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Slightly ‘steamed,’ Gen. Scales explains his criticism of the military’s war colleges

By Maj. Gen. Robert Scales (USA, Ret.) Best Defense guest respondent Tom Ricks’ blog post about me has generated a great deal of interest in my panel discussion at FPRI two weeks ago. Naval War College professor Joan Johnson-Freese was the principal speaker at this event. One blogger in particular, Tom Nichols, wrote a lengthy ...


By Maj. Gen. Robert Scales (USA, Ret.)

Best Defense guest respondent

Tom Ricks’ blog post about me has generated a great deal of interest in my panel discussion at FPRI two weeks ago. Naval War College professor Joan Johnson-Freese was the principal speaker at this event. One blogger in particular, Tom Nichols, wrote a lengthy piece about Johnson-Freese and my responses. I’d like to answer both in some detail. 

First, to answer some of Tom’s points. In his blog he quoted me as saying:

These days, "the Army War College is a great place for pre-retirement training." 

Response: By this I meant that the age of students has increased steadily since I was commandant. As I wrote in my piece "Too Busy to Learn," the age has gone up to 44 and many combat arms officer students are colonels. If war college graduates are to contribute to the national policy at the strategic level they should be younger. No reason we can’t even bring exceptional LTCs in as student BEFORE they command. 

-"The Army War College fell of the cliff when it was subordinated to a trainer" (that is, to the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, which, he [Scales] indicated, doesn’t understand education). 

Response: I don’t mean that TRADOC doesn’t understand education. I mean that TRADOC’s sweet spot and center of excellence is at the operational, not strategic level of war. Remember AirLand Battle, Starry’s crown jewel, was an operational doctrine and the manual that started it was 100-5, again, an operational level document. In fact in my recommended reforms for the college and army staffs I suggested transferring the excellence of Leavenworth up to the college; things such as the CTC as a framework for strategic gaming, CSI as a model for CMH to do relevant and timely history, and SAMS as a model for assigning graduates to the force at the strategic level of war. 

The Army should bring together its history offices, its military research entities, and related offshoots, and put them all under the Army War College commandant, in part so that research and teaching can inform each other. Right now, he [Scales] said, research and education are "ripped apart." 

Response: This is a bit of inside baseball. But what I meant is that, unlike Leavenworth’s hold on operational art, the responsibility for studying and research of strategy is all over the map in the Army. Root had it right in 1903. We have much to do to get strategic studies right in the Army and I suspect the other services as well. But whatever the solution strategy must be centered in the institution intended for this purpose: the War College. 

For officers, "the object of the PME system is to be selected but don’t go." 

Response: This is a longstanding problem in all service PME and has gotten worse during the war. Too many officers don’t want to take time out of operational service to go to school but they realize that selection for the college is a boarded cut that must be made to make flag. Therefore making selection is what’s important. I recommended that officers should in fact compete for attendance not selection and that graduation from the college should be the ultimate determinate of future success.

What follows are some excerpts from Nichols’ blog and my responses:

Nichols: PME schools need to be administered by fewer people, and those administrators should actually have backgrounds in academic teaching, research, and administration, instead of just being retired senior military officers. (As Joan put it, schools for pilots are run by pilots, aren’t they?) Gen. Scales objected that the heads of the PME schools should all be top officers, but that wasn’t Johnson-Freese’s point; she was talking about the "herd," as she put it, of deans, assistant deans, associate deans, associate assistant deans, and on and on, not the actual presidents or commandants. 

Response: I agree that the senior administrative slots at all colleges should be trimmed. But the most senior leadership should be in uniform or recently retired (president, dean, etc.). The challenge is to find senior officers who are qualified to lead and administer a senior military college.  

Nichols: Perhaps most important, Johnson-Freese called for independent analysis of the PME system, perhaps by a panel appointed by Congress (but certainly not a paid contractor aiming to please the DoD, since we’ve tried that already and it was an expensive failure). No more "self-studies." As Joan put it: Who has an incentive to find problems with their own organization in a self-study?

Response: I’ve done this for Congress several times to the extent that I was put in the QDR to advocate for PME reform. Congress has held hearings about PME and I participated in all of them directly or indirectly. But since it doesn’t involve programs or end strength Congress isn’t interested. Worse, there is no real advocate for PME in congress now. 

-Nichols: Still, General Scales, as Ricks says, stole the show, at least for a bit, but in part that was because much of what he said was either puzzling or contradictory.

Some of his comments, of course, reflected attitudes civilian faculty always encounter: his loathing of the word "tenure," for example (which Joan pointed out that military officers, do, in fact, have), his suggestion that PME could be fixed by raising all the commandants and presidents to three stars (why?), having them all report to an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Education (more bureaucracy?) and replacing most of the professors with military officers — teaching history? — were all pretty striking, but they had little to do with the actual recommendations in the Orbis article. 

Response: Here’s what I said: Tenure is not good for a military college. In fact one of the few really effective personnel instruments for PME is Title 10 selection and hiring. This system gives the college leadership full authority to hire and fire. (I don’t know what Joan means when she alleges that military officers have tenure. They do not). I said that commandants should be 3 stars but of course should report to their respective service chiefs. (Note that the AWC patch has 3 stars on it inferring that it was considered a full bureau of the Army general staff when founded by the Root reforms in 1903). And of course the NDU president should report to the CJCS rather than the J7, who does training not education. The OSD Chief Learning Officer idea has been around a long time. Ike agreed with it. It’s in our QDR report. The issue is that today PME and manpower management are in conflict. The ASD P and R is in the business of filling the ranks not taking officers out of service to go to school. This natural tension is shared by corporations as well. Hence the idea of a secretariat position that advocates for learning. More bureaucracy? Not really. Take the slots for education in P&R and shift them to the CLO. I didn’t say that all faculty should be military and they can’t be by any means due to statute. I meant that colleges should have a balance of retired military (who are credentialed), civilians and active military. The art in getting this right is to find the right people and keep them… 

-Nichols: I was particularly surprised, as I think many people were, to hear Scales downplay the distorting role of student evaluations in the PME system, which has been noted by many PME faculty, including in a blistering memoir by former National War College professor Howard Wiarda. Scales, incredibly, claimed that student evaluations never mattered at all in faculty retention decisions at the Army War College while he was there — and boy, that’ll be a surprise to the faculty in Carlisle — and that he doesn’t even remember if the War College even bothered to do them while he was there. He added that in any case he didn’t remember ever seeing any of them (a remarkable thing to say in itself, since they are required by both the Pentagon and academic accreditors). 

He twice asked one of the Army War College civilian faculty in the audience about whether these evals were really an issue back in Carlisle, and both times, the faculty member he singled out had to demur and say: well, actually, sir, yes indeed, the civilians pretty much *do* fear those evaluations. 

This led to Scales essentially disposing of the issue by saying that judgments about faculty quality were just "subjective" anyway — a point with which Joan took severe issue (as did many of us) as something no one would ever say about evaluations in any other profession. 

Response: This one really steamed me. Truth be told I do not remember anyone giving me a faculty recommendation based on student popularity. I asked Craig Nation who was on my faculty and he couldn’t remember either but he did infer that the college is using these student evaluations now. I did say faculty quality is subjective and I stand by that statement. Selecting future leaders in the Army is subjective as well. And as a brigade commander I wouldn’t do an OER unless I watched the officer in action. Same for faculty hiring. That’s why I visited every seminar, every semester every year. And I participated in discussions. Seems to me that good faculty liked it and poor faculty disliked it. It’s about leadership not student forms. 

Nichols: I don’t mean to make it all sound more conflictual than it was; I think Johnson-Freese and Scales agreed about 80 percent of everything else, and particularly about the need for more rigor in military education, and especially about the way the military uses the words "training" and "education" interchangeably, which nearly everyone agreed is a terrible mistake. 

But Ricks is right that Scales basically came in with his phaser set to "incinerate" and proceeded to fire at will. I might be biased from working with Joan on these issues over the years, but I thought she laid out a pretty methodical set of problems and solutions, and it didn’t seem like Gen. Scales was much interested in engaging them. I think that in itself was, in microcosm, an illustration of the problems faced in the reform of military education. 

Response: No incineration intended. Everything I said in my remarks I’ve written before in AFJ and Proceedings. My big objection to Joan’s remarks was her inference that war colleges should focus on making the civilian faculty happy by putting them in charge by offering tenure, academic freedom and the keys to hiring and firing. No, this is the ARMY War College and its mission is to prepare Army officers to perform at the strategic level of war. Of course there are many similarities to the Wilson and Kennedy Schools, but at the end of the day the mission of the college is to serve the services. I agree with Joan that reforms are needed but I disagree that the problem rests overwhelmingly with a failure to listen to civilian faculty. Truth is that during my tenure faculty excellence was shared in equal measure between retired military, civilians and retired military. Oh, by the way I’ve never seen a civilian faculty CV fail to list in bold letters that the professor had taught, lectured or attended a war college.

MG (Ret) Bob Scales is a former commandant of the Army War College. He spent 18 of his 35 years of service in military education. He earned his PhD in history from Duke University and was president of Walden University after retirement. He is presently CEO of Colgen LLC, a consulting firm that focuses on strategic leadership and land power reform.

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