Disruptive Thinkers: The PME Debate Needs More Informed Thinkers

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.

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May be of interest to the Small Wars Community:


The Future of Professional Military Education
Sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Reserve Officers Association
On April 18, 2012, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) and the Reserve Officers Association (ROA) will present a workshop of leading authorities to discuss the current state of professional military education (PME) in the United States. The education of military officers is an important element of national security decision making and civil-military relations, but much debate surrounds how to educate strategic leaders.
This workshop will use Joan Johnson-Freese’s Winter 2012 Orbis article “The Reform of Military Education: Twenty-Five Years Later” to discuss and debate the current state of PME. Participants will include:
This event is also available by audio webcast.
Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese
Professor of national security affairs (NSA), US Naval War College (USNWC)
Tom Ricks
Senior fellow, Center for a New American Security (CNAS)
Maj. Gen. Robert Scales
US Army (ret), formerly Commandant of the US Army War College
Robert E. Feidler
Director, Defense Strategic Education, and Director, Army Affairs, Reserve Officers Association
Moderated by Dr. Mac Owens
professor of NSA at the USNWC, FPRI senior fellow, and editor of Orbis

One of the core problems is that professional military schools tend to be thought followers rather than thought leaders. You do get the occasionally brilliant school commandant who shakes things up and encourages the same from his or her subordinates. Otherwise, officers cycle through, often towards the end of their careers, with little opportunity to challenge (rather than to defend) the "school solution". On the other hand, individual instructors (or "professors" at the senior service school lefvel) do have a great opportunity to challenge and engage their peers and near peers in a learning experience that is worthwhile for all. In the civilian sector, this is the difference between a major research university where teaching is a lower endeavor, a secondary consideration - as opposed to the more accessible and less grandiose learning experience that can be had at a small university or college. Too much higher learning still is based on the old hoary "sage on the stage" model, rather than participatory learning that ought to be second nature to senior officers when they hit war college.

One thing missing from the PME debate (something I alluded to in a comment on LT Kohlmann's essay) is an agreed-upon purpose to PME. If PME is to be painted with a broad brush (which is not necessarily bad, just needs to be agreed upon) then PME would include everything educational one does from Freshman yr in college to CGSC. Conversely, if PME is to be DoD schooling, then it is the institutional schools (which is what it seems LT Kohlmann et al think of).

Depending on the definition we will have a very different debate about what good PME looks like.

Dr. Mazarr makes some good points. As another datapoint I got a Masters from the University of MN's Institute of Technology and attended Air Force War College by correspondence. I thought the correspondence course was fine--it was a good foundation for studying the systemic problems in the "Pentagon Establishment" that Mr. Gates berated. And I preferred working with the SAMS/SAW grads when working on the senior staffs in CENTCOM and when deployed. Those two schools, and their equivalent in the AF/Navy are dynamite.

As a reservist who nearly quit the reserves in 2000 and early 2001, and then spend four of the past nine years on active duty as a Disruptive Innovator, I was struck at how insulated the military really was from the civilian business world. Of course, many things the Active Duty military was doing was very good, and I had to struggle to keep up and learn. But there were very definitely byzantine areas where the military benefited from cross-pollenization. Sometimes my fellow officers knew what to do, but I could provide very useful how-to-do-it knowledge that saved them time. I'd use skills that were common in business but quite often unknown on several different senior staffs in several different geographic locations. By contrast, anyone who peruses John Boyd's reading list is struck by the breadth.

COL James Burton fought the Army in the early 1980s to make the Bradley safe. He described the active duty military as frought with "incestuous" thinking. In both real life and in this insulated military culture, he said that this leads to feeble mindedness. The MRAP story mirrors the Bradley testing story, almost to the point of the exact same conversations: just change the names and substitute "MRAP" for "Bradley Testing". This is evident in overlooking COIN tactics, dismissal of Gen Shinseki's warning, or spending money on FCS/EFV/F22 etc while neglecting tactics and toolsets that became useful.

Here's how the inbred mind is born: A Major does not make LtCol and is forced to retire, but he does not want to leave. So, he gets a job at MCCDC or TRADOC as a GS13, gets promoted to a GS-15, but has no meaningful experience outside the military at all, and he or she is in a position to use the bureaucracy to block innovation with slick language. The problem is endemic. Recommended solutions to follow in the coming weeks--but all solutions being with admitting the problem to the point of willingness to do something about it, and that I do not see.


As a civilian, I had the opportunity to attend one of the military universities but instead I chose to go to a DC school– mainly because I didn’t want to be influenced by DoD group think on various national security issues. It was an excellent experience. I will say we did have one professor from NDU for a semester. He was a brilliant man but his course was far from rigorous- most classes were taught at the power point level and focused on org charts, joint pubs etc… Many students were shocked that someone from DOD’s top institution was that lame as a professor.

The best part of my educational experience came from interacting with a very, very diverse group of students. I think this is where PME programs may be lacking. Several years ago I attended the interagency planners course at JFSC – the class was comprised of 48 military officers and two civilians from outside of DOD. We spent the better part of the course learning JOPES. It seemed as though the course was an influence operation designed to get outsiders to think more DOD-like.

Do you think there is a way for more outside DOD students –regular civilians – to participate in PME programs? Perhaps offer scholarships? I think this may help bridge the civ-mil divide and would be beneficial to for military officers to hear the thoughts of outsiders.

I cannot speak for the War College level institutions, but I was very pleased with my CGSC/Intermediate Level Education experience at Fort Leavenworth (a more fitting target for Kohlmann's argument). Many of my peers were not. I submit, however, that the opportunities were there to get out of it what you put into it (I can only speak for my group). My instructors were very willing to explore and encourage creative thought and student questions. The curriculum was nothing like doctrinaire spoon feeding. Of course it promulgated and reinforced the latest doctrine and professional military knowledge, but we were certainly encouraged, I would even say pushed, to look at it critically and bring knowledge from other domains. My second year at Leavenworth was utterly phenomenal and I would argue exactly the kind of "disruptive thinker" environment he desires.

I would also submit that business schools are not as far ahead of PME as posted either. I learned that business schools had a very bad reputation for creativity and encouraging entrepreneurship until recently. I'm not sure the traditional business school is exactly the model we want to emulate to foster entrepreneurship, initiative and creative thinking.

For whatever it is worth, and my experience is a bit dated, but my year at the Army's School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMs)99/2000 was equivalent in quality and rigor to my graduate experience at Stanford University.