by Mike Mazarr
LT Benjamin Kohlmann’s piece in SWJ (“The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers”) is a fascinating and provocative essay. It’s partly about the need for radical thinkers to disrupt military and defense bureaucracies—but much of the commentary targets professional military education (PME), and these parts of the essay share many of the characteristics of other recent broadsides against PME, from the blog-rants of Tom Ricks to the catalogue of assertions by Joan Johnson-Freese: A few very useful insights wrapped in a litany of often dubious claims about PME. LT Kohlmann’s essay is passionate and well-intentioned, but it gives the wrong impression about the benefits, very real limitations, and possible avenues for reform of an important institution.
Kohlmann’s core ideas—that disruptive thinkers are not valued by staid bureaucracies; that talented military members find more creative pursuits elsewhere; that this gap is expanding in a faster-paced, more complex world; that cross-issue connections are fruitful and catalytic—strike me as on the mark, indeed self-evident. Anyone who has spoken to talented younger people in a range of government agencies knows that the problem is not limited to defense. A generation of nonlinear, fast-moving, nonhierarchical problem-solvers are banging their heads against the concrete ceilings of Bureaucratic Hell, and many are rushing for the doors. We need urgent, pushy voices telling us these things. And in my world, we need to find ways for war colleges (and other PME institutions) to better deal with these challenges, and for that reason Kohlmann’s essay is a useful spur to thinking.
It would have been much more useful, though, if it hadn’t been loaded down with so many unnecessary attacks on The Established Way of Doing Things, a.k.a. PME as we know it. Let me make immediately clear that, while I work at the National War College, I don’t think senior-level PME is perfect. I have only indirect knowledge of how it’s done at the other senior service schools, but even our own brand at NWC, while quite good, can and must become better. We need to improve, for example, in the detail and specificity of critical and creative thinking methodologies that we integrate into the curriculum.
But my essential problem with the essay is my main objection to much of the recent literature on PME: It trades careful, true understanding and analysis for grand claims and gestures that actually muddy the waters rather than clarifying them. To take a few of Kohlmann’s claims:
- “We educate [PME students] in the art of war, but do so with a focus on mere tactics.” No one with even a glancing familiarity in NWC’s curriculum (and I am quite sure, from what I have seen of them, the other war colleges) could possibly write such a thing.
- “We educate them when they are well past the age of agile and innovative thought.” The less said about this embarrassing claim the better; at best, it could be described as “empirically suspect.” (It would, though, be helpful to know the precise Age of Mental Unripeness. As someone in what I take to be the lower end of the target neighborhoods, I regard the notion as equally disturbing and liberating: Freed of the requirement for agile thought, the mind races at the ways I could fill my day.)
- Instead of sending a 25-year old who has “just returned from the dynamic task of rebuilding a wartorn Afghan village” to war college, he worries, “we wait until they’ve proven their mettle in the bureaucratic morass of a staff job.” In actual fact, plenty of war college students (and more than a few faculty) have just returned from war-torn Afghan villages, doing precisely the sort of strategic-level, multi-function, creative, innovative work Kohlmann desires. Meantime, staff jobs are not merely wading in “bureaucratic morass”; until Kohlmann or his young peers invent a replacement for the Defense Department, that system is how things actually get done, and a familiarity with it—despised by nearly every officer forced to run that memo- and Powerpoint-churning gauntlet—is a necessary complement to the disruptive joy of his fun experiments. Entrepreneurial projects can make a wonderful difference in a specific place, for a limited time, but reforms that tend to have more impact tend to be long-term efforts, worked by people with deep knowledge of things like politics and bureaucracies.
- “Creative impulses are largely repressed” at war colleges, he claims. On what basis does he know this? Look, we need more avenues for open-ended formulation of innovative strategy. We need to find ways to get students more opportunities to think innovatively, present them with a wider range of speakers. But we’re not starting from ground zero, and such impulses are surely not “repressed.”
- “Most go to get their check-in-the-box with little intellectual rigor,” he writes. It’s a “leisurely billet with plenty of time off where little studying need be done.” Sure—Kohlmann has just described graduate school. The issue isn’t what work need be done; it’s what work the student chooses to do in order to excel. The NWC curriculum is actually very demanding—a curriculum of which Kohlmann, like most people who write these sorts of sentences, has no actual knowledge. Students are in class four days a week for half a day, plus two elective classes, plus many other commitments. They have something in excess of five to six hundred pages of reading per week, six to eight papers to write, two comprehensive oral exams to pass, and so forth.
Can they blow most of this off and take a “leisurely” approach? Well, sure, to a certain degree; but then, so can a student at the Wharton Business School, or the Georgetown Security Studies Program (where I have taught for more than 20 years as an adjunct professor). Graduate school is like that. Really smart folks can sample a little stuff, stay mostly quiet, binge for exams, and get by.
And the vast majority of students at NWC, contrary to Kohlmann’s claims, do not do that. They are mature, prideful professionals. They know, most of them, that they are being given a great opportunity—a year “off” from day-to-day bureaucracy to do precisely the sort of creative mindwork that Kohlmann is calling for. And most of them, a huge and inspiring number of them, respond to it. And many of them are shaped—in their habits of thought, their awareness of issues, and in a consideration not unimportant among senior professionals, the network of peers they have to call upon for help in the future—for later jobs by the experience, in a positive way.
None of which means Kohlman’s ideas are totally off base. We need to find ways to ensure that PME maximizes the disruptive and creative thinking effects on its students, which we don’t do as much as we should, in the grand balance between “structure to organize thought” and “inspiration to think differently.” We want to enhance, as he suggests, the ways they see connections across issues—the very definition, in one way of looking at it, of a strategic thinker.
His notion of military-civilian connections also has great merit, though once again he goes a bit too far. Business schools (such as his example, Harvard) are not the hothouse of social inclusion he envisions. They are dominated by—as one would expect—businesspeople. Business schools have a core curricular focus (the skills of a business manager—finance, marketing, strategy, management and so forth) and a leading participant type (a young business manager with a few years’ experience). But these schools benefit from that focus rather than being harmed by it. Their students expect to be taught specific skills, and to learn alongside people of similar ambition. They’re not looking for the graduate equivalent of Career Night. They want to get to know the woman who’s going to run a big ad agency, the guy who’ll head Microsoft in China, the woman who’ll found the hot new investment firm—the contacts, the networks, that will catalyze their career success. War colleges offer the same things to their students, advantages that would be lost by shoving them into business or civilian graduate schools with students who, for the most part, they will never see or interact with again in a working environment.
That’s not to say the idea of enhancing civilian-military ties isn’t a good one. Kohlmann’s notion of collaboration is a fantastic concept, whether Harvard-Naval War College or involving other schools. We should investigate such boundary-busting ideas, do more with them.
In other words: We should take a very good model and make it much, much better. We need to, because higher education is beginning a transformation that will call all existing models of learning into question, and the Defense Department is beginning a transition that will demand all activities to re-justify what they are doing and how they are doing it. Doing so will demand serious, rigorous, and analytical assessments within PME as we look forward. We have begun such a comprehensive review at NWC. And with all due respect to LT Kohlmann’s admirable intentions and understandable frustrations, the emerging debate about how to produce creative, critical, agile graduates needs to start, first and foremost, with accurate understanding.