National Security Education: A User’s Manual


Do Professional Military Education institutions and United States civilian universities prepare America’s leaders to make sound strategic decisions? A core principal of the United States is civilian control of the military, but the two must work well together. From the White House to the Pentagon and beyond, civilian and military leaders make life and death decisions on the use of force, war and peace, and the coherence of U.S. strategy. Over the past six years, President Obama and his generals and admirals have had to weigh in on ending America’s military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, using drones to kill suspected terrorists, battling Boko Haram, intervening in the Libyan civil war, reacting to Syrian chemical weapons use, countering Russian annexation of Crimea, negotiating with Iran over ending its nuclear weapons program, deterring North Korean missile and nuclear programs, deflecting maritime coercion in East Asia, and responding to large-scale natural disasters such as the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear catastrophe in Japan. Longer term issues also loom. How serious is the ongoing threat of terrorism? What is the appropriate role for intelligence? How should we balance military strength and resources on the one hand, and domestic priorities such as education and infrastructure on the other? In the face of these challenges, the United States cannot afford on-the-job training.

So, which better prepares future leaders of the United States: Professional Military Education (PME) or civilian academe? The question is about education at the war college/graduate school level. No civilian university teaches the tactics and operational art necessary for military officers in their first 15 years of service. But at senior levels, national security issues converge: Military leaders must transition from tactics and operations to strategy, and civilian policymakers must work with and understand the military. Some civilians attend war colleges and some military attend civilian universities. And I’ve taught both in both places. Although I’m now a tenured civilian academic at George Mason University, I’ve been a PME faculty member, most recently spending five years at the National War College (part of the National Defense University) where I was director of the core course on military strategy. I also served in government and taught at a range of civilian universities, including Columbia, the University of Virginia, Georgetown, and Oxford. I loved my time in PME and still miss the selfless devotion to public service of most of my colleagues and students there, which are not matched at equal levels in civilian academe. Military and civilian educational approaches differ, as does the quality of specific institutions on each side. But the finest strive to prepare students to meet strategic challenges. Who does it best? The answer boils down to three things: content and curriculum; teachers and teaching; and students and studying.

Content and Curriculum

Effective leaders must have a balanced, wide-ranging education that combines breadth, depth and historical context. In both military and civilian graduate programs, there is pressure to substitute what is popular, political, and self-serving for what most benefits student education.

The military takes a top-down approach to curriculum, built on the belief that the higher your rank, the greater your wisdom. The Pentagon, especially the Joint Staff, heavily influences a student’s course of study. It is possible to innovate within this system, but academic expertise is secondary. The best elements of the curriculum – including American government, history, and classics such as Clausewitz, Sun Zi, and Liddell Hart – endure year after year, but too often the program lacks intellectual coherency or echoes doctrinal fads. As a result, too many of our PME graduates emerge with decent breadth, but shallow depth.

It is difficult to satisfy the clashing requirements forced upon PME faculty. Both military and civilian bodies accredit PME, and at the National Defense University, I found keen tension between the two. Civilian accreditation of PME Masters’ degrees began in the 1990s, opening the war colleges to wider scrutiny. A large number of highly qualified civilian faculty were hired, and academic standards improved. When I arrived in 2004, most students were delighted to earn a civilian-accredited Master’s degree (especially those in the State Department and the Navy, who otherwise had little opportunity to do so), while many active or former military faculty resented civilian accreditation. Their priority was certification by the Program for Accreditation of Joint Education, because military officers need “Joint PME II” credit to advance in their careers. (Usually phase I credit is earned at staff colleges, phase II at war colleges.) This was, of course, immaterial to our civilian students. With ample resources the situation was easily managed: We could satisfy both. Shrinking budgets and the drawdown of two wars now mean that power is reverting to those who pay the bills. The National Defense University is, after all, chartered by the Chairman and paid for by the Department of Defense. The leadership has been demoted (the Presidency from a three- to a two-star general officer, and the Commandants from two- to one-star), with Army (or retired Army) officers now placed in key positions. The result is a muscular effort to centralize the curriculum under the control of the Army, gut the civilian aspects, and drive out long-serving civilians teaching there.

In contrast to the military’s top-down approach, civilian academics develop their curriculum from the bottom up. Next to tenure decisions, the most vitriolic fights are over curriculum because everybody wants to protect his or her intellectual turf and methodological approach. Deans are weak, so to keep the peace no one makes choices. Individual professors are given so much control over what they teach that they tend toward narrow, niche topics in their areas of research, avoiding broad overviews that help students put things in context. With this “let 100 flowers bloom” approach, the curriculum can become a laundry list of disjointed courses. Students love it, faculty love it. Who could argue with freedom of choice? But not everyone chooses wisely. Instead of a well-rounded education that prepares them for strategic leadership, students emerge with an unbalanced, grab-bag education that is less than the sum of its parts. Many civilian graduates have depth, but little breadth.

So PME institutions build the curriculum according to what the military wants, and civilian universities build it according to what the professors want. Neither is perfect.

On balance, I find it easier to strive toward what the country needs in civilian academe. Senior civilian faculty have tenure and the freedom to do the right thing. I’m not arguing that they always do so (!), but there are pockets of excellence led by tenured faculty at private universities – such as Dick Betts at Columbia University, Eliot Cohen at Johns Hopkins/SAIS, and Hew Strachan at Oxford University. And wise civilian programs hire outstanding former military officers – such as War on the Rocks’ Dave Maxwell (at Georgetown) and Tom Keaney (at SAIS) – to build overall strength and balance. Since leaving the National Defense University in 2011, I have been working to create a comparable public graduate program at George Mason University.

Teachers and Teaching

The common view is that PME teaching is better. I did indeed find more teamwork, lesson integration, and organized attention to pedagogy there. But most civilian professors care deeply about their teaching – they’re just not recognized or rewarded for it. I believe there are equal numbers of folks who teach well in each.

Admittedly research and publication are the coins of the realm in civilian academe. Good teachers who receive high student ratings are suspected of lowering their standards so as to be “popular.” And yes, I have known some ambitious professors who consider poor teaching a mark of serious scholarship. These are the exceptions. The majority of my civilian colleagues take their teaching extremely seriously. The intellectual content of their syllabi and lectures is a source of pride. They spend countless hours helping students learn, staying on top of the literature, and revising their courses. Most who do top-quality research bring intellectual energy into the classroom, sparking a more creative, forward-looking learning experience. Many write the books from which they teach. When professors model the research and writing process, graduate students learn how to think instead of what to think.

PME institutions claim that they value good teaching above all, but partly due to how they are manned, this is not always true. At the National War College, at least, the philosophy is that anyone can quickly gear up to teach anything – subject matter expertise is optional. When I was there, some new faculty arrived with an anti-intellectual bias and turned their seminars into talk shops. Many had impressive operational backgrounds, but had never encountered the course material before being required to teach it. Their real world experience was invaluable and I admired them, but turning them into instant professors could be tough.

As the director of a major course, my job was to prepare the faculty first, then face the students. In 2009 when I introduced the study of Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, for example, the greatest challenge was not teaching the 250-or-so students who appeared in September (that was a joy); rather, it was preparing the 30-some faculty tasked to lead the seminars. My deputy and I tutored many individually over the summer. Some bore down, labored hard and took to the material. Working with them was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. But not all did. I’ll never forget when, after weeks of studying together, a new faculty member asked, “Does this mean I actually have to read it?”

Related, at the National War College at least, there is high faculty turnover, leading to strong resistance to change in the curriculum. Every year about a third of the faculty are new, another third has just mastered last year’s curriculum, and only the remaining third are longer term professional faculty (usually civilians or former military) who essentially tutor the rest. This is one reason why the current exodus of experienced civilian faculty is alarming.

So, teaching at both civilian universities and PME institutions varies enormously. The key variables are not whether the instructor is in PME or civilian academe, but whether he or she is qualified in the subject, energetic, hard working, and dedicated to teaching the material.

Students and Studying

The student populations of PME institutions and civilian graduate programs are a key area of contrast. Most students at the National War College are ambitious, hand-selected leaders with impressive records and a high likelihood of promotion to higher ranks. The rich networking opportunity is an important benefit of attending a war college. My civilian Masters’ students are typically younger and junior to those I taught at the National War College, although some of my Ph.D. candidates have similar age, rank, qualifications and experience.

There is a high caliber of students in PME, but the degree to which they actually spend the year studying varies. For good or ill, PME is sometimes a place to stash students needing to recover, not learn. For example, the first year I was on the faculty of the National War College, a very senior general officer opened the academic year by telling the class to spend it on rest and recuperation, and if this meant improving their golf game, so be it. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was always strong tension between serious academic study and taking a break from military operations.

But the problem is not just a by-product of the high pace of operations in the wars. In building a student body, the National Defense University is supposed to reflect the range of people involved in strategic decision-making. Unlike venerated Service-specific institutions like the Naval War College in Newport, whose jointness is more like accepting exchange students into the Naval Academy, the National Defense University is supposed to equally integrate all of the services as well as the military-civilian interagency process – even as its funding is from the military. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review directed the National Defense University to become the nation’s “National Security University.” It further directed that,

Participation from interagency partners will be increased and the curriculum will be reshaped in ways that are consistent with a unified U.S. government approach to national security missions, and greater interagency participation will be encouraged.

So we broadened the range of agencies from which we drew students. In addition to the four services, I taught folks from Customs and Border Protection, the Secret Service, all of the intelligence agencies, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard, the Congressional Research Service and the State Department. We also expanded the “non-military” aspects of national security in the curriculum, and increased the number of civilian-agency representatives on the faculty.

This is being reversed with an emphasis on military leadership and the Army version of military art, along with sharp funding cutbacks. No major government institution emphasizes a whole-of-government approach to national security decision-making now. Americans may believe in civilian control of the military, but in practice, U.S. civilians are disadvantaged in interacting with, understanding, and holding their own in civil-military decision-making. As Janine Davidson has brilliantly pointed out, at the highest levels, civilian leadership and military advisors have different expectations, cultures, organizations, processes, and even languages. When civilian leaders make decisions to use (or not use) force, a lack of strong strategic education hurts the military even more. Everyone loses.

That is why I am teaching in civilian academe now. I miss my war college students and colleagues tremendously; they remain my closest friends, with deep bonds forged through field studies adventures to dodgy places and a legacy of teamwork that most civilian academics cannot imagine. I support the war colleges and do not advocate replacing them with civilian programs. However, PME is inherently focused on preparing military officers, not laying a foundation for great U.S. strategy with equally strong civilian strategic thinkers. And while I borrow some of the curriculum I developed and used at the National War College, at a civilian university, I can push students harder than I could in PME. I have a lot of former and current military graduate students in my classrooms now, alongside civilians. I enjoy watching the civil-military dialogue go equally both ways, with military folks forced to broaden their intellectual horizons and navigate the new civilian academic playing field, even as civilians gain an appreciation for military service and build respect for what it means to send people into harm’s way. Both sides benefit.

Actually if I ran the world, I wouldn’t choose between the two at all – I’d build an institution that combines the best attributes of both. I’d pull together the selfless loyalty, discipline, devotion to service, and teamwork of PME along with the academic freedom, rigor, respect for scholarship, and job security of civilian academe. Then I’d recruit the best military and civilian faculty and students I could find to run and participate in it. Failing that, civilian academe provides greater scope to prepare future strategic thinkers to make the vital decisions that affect us all. That’s what a great National Security University could be if someone took strategic education seriously.


Audrey Kurth Cronin is Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University and Senior Research Associate at the Changing Character of War program, Oxford University.


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