The Best Defense

Fiasco at the Army War College: The sequel

I've heard from another defense expert worried about academic freedom at the Army War College. Mark Perry, author of several books on defense issues, wrote to say that a series of experiences two years ago at the college so concerned him that he sent a letter outlining his worries to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen.

Commenting on yesterday's item, Perry wrote (and I am quoting with his permission):

I know about your blackballing at the Army War College. I went to speak there, and the faculty approached me. They asked: How in the hell did you get in here? and told me about your experience. It's worse than you think. They have curtailed the curriculum so that their students are not exposed to radical Islam. Akin to denying students access to Marx during the Cold War.

I concur. Not assigning the works of radical Islamicists strikes me as foolish. When the enemy lays out his thinking for you, read it.

I asked Perry for more information, and so he added in a second e-mail:

I was a part of a three day seminar for military public affairs experts. All of them wondered why they were having difficulty "telling the good story of what we are doing in Iraq." It was a tension filled three days. I was one of seven "SMEs" -- subject matter experts. I was brought in as an expert on Hamas and Hezbollah. My role was to review why the Israeli public affairs people had had problems "selling" the August 2006 war against Hezbollah to the world community. I remember during the plenary session I was one of several "interventions" (as they are called) and told them: "You can't sell an Edsel." It was clear immediately that there were people in uniform present who were very upset that I was invited. And after the three days it was also clear that (at least for some few senior ranking officers) that my expertise was not welcome -- and not wanted. I concluded that it was not simply faculty independence that was and is a problem, but freedom of expression.

During the lunch in which I was approached by the faculty (three in all), I was told that my experience was not surprising. "The AWC is creating a closed idea environment by their policy of not allowing new ideas in here," I recall one faculty member telling me. That statement, it seemed to me at the time, was a little too general. I had good contacts in the Pentagon, with very senior commanders and was reassured by them afterwards that my AWC experience was unusual. It would not have happened at Leavenworth, I was told. In the wake of this, . . . I wrote to Admiral Mullen and made my concerns about the AWC known to the set of senior retired military that can influence him. I do not know that anything has happened to address the problem.

This was two years ago now -- you can see it still bothers me. It's very bad for our military, so very bad for our country.

Full disclosure: Perry and I share a publisher, Penguin Press. Fuller disclosure: I didn't realize this until 30 seconds ago, when I took down from my shelf his recent book Partners in Command, about Generals Eisenhower and Marshall.

The Best Defense

Fiasco at the Army War College

I blurbed his book, he blackballed me

Did faculty members at the Army War College curtail their criticism of the Iraq war for fear of institutional retaliation?

That seems to be the bottom line in a situation I stumbled across just a few days ago. A friend passed along a 2005 e-mail note in which Steven Metz, chairman of a department at the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, urged several of his colleagues to blackball me because of my coverage of the Iraq war. "We all need to avoid Tom like the plague," Professor Metz advised.

I was surprised by this in particular because the last time I heard from Metz last year, he was asking me to blurb his new book on the Iraq war, which I did, as you can see here. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but it is more than a little disappointing for him to denounce me privately and then turn around and ask me for help selling his book publicly.

But more important is what Metz's note may say about the state of academic freedom at the Army War College. When I asked him why he would urge his colleagues to shun me, he quickly apologized via e-mail and explained that it had to do with the political climate at the college back then. In fact, he explicitly blamed the strained relationship between the Army and its civilian overseers under then-Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "[A]t the time -- with growing sensitivity to criticism by Rumsfeld and the Army's attempt to make peace with Rumsfeld after Shinseki left -- several members of SSI had been verbally flogged after interviews with you when the stories portrayed [sic] as more critical of the administration than we intended. We were worried about what might happen to SSI, even frightened for the organization. Many of us, including me, simply stopped doing interviews. Luckily, the climate eventually changed."

Metz went on to tell me that he now thinks he was wrong to tone down his criticism of the conduct of the Iraq war back then. "Today I believe that I should have been more critical of the unfolding disaster in Iraq and simply borne the consequences. As government employees, we walk a fine line between being critics and 'part of the team.' In 2005 I, at least, lost the sense of balance."

Maybe it is time for the commandant of the War College to issue a statement emphatically reaffirming his institution's commitment to academic freedom?

Update: Metz responds below.