March 1, 2023

What’s Wrong and What’s Right With the War Colleges

A cascade of withering criticism has recently been leveled at the war colleges- those venerable institutions that represent the pinnacle of the hierarchy of professional military education. Each service maintains a war college or equivalent designed to prepare lieutenant colonels and colonels for the highest levels of responsibility, and while they have different cultures in many respects they also share some common attributes and challenges. It seems that there is some “piling on” in progress or perhaps there is some emerging consensus about what’s wrong with the war colleges, even if there isn’t that much agreement as to what should be done about it.

The most widely read and vitriolic criticism came from a series of Foreign blogs by former Washington Post writer Thomas Ricks. Ricks actually called for closure of the war colleges calling them both expensive and second-rate. Some within the system tended to ignore Ricks because of his bombastic style or the fact that he had little actual experience with the institutions he was lambasting. Others suspected the articles were payback for when the Army War College allegedly blackballed him during the Bush administration as too controversial due to his opposition of the Iraq War.  Hyperbole aside, Ricks made some good points that we are likely to see again as defense spending decreases and tough decisions are made about where to get most bang out of a much smaller budget.

Daniel Hughes published a chapter, “Professors in the Colonels’ World” in a 2010 book entitled Military Culture and Education edited by Douglas Higbee that examined the divide between military and academic cultures. His depiction of the Air War College pointed out a nasty strain of anti-intellectualism, ultra conservativism, Christian nationalism and a largely disinterested student body. While some might reject the observations of an outsider like Ricks, Hughes served for eighteen years at the Air War College providing an insider view, albeit from the perspective of an underappreciated academic imbedded in military culture.  Some might be inclined to dismiss him as a disgruntled former employee.

Then comes “Teach Tough, Think Tough: Why Military Education Must Change” an AOL Defense contribution by Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the Naval War College and lecturer at Harvard who also taught at the Air War College as a contemporary of Hughes. She agreed with much of his criticisms and expanded on the military officer/academic divide. She disagreed with Ricks about closing the War Colleges, calling instead for actions to mend the system driven by senior leaders that truly value graduate education.

Much less widely circulated, but particularly insightful from a systemic perspective, was an article published in Proceedings Magazine by Robert Scales, retired two-star general and former commandant of the Army War College. He did not address the war colleges specifically, except for noting that the average age of attendees has increased from 41 to 45 making an expensive educational experience more of a preparation for retirement than a platform for leadership at higher levels. He lamented the possibility that the military is becoming “too busy to learn.” He decried the wane of experienced officers as instructors in the system of professional military education and suggested that a bias for action over learning and organizational malaise in the schools have made them an “intellectual backwater.” His solution is to change the military’s reward system to elevate soldier scholars rather than denigrate them. He advocates a return to the day when uniformed officers rather than civilian instructors and contractors are assigned to the schoolhouse to teach, not because their careers are dead-ended, but as career enhancing assignments on the way to even higher levels of responsibility.

Finally, from the Small Wars Journal, Army War College faculty member and retired Colonel Charles Allen contributed “Redress of Professional Military Education: The Clarion Call.” He identified several issues that support some of the themes that arose in Scales’ article, specifically the possibility that officers are serving in key positions without sufficient educational preparation. He also observed some troubling shifts in the demographics of those attending the Army War College.  An increasing number of officers are deferring attendance. Allen points out that over the last five years 50 percent of those initially selected will choose to defer attendance leading him to assert that it is becoming more important to be selected for senior level schooling than to actually attend. Combat arms officers are apparently going elsewhere, perhaps to fellowship programs or joint service colleges that are viewed as more career enhancing.

I’d like to think that I have a perspective that contributes to this discussion. I attended the Army War College as a student, and stepped off of a promising career track as a military police officer to complete a doctoral degree and then return as a faculty member where I served the last six years of a twenty-seven year career. I was a faculty member and course director with one foot in the academic world and another deeply implanted in the military warrior culture. I eventually left the military and the Army War College to pursue an academic career, and that is where I happily remain as a tenured faculty member at a respected doctoral degree granting institution where I will soon assume duties as Associate Dean. Having observed both sides of the street, I’d like to register some observations.

My time as a student at the Army War College resulted in an intellectual awakening. Before attending I was so busy doing things like commanding a battalion that I had little time to reflect on larger issues affecting my profession. Reflection is the essential bridge between experience and learning. The Army War College gave me opportunities to delve deeply into national security issues and other aspects of my profession that I never would have had in a civilian academic institution. Comparing war colleges to traditional civilian graduate institutions is an “apples to oranges” exercise. The very best graduate program at a top tier university would, in many respects, be a poor substitute for what should happen at the war colleges. The model for the War Colleges is much more akin to that of a professional school (e.g., law or medicine) where sophisticated craft knowledge is blended to a lesser degree with disciplinary forays more common to where I now teach. I loved my time at the Army War College both as a student and a teacher. The adult learning model, seminar method, use of case studies contextually appropriate to a unique group of experienced practitioners, and the many opportunities to engage in no holds barred professional discussions with a parade of flag officers and civilian officials are bright spots that should not be underestimated for their positive impact on future senior military leaders. It is important to have a place where military officers can delve deeply into the nuances of their profession, and most importantly plumb the tensions, intricacies, and limitations of operating a large standing military in a democracy. If done properly that very process can serve as an important protection of the republic. Uninformed and undereducated officers who control vast amounts of military power can fall, or be led, to serious mischief.

Most of my colleagues at the Army War College were completely dedicated to their students and focused on teaching in a way that is not often seen in civilian institutions. Having established my credentials as a fan of the war colleges, and certainly as one who benefited from my association with them, I must point out some weaknesses as well. You can put me in the camp of those who suggest that modification rather shuttering is the answer.

There is indeed friction in the dual civilian and military nature of the faculty and staff at the war colleges. Hughes and Johnson-Freese have made that case better than I could. Both groups and the hybrid military officer/academic that I represent bring something valuable to the table. By far and away the best instructor that I had as a student was a civilian faculty member. He was a scholar with deep pedagogical expertise in the humanities who never served a day in uniform. He might have started with little credibility with the military members of our seminar, but he earned it quickly because he was an outstanding thinker and teacher. I’ll also point out that he did not stay at the Army War College. Attracting and retaining that kind of professor can be difficult in a system where there is no tenure and where the pay scale fails to take into account variation across disciplines. The pay scale might be generous for a history professor, but that is not so much the case for other fields like management or information technology. Having served in both systems I also have to say that professors in the system of professional military education just aren’t treated that well in comparison to those in the civil sphere. In terms of pay and benefits, discretionary time, developmental opportunities, support for research, the ability to consult, and the license to pursue one’s own agenda, civilian academe wins over the war college hands down.  I’m sure that varies by individual experience; I will only speak for my own.

It is much easier to attract to the war colleges a form of second tier-academic; the kind that teaches well but fails the tenure review because they lack a record of meaningful scholarship. After all, the War Colleges aren’t much interested in research or scholarship either. They often have a department such as the Army’s Strategic Studies Institute loaded with authors that crank out insightful opinion pieces and geo-political essays, but few teaching faculty members are supported, encouraged, or rewarded for engaging in the kind of scholarly work that would be expected as terms of employment at most colleges and universities. Before my former colleagues take me off of their Christmas card list I want to be clear that I am not saying that all civilian professors at the war colleges are second-tier. Many are first rate in their own right. I’m just saying that in a competitive market for academic talent, the war colleges don’t have that much to compete with. Neither are the War Colleges places for the kind of young, bright, but inexperienced academics that would be valued at any of the high-prestige research universities.  Despite their brilliance and methodological skills, they have significant hurdles connecting with and earning the respect of the seasoned leaders they find in their classrooms. It is the rare twenty-something assistant professor that will prosper at a war college, but the same can be said for executive development programs at other institutions of higher learning.

I must disagree with General Scales on the desirability of repopulating the system of professional military education with uniformed officers at the senior service college level unless they have both a credible professional and academic background, and that means more than a single tour on the faculty at an undergraduate service academy. I too would like to see the services value teaching in the system of professional military education as he suggests, but military officers who comprise much of the faculty, at least at the Air and Army War Colleges, simply do not have enough time on station to really get good at teaching. We used to quip that you merely survive the first year as a faculty member, begin to become competent at the second, and when you are finally comfortable in the seminar room it is time to move. The experience of military faculty members is respected, and they have instant credibility with the students, but experience and good teaching do not always go hand in hand.

A central problem with staffing the war colleges stems from the fact that the colleges have little control of who the services assign there as military faculty members. The personnel system seems to believe that any old colonel can do it, but examples to the contrary abound. Assignments are made for a host of reasons that do not relate to one’s ability or even interest in teaching. I remember one particularly egregious case where the Air Force sent an officer to teach at the Army War College who suffered from a noticeable speech impediment.

Retired officers are a mixed bag. They are often completely dedicated to the institution and bring a lifetime of experience, but without a deep underlying reservoir of disciplinary knowledge and a strong desire to stay connected and contribute to it, they can get a bit stale. They rarely leave voluntarily and the administration rewards their loyalty, if not their contributions, by renewing their contracts. Their experiences have a shelf life that begins to expire on the date of retirement.  They can usually be counted on to run a good seminar, but few contribute much in terms of scholarship as measured by the usual indicators of research and publication.  It would be interesting to know how many in this category have ever attended an academic conference outside of those hosted by the Department of Defense, something that is apparently acceptable to the administration. They can be powerfully resistant to change as they wait out the “temporary help,” a reference to military personnel on three-year assignments that includes the most senior administrators of the institution.

I have spent a significant part of this essay focusing on the faculty of the war colleges because as any administrator in higher educations knows, it is the faculty that makes the institution. Despite the inordinate amount of time and effort spent on the curriculum including tedious lists of competencies stemming from Joint Professional Military Education accreditation requirements, the quality of the war colleges rests squarely on the faculty. Great faculty members can overcome a mediocre curriculum but a mediocre faculty will surely fail to implement even a great curriculum. If the services spent as much time on recruiting and retaining the best and brightest faculty members as they do tinkering with the curriculum we would have a much better system of professional military education. I will reserve my final comments for students and administrators of the war colleges.

The war colleges may be the only institutions of higher learning that have such paltry control over who attends them. Boards comprised of officers from the field select attendees who have not necessarily expressed any interest at all in attending. No writing samples are required and there’s no graduate record exam or any other testing considered for admission. The criteria for selection are largely based on manner of performance in key positions. Selected officers then have the option of declining or deferring attendance, and many do as Allen’s research attests. Some attend merely because they see it as an opportunity to reconnect with their families or get in shape. As a faculty member we used to quip about students who were obviously there under “an athletic scholarship.“ Yes, there are a number of students attending the war colleges who should not be there, and who really do not want to be there.  They want the block checked for their next assignment and promotion. They can skate through, meeting minimal requirements, contributing to a form of ignorance on fire by waxing philosophical in seminar dialogue without conducting assigned reading, and enjoy the myriad social experiences that take place beyond the classroom. There is very little in place to prevent such freeloading. I will also say, however, that everything necessary for a truly mind expanding experience is there for the taking.  What the students get out of the program is directly commensurate with what they put in.

Because I focus on leadership in my teaching and scholarship, it will not surprise any that I believe leadership to be an important variable in the quality of professional military education. The services have made both inspired and miserable choices in selecting those who serve as chief executives of their war colleges. Selection for two stars or more is not sufficient qualification on its own to serve as a college president, even a war college. Neither should it be a consolation prize for those who are not selected for combat command. As a positive and rare exemplar consider Major General Gregg Martin, who served as both a student and faculty member at the Army War College before assuming duties as commandant. I will say the same about other lesser administrative roles as well. Successful completion of brigade, ship, or squadron command does not inherently qualify a person to be a deputy commandant, chief of staff, provost, dean, or department chair. Such key positions of influence require an understanding of the kind of tensions that Hughes and Johnson-Freese identify and demonstrated ability in academic settings. They should be deeply attuned and dedicated to the primary purpose of the institutions they lead.

The war colleges really should be, and indeed could be, intellectual centers of excellence with a mix of the best and brightest military and civilian faculty members. They have the potential to serve as incubators of big and even disruptive ideas fueled by cutting edge research on important and relevant questions and dedicated to preparing high potential senior military officers for the great challenges of our age. In return for the investment of national treasure that goes into operating the war colleges, the American people and indeed the service members who will serve under their graduates deserve far better than mediocre.

Dr. George E. Reed served for 27 years as an Army officer, including six years as the Director of Command and Leadership Studies at the United States Army War College.


  1. Centurion says:

    Very enlightening article. I’ve always wondered if the war colleges and other military graduate and post-graduate schools would provide a better professional life for the academic with an affinity for the military but who wasn’t really interested in pursuing research. Sounds like it may be a good fit for this practitioner/policy-wonk-phd-type.

  2. Chris Paparone says:


    I understand that senior service colleges (SSCs) probably have some value. My complaint, with some exceptions, is that they tend to be ideological in their development of curricula.

    The closed-mindedness, for example, of the realist perspective that drives the methods of framing issues. Particularly the rational-analytic design of “strategy” (to me “strategy” is a construct of realism). Can you think of one SSC (or staff college for that matter) that uses anything but the rational-analytic method to making prospective sense of military interventions?

    So my beef is with the singular, institutionalized lens that the SSCs provide the students. It is nothing short of an ideology.

  3. Consul-At-Arms says:

    It’s difficult, especially during wartime, to balance the competing needs to reward and promote proven combat leaders, not disadvantaging their warzone service by favoring promotion of those who stayed behind in staff or educational assignments. The military (correctly) took a boot in the behind during the early years of Iraq and Afghanistan for pulling out military officers from their deployments in order to get them into their scheduled military educational assignments on time. Which led to deferment, sometimes indefinitely or permanently, of useful military education for exactly those upcoming leaders who should get it.

    There’s no (to my understanding) perfect solution to this problem. Real leaders want to be with their troops, to be in the fight, to win the fight. Taking a year or more at a time for “book learning” can seem pointless. But unless you want your generals and admirals to all be staff weenies, you need to get your gunslingers into the schoolhouse too.

    Both the fellowship programs and joint service colleges are all good programs, but if the service’s war colleges are perceived as being second-rate in comparison, then they will get neither first-tier students or faculty. And become tempting targets for the budget axe.

    Military and foreign service officers spend a lot of their careers in training assignments, getting ready for their next jobs. This is not a bug, it’s a feature. If anything, FSOs need more of that, not less, although since Sec. Powell’s tenure the gap seems to be narrowing in comparison to our military colleagues’ career patterns. This is a good thing. But there’s a difference between training and education.

    The war colleges bridge the difference between training and education and offer the opportunity to take officers to that next level, where they’re thinking those deep thoughts about big issues, stuff that you expect generals and admirals (at least American ones) to understand, that go beyond the (expected) technical and tactical proficiency in the profession of arms.

    I’ve quoted you and linked to you here:


  1. What’s Wrong and What’s Right With the War Colleges (SWJ Blog) says:

    [...] What’s Wrong and What’s Right With the War Colleges by Dr. George E. Reed, Defense Policy. Introduction: "A cascade of withering criticism has recently been leveled at the war colleges – those venerable institutions that represent the pinnacle of the hierarchy of professional military education. Each service maintains a war college or equivalent designed to prepare lieutenant colonels and colonels for the highest levels of responsibility, and while they have different cultures in many respects they also share some common attributes and challenges. It seems that there is some “piling on” in progress or perhaps there is some emerging consensus about what’s wrong with the war colleges, even if there isn’t that much agreement as to what should be done about it." [...]

  2. » Blog Archive » A memoir of the National War College and its ‘technical school’ approach says:

    [...] people think I have it in for the War Colleges. Nope, I don’t. I think they just need to justify their existences, or face closure as the defense budget implodes [...]

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