Best Defense

The other side of the Air War College story: Some profs avoid researching or teaching about our current wars

By Richard B. Andres Best Defense guest columnist In a recent book chapter, Dan Hughes, a retired Air War College professor, launched an emotionally charged diatribe against the Air War College and Air University of which it is a part. Such post-retirement screeds are not without precedent and it would be easy to label his ...

By Richard B. Andres
Best Defense guest columnist

In a recent book chapter, Dan Hughes, a retired Air War College professor, launched an emotionally charged diatribe against the Air War College and Air University of which it is a part. Such post-retirement screeds are not without precedent and it would be easy to label his attack the Parthian shot of a disgruntled former employee except that his argument hit close to home, and his chapter has generated a debate in Washington’s defense community.

In a nutshell, Hughes argues that the Air War College-the Air Force college that teaches colonels from all of the services about strategy-is broken. According to Hughes, the school is run by a group of bottom-tier, anti-intellectual, Christian evangelical, Rush Limbaugh-addicted colonels who have created an institution lacking in basic academic rigor and standards.

As a former Air University professor and one time advisor to the Air University Commander, I would like to be able to say that Hughes is completely wrong. Unfortunately, he is not. Much of what he says (politics and religion aside) is accurate. The problem is that Hughes has described only half of a complex and visceral brawl between military colonels and civilian professors that has consumed Air University for the past decade. While he has described the civilian side he has not done enough to explain the military’s case.

To even begin to understand the issue, it is necessary to recognize that many top tier professors in the fields of political science and history view contact with real world military policy as not only a distraction, but a violation of professional ethics. Young scholars are regularly told by their mentors that research on current political issues could taint them. Publications in journals that deal with current issues do not count toward promotion at top schools, demonstrate a lack of commitment to pure research and can negatively influence tenure decisions. Beyond prizing academic rigor and hoping to avoid contact with policy, academics generally share a common professional mindset that is somewhat left of center, dislikes evangelical Christianity, and views the military with distrust.

When civilian professors arrive at Air University, they are told their job is to help mid-career colonels — who often hold academic, political and religious views diametrically opposed to their own — learn to apply lessons from political science and history to military strategy. The colonels are nominally students but usually already have one or more master’s degrees and often have enormously more life experience than their professors. Worse yet, from the civilian professor’s point of view, the school’s administration and around two-thirds of their fellow faculty are colonels who hold similar views.

In my experience, 80 percent of the civilian faculty at Air University are flexible enough to make the transition and do a creditable job of educating their students, learning from them in the process. Some senior faculty, however (often those who attended graduate school during the Vietnam era and particularly those who hope to maintain their credentials with the larger academic community) view the contest as a moral struggle and refuse to compromise.

Hughes describes some of the ways this struggle between professors and colonels negatively impacts civilian faculty and academic standards, but he fails to describe how professors retaliate and a few examples may help to show the two-sided nature of the problem.

A few years ago, the Air Force leadership asked professors at Air University to publish and teach material related to the ongoing wars and potential future uses of force by the military. This request was greeted by some as an intolerable imposition. Despite repeated efforts, by and large, the schools did not inject anything on Afghanistan, Iraq or counterinsurgency into the curriculum until four years into the war, about the duration of U.S. involvement in World War II. Although the mission of the Air Force is to fight in air, space and cyberspace, a 2007 survey of the curriculum at Air War College could find little on any of these subjects. Air University repeatedly received and ignored requests from officers in the field trying to better understand the ongoing wars and complaints from the Army and Navy asking why they should send their officers to an Air Force college that did not teach them about air, space and cyber power.

The record for civilian publications looked similar. Partially as a result of the management problems described by Hughes, faculty at Air University have little incentive or time to publish. Nevertheless, no less than the chief of staff of the Air Force and the Air University Commander repeatedly pleaded with faculty to conduct research on the ongoing wars and other issues related to current and potential uses of force. These requests initially got some traction but then were squelched. One after another, the young professors who had marched to the sound of the guns were asked by senior civilian faculty to desist (since writing on current military issues compromised their academic integrity). In the space of one month in 2007, six anxious civilian professors snuck into my office to inform me that they and others were cancelling research projects because of threats from the senior professors who managed their careers. I personally heard the civilian dean of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies tell a professor he would destroy him if he persisted.

The military-versus-academic war is most visceral where it touches on religion and politics. One of the things Hughes described in his article is the large number of right-leaning evangelical Christians in the student body. Some academics take this as a personal affront and retaliate. In 2002, a colleague bragged to me that he had used a particular tactic to identify the evangelicals in his seminar and then penalized each of them half a letter on their class grade. At boards to select officers to send to civilian graduate schools for PhDs, some members of the civilian leadership regularly argued that the university should downgrade applications from evangelical Christians since their religious views were incompatible with academe. Christian and politically conservative civilian faculty member face related challenges.

On the other side of the issue, Hughes is partially right about the colonels’ anti-intellectual bravado. However, while this type of talk can be demoralizing to teachers, the truth is that it is sometimes a paper thin veneer that masks a deep desire to learn. Most Air University professors quickly discover that if they can meet their students halfway by showing them how theory and history apply to current events the colonels will give them their undivided attention.

None of this is to say that Hughes did not make some excellent points. Civilian professor were first recruited in large numbers to teach at Air University in the 1990s because the military faculty was not up to the job. The civilians were asked to solve an intractable problem. Graduates from the military colleges make national strategy. They control airplanes, submarines, and divisions. They make policy regarding counterinsurgency, precision bombing, and nuclear weapons. To do this right they need to understand politics and history, but the military’s culture downplays the value of contemplation in favor of action. As a result, despite the best efforts of professors, academic standards at the College are too low. This lack of rigor increases the chances that the United States will become involved in future wars and increases the probability that it will do a suboptimal job of executing them.

The solution to this culture clash is not complicated. Senior civilian professors must learn to realign their curriculums and research to focus more on current national security challenges and stop their guerrilla campaign against their colonels’ professional and religious mores. For its part, the Air Force must begin to show its civilian instructors the same respect professors receive from the leadership at private and state universities. This means, for instance, permitting them to work from home, giving them a voice in administration, and allowing them to increase their programs’ academic rigor. Most of the issues Hughes raised could be easily addressed in this manner. The deeper cultural clash will never go away but properly managed it could become a positive force for the Air Force.

A few months ago, in a widely cited article, Major General Robert Scales asked whether the military would be better off sending its colonels to civilian graduate schools. This would be a mistake for Air University. If civilian masters programs tried to do what the Air War College does, they would run into the same cultural quarrels between academic principles and military customs that plague Air University. The difference would be that rather than 20 percent of the faculty being viscerally unwilling to address current military issues as is the case at Air War college, it is more likely to be 80 percent; and rather than having only a few PhD colonels with deep military experience on the faculty, they are likely to have none.

The unfortunate truth is that most top civilian graduate schools in the United States stopped teaching about military matters sometime around the Vietnam War. Educating the hundreds of officers sent for higher education each year requires a substantial pool of professors trained in the arcane field of military strategy. There is no such pool of professors outside the military university system nor are civilian schools likely to create one. With all its flaws, the Air War College does a better job of teaching its students — and educating its faculty — about the application of military force than do its civilian counterparts.

In short, Hughes is right, the Air War College and Air University have problems — but he has at least partially misdiagnosed both the cause and effect. The problem does not only stem from a military culture that marginalizes academics; it also arises from a small portion of the civilian faculty that is literally morally opposed to the mission the Air Force has assigned them. The effect is not only the diminution of academic rigor Hughes describes, it is a less timely and relevant curriculum than might be hoped for by the military. The situation could be corrected but it would require strong and above all enlightened leadership.

Richard B. Andres is a former special advisor to the Secretary of the Air Force. He was Professor of International Security at Air University from 2001 to 2008.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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