Small Wars Journal

The Military and Academic Ethics: Mixed Messages

Tue, 11/04/2014 - 9:12am

The Military and Academic Ethics: Mixed Messages

Joan Johnson-Freese

In August 2014 Montana Senator John Walsh’s dropped out of the general election race consequent to exposure and admission that part of his academic work at the Army War College had been plagiarized.  His post-exposure excuse of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) seemed disingenuous and even insulting to those actually suffering from PTSD.  Then in October the Army War College revoked his graduate degree.

While Walsh’s office issued a statement saying that the Senator disagrees with the College’s findings – and the college seemed to go out of its way to make Walsh’s case seem a gross aberration - he accepted the decision. Always loyal, he did not fault the institutional military system that may have contributed to his demise. 

The Army War College is part of the Professional Military Education (PME) structure. Degree-granting PME schools largely move officers through an accelerated 10-month, executive education level course where the students are the military equivalent of “too big to fail.”  Most come from operational jobs; some return to operational jobs, others to staff jobs; sent to PME because Congress mandated it in the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act.  PME leadership is focused on successfully moving through the highly trained pilots, infantry officers, ship drivers, and staff officers who attend. That can mean squinting at academic standards potentially damaging to officers’ careers, such as the inability to write graduate-level research paper.

Many if not most officers who attend have not written an academic paper in 10 years, often more.  Further, many did their earlier academic work in technical fields where paper writing was not required. Senator Walsh wrote a 14 page paper, which is not a thesis or dissertation by any stretch of the imagination. Guidelines for similar papers today at the Army War College call for a minimum of 5,000 words, or often about 20-36 pages, still less than a “normal” civilian thesis or dissertation. But many military students have little preparation for even these minimal writing expectations of the PME program, which at all the War Colleges includes a Master’s degree.  

Ideally, there would be time in the academic schedule for qualified faculty to instruct students on the basics of paper writing and for practicing their writing skills.  Writing is a skill that takes practice, just like any other skill. But taking the time to teach writing and allowing students to hone their skills isn’t something that can be done within an accelerated schedule.  Further, PME faculty members Drs. Nickolas Murray and Gregory Hospodor have also pointed out that a significant number of PME faculty are ill-prepared to assist students in their writing requirements, or “catch” plagiarism when it occurs, because they are active duty or retired military with little writing experience themselves. (

PME students have always been given guidance as to what constitutes plagiarism. The larger question is whether, prior to the Walsh case, they thought they really had to care. What were the signals given regarding tolerance for plagiarism?

Incoming students are briefed on the academic honor code and what constitutes plagiarism, and faculty talk about it in classes. But the honor code has been passively implemented in many cases, and administrators have sometimes dropped violations of what gets deemed merely “sloppy scholarship” from what is intended to be a standardized Academic Integrity Review process.  Further, there has often been little or no communication regarding the existence or outcome of an academic integrity review. That has led many PME faculty, and students, to believe that infractions simply disappear into the ether world with an admonishment and perhaps a “do over.”

Retired Professor Dan Hughes wrote about faculty frustrations regarding poor writing skills among students at the Air War College, and administrative demands to just get the students through, in a chapter of Military Culture & Education (2010).  According to Hughes, unless faculty were willing to basically re-write papers for the students, poor writing was often overlooked. 

Even with a lot of heavy editing by PME faculty, many poor papers slip through.

While it may seem ludicrous to assume that military officers “don’t get” the parameters of plagiarism, in the military world “team work” and “get it done” are guiding principles, and that includes sharing and using available resources. Without specific and repeated instruction otherwise, that attitude can get carried over to academic paper writing with no nefarious intent, especially with no ill consequences of doing otherwise evident.

Clearly now, however, there is considerable attention being paid to incidents of plagiarism.  That means increased pressure on students unaccustomed to writing academic papers to produce graduate level work.  Consequently, it also demands more attention be paid to research and writing skills in PME curriculum so that students can successful complete the work required of them. It can be done.

Harvard Extension School teaches courses designated as “W” (writing courses) where faculty teach basic writing skills along with the substance of the course, and students are required to produce multiple writing assignments, including two that are edited as ungraded drafts. These are labor-intensive courses but, having taught these courses for 3 years, the students’ writing skills improve significantly, and several have published course-required assignments. While a Writing Center or remedial sessions can supplement classroom instruction on writing at PME institutions, they cannot replace classroom instruction and practice as a quick fix, if leadership seriously wants students to be able to write at a graduate level.

Most students take PME very seriously. But senior leadership has been known to advise students that War College is time to reconnect with family, and that “it’s only a lot of reading if you do it.”  Intended or not, statements like this send a signal about how the military prioritizes academics; it appears not to.

Yet the military stresses ethics in its academic and leadership programs.

This all becomes especially confusing when the case of Elizabeth O’Bagy is juxtaposed to that of Senator Walsh.

In 2013 Elizabeth O’Bagy, a twenty-six year old scholar at the Institute for the Study of War, was fired. Ms O’Bagy had given media interviews and written opinion pieces on Syria without disclosing that she had direct ties to Syrian rebel forces. Her analysis was cited by Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator John McCain in support of air strikes on Syria. She testified before Congress and was frequently called upon as a television commentator.

She was not fired because of conflict of interest issues though, but because she had falsely claimed to complete a doctorate at Georgetown University. She had fabricated her credentials, and failed to disclose major biases that influenced public policy, both significant ethical lapses.

Nevertheless, two weeks after she was fired, Ms O’Bagy was hired by Senator John McCain – a former Naval officer and presidential candidate -- to work on his staff.   Senator McCain said he looked forward to working with her. Apparently, cheaters can prosper.

The compass being given military officers for when ethics matters, especially regarding academic practices, seem ambiguous at best.

The views presented here represent those of the author alone, and not the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.


Harvard College has an acceptance rate of 5.9%. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, it has a graduation rate of about 97.5%, the highest in the country. The graduation rate for the Coast Guard Academy and the USNA is 88%, 80% for the USMA. A graduation rate of 80% is considered top tier, as many/most fall below that.

Yet, although attendance at some resident PME schools is on a competitive basis, it is not academic competition (nor should it necessarily be). There are no PME academic admission requirements for War Colleges. Nevertheless, the graduation rates of those PME institutions offering an accelerated graduate-level program are remarkably similar to those of Harvard, most notably even at those schools where the Master’s program is taken by all students rather than on a voluntary basis. A few PME students do not complete the program(s), though most often due to personal reasons.

I have repeatedly stated the overall graduation figures for PME institutions as remarkably high, near statistically impossible given the lack of academic admission standards, and have yet to be provided statistics that show otherwise. If I am wrong, however, I would be anxious to see those statistics and correct this characterization in the future.


Wed, 11/05/2014 - 1:06pm

This is spot on. On paper, I received the same degree as Senator Walsh (MSc in Strategic Studies). However, one of the reasons why I chose to pursue it at a respected Scottish university with no official military affiliation was that I had been through a variety of DoD military education programs over the years, and I expected that the levels of academic rigor and intellectual diversity in Aberdeen would greatly exceed those of comparable programs in the States, to include those administered directly by the DoD. (Having worked with a number of current and former senior officers from each of the four services, I can also attest to the fact that writing/communication skills are hit or miss, and that this shortfall negatively impacts operations.) When the news of Senator Walsh's plagiarism (and the fact that his "dissertation" was only fourteen pages long) broke, I was unsurprised and subsequently bristled at the proposition that his case was an isolated incident.

While studying in Aberdeen (a twelve month resident program, though dissertations could be written remotely), each of my papers was submitted via a plagiarism-checking website. All of my exams, plus my dissertation and other selections, were reviewed by at least two members of the instructing staff before being shipped to London for review by an external examiner. My dissertation (for which I tied for the top mark) was nearly 15,000 words, fifty-eight pages long, with 148 sources and 229 individual citations. (My bibliography alone was two thirds of Senator Walsh's entire paper.) My eighteen coursemates and I represented a total of twelve different countries, often with passionately divergent views on the subject matter. To paraphrase the author, none of us were "too big to fail", and I knew when I received my final results that they had been dearly earned.

My point in noting all of this is not to denigrate the students, instructors, and staff of these facilities, most of whom are obviously trying to do their best within the system provided. That said, I don't think it's helping anyone - not the students, nor the instructors and staff, nor the taxpayers, nor the industries into which these officers retire - to push them through a de facto degree mill. (A couple of years ago, the Heritage Foundation hosted a discussion that touched on this topic. It's still available as a podcast download <A HREF="">here</A&gt;.) There are several different methods whereby these gaps could be closed:

1) Accomplish the PME requirement through an ROTC-like system in which candidates attend an appropriate postgraduate program at a civilian university. Many ROTC instructors already use their instructor tours as opportunities to pursue postgraduate education; there could also be an opportunity for candidates to share facilities with and/or augment existing ROTC programs throughout America. This would also make it easier for civilians to participate, contributing to the kind of intellectual diversity which has traditionally made such programs more challenging and, ultimately, more beneficial.

2) Reform the current system to bring it up to an appropriate standard. This could also be an opportunity to collaborate with coalition allies, particularly the United Kingdom and potentially other NATO and (former-)ISAF/"Coalition of the Willing" partners. I consider my own program to have been more valuable than a comparable CONUS-based program because of its academic rigor (enforced in part by EU regulations governing higher education), and because it afforded me the opportunity to study strategy from a perspective other than my own.

3) Consolidate the existing DoD-operated postgraduate programs, perhaps into a West Coast institution centered in Monterey and an East Coast institution centered in Carlisle or in the National Capital Region. Retain a cadre of instructing staff from each of the four branches to teach service-specific coursework, but ensure that a significant portion of the coursework addresses a joint audience. This would have the knock-on effect of providing budgetary efficiencies for each of the four services that could be repurposed for other requirements. Senior military leaders could also lobby Congress to amend Goldwater-Nichols to allow attendance of such institutions to partially satisfy the "joint tour" requirement. (As noted in Item #1, this could also provide an opportunity to allow non-DoD-affiliated students better access to such programs.)

The PME requirement is valuable, but there is obviously room for improvement. Reforming the existing system to reinforce academic rigor; encourage greater intellectual diversity; and improve writing, research, and communication skills would be a win/win for all concerned.

Professor Freese's article is generally on target, but as a professor at the US Army Command and General Staff College teaching the intermediate level PME Command and General Staff Officer Course (CGSOC) I must disagree with her blanket characterization that all of these institutions give students master degrees as a matter of course.
Thankfully, the only students who get a masters from the accredited program at CGSOC are those who voluntarily enroll in the Master of Military Art and Science (MMAS) program, which is actually as rigorous, and sometimes more rigorous than what one finds in civilian academia. Students must put together their own committee and prospectus and get them approved and write at least a 60 page monograph, 80 pages or more if going for the military history MMAS. The go through an oral examination associated with the curriculum and in a separate event undergo a formal thesis defense with their committee (3 professors). Professor Freese is not correct in her facts relative to CGSOC, but many of the other things she says are generally relevant and apply.
There has been a large amount of grumbling that CGSOC does not “give” everyone a master degree, but the longest paper students are required to write is five pages (although they might write longer papers for certain electives.) But, laudably, the college has withstood efforts to make a master’s diploma pro forma for CGSOC without the rigor currently in place. “Give” is correct, I suspect, in some cases, although my teaching also for the Naval War College (NWC) Fleet Seminar Program (for the last three years) has convinced me that the NWC does not “give” masters degrees away either.
John T. Kuehn, Ph.D.
Major General Stofft Chair for Historical Research
US Army Command and General Staff College
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas