I recently read a hair-raising insiders' account of the Air Force's Air War College, written by an 18-year veteran of the faculty there. Basically, Daniel Hughes, who is now retired, says the place is an expensive joke. Funny except that the taxpayer picks up the tab.
In a chapter in a collection titled Military Culture and Education, Hughes, a military historian specializing in the German military, charges that, "By and large, there are no real academic standards."
The Air Force routinely uses the college faculty, he charges, as a dumping ground for "colonels who are out of favor." Hughes, who served in Vietnam and went on to earned his PhD at the University of North Carolina, says they are not very good academically. "Many are of average intellect and have substantial weaknesses in speaking and writing. . . . They rarely publish." During his years there, not a single faculty member ever was promoted to brigadier general , he notes. The department chairs are particularly troubling, with little understanding of the differences between leading a military unit and overseeing an academic department. "They are truly amateurs."
Nor are the student contributions impressive . Most are there only to check a block necessary for promotion, he says. "The Air War College may be the only full-time graduate school in the country in which a large part of the student body does not wish to be present." He says the students don't read the assigned material, which is not a heavy load. Even so, in 2009, the college's war fighting department awarded grades of "A" or "A-" to 97 percent of the students in its core course. The following year, the dean required that no more than half of grades be "A" or "A-."
Professor Hughes, who has retired to a farm in upstate New York, commented that:
The account in the chapter, contrary to the official line, is not simply the 'experience of one person.' All these things were known at AWC at the time. This is the nearly universal experience of those who have been at AWC over the last 10-15 years. I am the only person who has written about this, not the only one who has experienced it. I also must stress that I did not question the scholarly productivity of the faculty. On the contrary, I imply that such production is difficult in this environment. The article is about the military culture's clash with civilian academic culture; that is all. I have many other bits that could be shared but that are not directly relevant to the topic of the book.
I also got a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger response from the commandant of the Air War College. I'll run the whole thing tomorrow, but here is my favorite passage from it:
The resultant two complementary communities within the faculty, senior military officers and the civilian professoriate, live under the same school roof, arguably with a certain necessary professional tension and, for the most part, mutual understanding of the strengths each brings to the fight. Their respective roles are suborned by numerous documents from outside agencies that define the Air War College curriculum-and that of any other professional military education institution-with particular roles for both groups.
Tom's bottom line: Hughes says it costs at least $300,000 a year to send an officer to the AWC. So this looks like a good place to begin budget cuts, Secretary Gates. Close the place and send the students out into the world of civilian academia, where they will be challenged intellectually and might learn something.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.