An update from the Air War College 2013: Well, I sure did read a lot of them pages!
By "N. Airman" Best Defense guest columnist 1. IT’S ALL ABOUT PAGE COUNTS. The Air Force’s answer to being accused of running a program that wasn’t rigorous is to measure everything by page counts — written and read — especially as the number of pages relates to the school maintaining civilian accreditation for its mandatory ...
By "N. Airman"
Best Defense guest columnist
By "N. Airman"
Best Defense guest columnist
1. IT’S ALL ABOUT PAGE COUNTS. The Air Force’s answer to being accused of running a program that wasn’t rigorous is to measure everything by page counts — written and read — especially as the number of pages relates to the school maintaining civilian accreditation for its mandatory master’s degree program. Unlike AWC classes of the past, where "it’s only a lot of reading if you actually do it," we’re compelled to read the ~150 pages every night. Instructors quiz their seminars to ensure people are reading ("Bill, what was Mr. Mearsheimer’s thesis in last night’s article?"). That said, however, no one expects us to understand or apply what we read. The seminars are still mutual reinforcement sessions. It doesn’t matter what you learn as long as you can convince the instructor you read and then participated in seminar with whatever unsophisticated thought you wanted to spew. I’ve described this to some using a Vietnam body count analogy: More pages must mean we’re good. As a result, I read a lot and that’s it. I’m never asked to synthesize it. Nor am I given time to reflect upon the reading and come up with questions or original thoughts. Just move to the next 150 pages, please.
2. EVERYONE’S A STRATEGIST. The Air Force doesn’t have a career field that educates and grooms strategic thinkers. Instead, AWC students are constantly told that we’ll leave here with a "degree in strategy" that will allow us to drop into any senior command structure and give sophisticated military advice to our civilian leaders. Everyone here receives the same watered-down strategy training (not education), under constant reminder that any of us could be "the guy" who plans the next big thing. Now, I consider myself a smart guy, but for the nation’s sake, I’d better not be the officer who gives senior civilian leaders strategic advice next year. I don’t have the education or background to do that. And 11 months of reading and writing X and Y number of pages won’t remedy that.
3. IT’S CONFUSED. The Air Force touts its program as a serious graduate program, because … it says it is and it got someone to accredit it. However, the Air Force doesn’t want to treat its students like either graduate students or senior leaders. Instead, we get a weird mix of military training, company-grade accountability techniques, and the 8th grade. We have a student council that debates such issues as trash pickup and snack bars. We’re compelled to participate in "duel of the schools" events against the Command and Staff College. Of course, you can’t compete successfully without practicing, so practice sessions are laced into the duty day. Imagine the taxpayer response to my being paid really well to attend AWC poker team practice. Again, this isn’t extracurricular activity. This is mandatory, middle-of-the-day stuff. Back in the classroom, the "leadership" course merely rehashed the same material we got in our company-grade leadership school (with a brief discussion of senior officers caught with their pants down thrown in). The Air Force can’t decide what it wants this place to be: graduate school, senior officer education, PME, SOS part 2? It tries to be all at once, and doesn’t do any one of them well.
4. IT’S SOMEONE ELSE’S FAULT. So far, we’ve learned that General McChrystal did nothing wrong; Rolling Stone screwed him. Two senior officers who were relieved in the wake of the loss of control of nuclear bombs spoke to us. They did nothing wrong; the nation just didn’t tell them nukes were still important. The generals who provided advice going into Iraq and Afghanistan did nothing wrong; they just did what their civilian masters told them to do. I see a trend here! What could be a great opportunity to dissect and discuss the decisions senior leaders make, where they failed, and where the institution failed them, became instead comfortable finger-pointing.
5. IT’S JUST NOT IMPORTANT. We’re constantly reminded by the leaders here that this year, above all, needs to be a time for us to relax and reconnect with our families. Instructors add that rigorous education and "break year" are incompatible concepts. Therefore, instructors make it clear to us that if we wish to "kill ourselves" and do the work, they’ll be happy to support us. Otherwise, they recommend we just "take the B." Why are we here, then?
"N. Airman" is a two-decade active-duty Air Force officer with a broad operational background and experience. He is currently a student at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, unless they figure out who he is. (Tom said that, not him.)
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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