The American Interest
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Flying High, Thinking Big

Anti-intellectualism in the U.S. Air Force threatens its future, and ours.

Published on May 1, 2009

In 2007, an Air Force general told a group of faculty at a service staff college, “There is nothing more important than deploying to support the fight; certainly nothing we do here.” He made it clear that educating officers was not nearly as important for the country (or for the officers’ careers) as deploying, and that deployment to combat zones and seeking further officer education were mutually exclusive choices.

He could not have been more wrong, of course, but his kind of thinking now dominates U.S. Air Force leadership. Anti-intellectualism has become firmly grounded in the Air Force at a time when its leadership should instead be trying harder than ever to cultivate warrior-scholars. The reason is that future wars are less likely than ever to resemble past ones. As important as experience is, it could be a wasting asset in a rapidly changing environment—an environment in which the definition of the situation we once more or less took for granted will no longer apply. When your playbook is exhausted, when all else fails, you have to think. God help anyone who has forgotten how.

It’s not that those who frown on intellectualism are themselves stupid. One can attain competency, even mastery, through instincts, character and moral sensibilities, as Colleen J. Shogan has put it.1 One can even make a case for valuing doers over thinkers. It is, after all, important to be technically proficient, and too many thinkers recapitulating and rehashing the same issues is not usually an effective way for a military force to respond to a challenge. But in the long run technical proficiency cannot substitute for an ability to analyze issues critically and apply every asset available to achieve a specific end in differing political and military contexts. Some people have got to know how to think clearly, and if not officers, then who?

How should we push back against anti-intellectualism in the Air Force? The service should do four things. First, it should follow Army General David Petraeus’s advice and send more officers to civilian graduate programs for advanced degrees, especially in topics germane to strategy and war.2 Second, it needs to systematically provide officers opportunities to increase their mental agility and capacity to reason logically, for that is the best protection against panic under duress. Third, as a matter of routine, it needs to deploy officers with advanced degrees to combat locations where they can interrogate and hopefully improve the strategies being used. Fourth, it needs to staff its War College and Staff College up to its authorized manning levels with officers who are competitive for promotion and command.

As to the first recommendation, it seems clear that the service’s leaders are headed in the wrong direction. Many claim that the Air Force doesn’t have enough forces to allow officers to leave for two or three years of school. To make that claim is to view the manning issue from a short-term perspective. It also contradicts current practice. No one would ask senior Air Force leaders today to drastically cut seasoned instructor-pilots at the F-16 Replacement Training Unit in order to send them off to war. No one would ask them to keep the elite USAF Weapons School open by using non-graduate pilots to teach future Weapons Officers so that experienced instructors could deploy to Afghanistan. So why ask so many officers to leave off honing their analytical skills for the future in order to deploy today?

Not everyone needs to go to graduate school, of course. General Petraeus, himself a Ph.D., has never claimed that officers cannot become critical thinkers or better writers without going to civilian institutions. But it is wrong to deny the benefits of it, and wrong to segregate this kind of education from more technical education. Both are valuable, and both are worth planning and paying for. But that’s not how the incentive system in the service is aligned. Several senior officers who recently sat on promotion boards, as well as selective-early-retirement boards and reduction-in-force boards, recently told me that officers who went to school-in-residence to earn doctoral degrees fared poorly in promotion tracks compared to those who did not.

The statistics bear this out. In 2006 there were 338 lieutenant colonels in the Air Force with doctoral degrees out of a total of 9,940 lieutenant colonels, but only 133 colonels with Ph.D.s out of more than 3,400 total colonels. Only 1.3 percent of the officer corps holds doctoral degrees, with 40 percent holding masters degrees.3 If we factor in the Air Force’s need for doctorates in the hard sciences, which are critical to research and development efforts, the relative paucity of senior officers with doctorates applicable to strategy development is even more obvious.

The second recommendation, to increase officers’ mental agility and logical reasoning capacity, sounds at first blush vague, if not a little banal. It would be, if those moving into officer roles could already think straight and reason well. But many of them can’t, and the subculture of today’s Air Force compounds these deficiencies. Our officers and especially the leadership must understand that when they make an assertion that something is true, the validity of the assertion depends on all the premises being true.

Why does this matter? Astonishing as it may seem to some, it remains a methodological challenge for the Air Force to explain the conditions in which airpower is liable to be decisive. Desert Storm was a very different war than Kosovo, and both were different from the air war over Afghanistan. As USAF Maj. Gen. Mike Worden correctly said, “Strategic success requires an understanding of the human and social activity called war and of the probabilities of human behavior in conflict.”4 This means that one cannot assert that, just because airpower worked in a particular manner in one conflict, it will work the same way elsewhere. But all too often, that is precisely the argument one hears.

Consider in this light the words of Carl von Clausewitz. For Clausewitz, critical analysis is the “application of theoretical truths to actual events . . . tracing effects back to causes.”5 Yet today, the officer corps seems to be moving away from tracing effects to causes toward an experience-based paradigm in which critical analysis is debased. Worden reminds us that, while the nature of war in general remains eternal, the character of any particular war will differ from those that came before or will come after. Experience plays a role, but experience alone is not sufficient for developing winning strategies. Indeed, misapplying experience is perhaps the surest route to failure.

Third, the Air Force needs to send more officers with advanced degrees into the field and on combat deployments. By packing his Baghdad staff with officers with advanced degrees, Petraeus followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, General William Casey, who brought numerous highly educated officers to work on his staff. Officers with advanced degrees best learn how to apply their knowledge in the field. And while honing their own skills as warrior-scholars, they raise the bar of excellence in their units and disseminate their education by teaching others to analyze their own situations and command decisions. Yet today the Air Force places a greater value on a major who is about to graduate from a service school than on a lieutenant colonel graduate of the same school who stayed on as a faculty member. It sees potential in the near graduate, but it sees in the graduate instructor someone who missed out on deployment opportunities and is thus a less-qualified officer.

Finally, the Air Force should send the best promotable and command-ready officers to teach at its Staff College and War College. While the Air Force makes a point of sending only its top-tier officers to Air University as students, the service is so short of qualified instructors that it accepts non-graduates as resident faculty. This means that many officers who never attended staff college, as well as those not competitive for promotion or command, are given the job of teaching those officers whom the Air Force singles out as the next generation of leaders.

This may seem strange to an objective observer, but the Air Force’s reasoning, by its own lights, is simple. It believes that its warrior-scholars best help the Air Force in staff jobs outside academia. This may be true in the short term, but it harms the Air Force in the long term by forcing less-qualified instructors into what amounts to the Air Force’s university classrooms. And while these instructors are usually good officers, their lack of educational experience is not lost on the students, who wonder why the best are not teaching the best. A combination of highly educated faculty and experienced faculty—those with a strong mix of both advanced degrees and deployed experience—is how we ought to produce better future leaders.

In his seminal work, The Soldier and the State (1957), Samuel Huntington proposed that senior military leaders have three responsibilities to the state: a representative function, in which they keep civilian leaders informed on the minimum military force posture necessary to ensure state security; an advisory function, in which leaders analyze the implications of various strategies or courses of action; and an executive function, in which the military carries out the decisions of civilian leaders even if that strategy “runs violently counter to his military judgment.”

Anti-intellectualism threatens the military’s ability to perform all three of these functions. By relying primarily on experience without putting that experience into an analytic or testable framework, the military cannot keep the state informed of minimum security requirements, for it cannot conceptualize future threats outside the framework of past experience. And if it becomes a stranger to logic and to ways of abstract thinking other than its own, the military places itself at risk of not understanding the thinking and instructions of its civilian superiors.

It’s not hard to show how a keen capacity for conceptualization matters. General Murray Scales has pointed out that in World War II, 31 of 35 U.S. Army corps commanders had taught at the service schools.6 General Walter Kreuger, McArthur’s Army commander in the Pacific, served as a faculty member at both the Army War College and the Naval War College. Kevin Holzimmer, Kreuger’s biographer, explained the effect of sophisticated military education and intellectual thinking on operations in World War II:

No longer was the individualistic and heroic leader the ideal. Instead, officers collectively analyzed issues from a broader vantage point, seeking inputs from sister-service counterparts. With the rise of the managerial style—introduced in part via PME—the commanders of SWPA defaulted to skills they acquired at the war colleges.7

Clearly, U.S. commanders in World War II had little experience to fall back on. They were not able to say, “I know how to do this; I’ve been there.” Instead they used the critical analysis skills they were taught in their service schools, where they learned how to think and how to profit from a world of ideas. And they won a massive, two-front war in less than four years from a standing start. You don’t need a Ph.D. to see the lesson in that.

1 Shogan, “Anti-Intellectualism in the American Presidency”, Perspectives on Politics (June 2007).
2 Petraeus, “Beyond the Cloister”, The American Interest (July/August 2007).
3 Air Force Personnel Center.
4 Worden, “Developing Twenty-First Century Airpower Strategists”, Strategic Studies Quarterly (Spring 2008).
5 Clausewitz, On War (Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 156.
6 Scales, “Studying the Art of War”, Washington Times, February 17, 2005.
7 Holzimmer, “Joint Operations in the Southwest Pacific”, Joint Forces Quarterly (July 2005).

Tom Ruby is a colonel on the Headquarters Air Force staff and has served in various combat and staff assignments in the United States, Middle East, Pacific and Europe. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Air Force or the U.S. government.