By "N. Airman"
Best Defense guest columnist
1. IT'S ALL ABOUT PAGE COUNTS. The Air Force's answer to being accused of
running a program that wasn't rigorous is to measure everything by page counts --
written and read -- especially as the number of pages relates to the school
maintaining civilian accreditation for its mandatory master's degree program. Unlike
AWC classes of the past, where "it's only a lot of reading if you actually
do it," we're compelled to read the ~150 pages every night. Instructors
quiz their seminars to ensure people are reading ("Bill, what was Mr.
Mearsheimer's thesis in last night's article?"). That said, however, no
one expects us to understand or apply what we read. The seminars are still
mutual reinforcement sessions. It doesn't matter what you learn as long as you
can convince the instructor you read and then participated in seminar with
whatever unsophisticated thought you wanted to spew. I've described this to
some using a Vietnam body count analogy: More pages must mean we're good. As a
result, I read a lot and that's it. I'm never asked to synthesize it. Nor am I
given time to reflect upon the reading and come up with questions or original
thoughts. Just move to the next 150 pages, please.
2. EVERYONE'S A STRATEGIST. The Air
Force doesn't have a career field that educates and grooms strategic thinkers. Instead,
AWC students are constantly told that we'll leave here with a "degree in
strategy" that will allow us to drop into any senior command structure and
give sophisticated military advice to our civilian leaders. Everyone here
receives the same watered-down strategy training (not education), under
constant reminder that any of us could be "the guy" who plans the
next big thing. Now, I consider myself a smart guy, but for the nation's sake, I'd better not be the officer who gives
senior civilian leaders strategic advice next year. I don't have the
education or background to do that. And 11 months of reading and writing X and
Y number of pages won't remedy that.
3. IT'S CONFUSED. The Air Force
touts its program as a serious graduate program, because ... it says it is and
it got someone to accredit it. However, the Air Force doesn't want to treat its
students like either graduate students or senior leaders. Instead, we get a
weird mix of military training, company-grade accountability techniques, and
the 8th grade. We have a student council that debates such issues as trash
pickup and snack bars. We're compelled to participate in "duel of the
schools" events against the Command and Staff College. Of course, you
can't compete successfully without practicing, so practice sessions are laced
into the duty day. Imagine the taxpayer response to my being paid really well
to attend AWC poker team practice. Again, this isn't extracurricular activity. This is mandatory, middle-of-the-day stuff.
Back in the classroom, the "leadership" course merely rehashed the
same material we got in our company-grade leadership school (with a brief
discussion of senior officers caught with their pants down thrown in). The Air Force
can't decide what it wants this place to be: graduate school, senior officer
education, PME, SOS part 2? It tries to be all at once, and doesn't do any one
of them well.
4. IT'S SOMEONE ELSE'S FAULT. So
far, we've learned that General McChrystal did nothing wrong; Rolling Stone screwed him. Two senior
officers who were relieved in the wake of the loss of control of nuclear bombs
spoke to us. They did nothing wrong; the nation just didn't tell them nukes
were still important. The generals who provided advice going into Iraq and
Afghanistan did nothing wrong; they just did what their civilian masters told
them to do. I see a trend here! What could be a great opportunity to dissect
and discuss the decisions senior leaders make, where they failed, and where the
institution failed them, became instead comfortable finger-pointing.
5. IT'S JUST NOT IMPORTANT. We're
constantly reminded by the leaders here that this year, above all, needs to be
a time for us to relax and reconnect with our families. Instructors add that
rigorous education and "break year" are incompatible concepts. Therefore,
instructors make it clear to us that if we wish to "kill ourselves"
and do the work, they'll be happy to support us. Otherwise, they recommend we
just "take the B." Why are we here, then?
"N. Airman" is a two-decade
active-duty Air Force officer with a broad operational background and experience. He
is currently a student at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, unless they figure out who he is. (Tom said
that, not him.)