study takes the sorts of skills that a successful manager of a baseball team has. Tommy Lasorda, formerly the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was asked how he dealt with younger players with lots of talent and big egos. His answer: "It’s like holding a bird in your hand. If you squeeze too tight, you suffocate the bird. If you don’t squeeze tight enough, the bird flies away." The same sort of deft touch is required of war college faculty.

I have twice taught at the Naval War College, and both times I learned a great deal and worked very hard to contribute to the College’s tradition of inquiry and professionalism. I left the College the first time in order to practice what I had taught. In my chosen field of defense management, it was not enough for me to study what was happening in places like the Pentagon. I also had to do the work, and I did, working for the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, the Naval Air Systems Command, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. I also had to publish, and I did that, too, writing (or writing with others) five books and about three dozen published papers and essays.

But I never forgot that faculty at the nation’s war colleges must walk a fine line between intellectual inquiry and the practical application of the results of that inquiry. A war college is not like a "regular" graduate school. Instead, it is more like a quality professional school, where the thinking and leadership skills already possessed by its students are strengthened, tested, and refined. The goal is to foster intellectual skills in the military professionals who will defend the country and, when necessary, act decisively and creatively to protect the country’s interests. 

Tom Hone is Naval War College Liaison to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations    

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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