Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Over at Small Wars Journal, Benjamin Kohlmann wrote an interesting piece “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers.” I especially agree on creative thinking rather than doctrine and diversifying military education. However, the author himself is too focused on business and technological innovation as in “look-I-made-a-cool-new-widget.” Frankly, a lot of people from diverse business and technology backgrounds have done a great job of “fucking up” (to borrow a Boydian phrase) not only the Pentagon but all elements of American society. Moreover, the author is too wrapped up in the “new” and the “now” as this moment of progress when it may be quite the opposite.

Business and technology does not have a monopoly on instilling creativity; in fact, they may be antithetical to it. The mention of Steve Jobs made me chuckle a little, because he was the champion of closed systems. Mac OS X is a great operating system with a lot of virtues, but it was built on the backs of open source projects and is largely proprietary. iTunes is a great media program, but it is built to make you dependent on Apple products and formats. Is AAC the best audio codec? I don’t know, but everyone uses it because Apple has fostered that dependence. The various iPods, iPhones, and now iPad are great devices, but they too are designed channel its users to proprietary services and products. The production of these widgets might be “creative,” but they follow a model that stifles creativity and choice. Why did Jobs advocate this model? To sell more widgets, not enable people. That is how Apple became a billion-dollar enterprise, and I do not think it is a model defense should emulate.

Being creative isn’t a matter of using some new gadget how Steve Jobs wanted you to use it, but taking the device and using it in creative ways. That is the origin of word “hacker”–taking a device and doing more with it than its creators intended. When I think of this kind of creativity, I think more of people like Steve Kondik who, with a team of like-minded individuals, developed a version of Android called CyanogenMod, which is intended not to sell more widgets but to overcome the limitations placed on existing Android phones by hardware manufacturers and carriers.

This mindset has direct applicability to defense. We are so wrapped up in this idea of the “new widget” whether it is an idea or a product that will win our wars; we seek to “understand the moment” as the author says. We have bought into this concept that there is this historical and technological progress that we are better now than we were, which is completely false. Case in point: the 2002 Millennium Challenge. LTG Van Riper creatively used “obsolete” tactics and techniques to overcome the whizbangery of high dollar, high technology systems. He took “old” TTP and used it in a way not imagined by their creators–to subvert high-tech surveillance. Ultimately, the vulnerability he exploited to win was the thinking of technocrats (many from business and technology backgrounds) who bought into the “new widget” rather than using widgets creatively. (As an aside, there is a great interview of LTG Van Riper over at Midrats.)

The fact that the author is so convinced that today’s digital natives have the solutions tells me he should do a better job of challenging his assumptions. No one should fool themselves into thinking that, because he or she understands the latest technology, he or she will be any less prone to repeating the poor decision making of the past. Trust me: tomorrow’s catastrophes–financial, military, or otherwise–will be brought to you by the digital natives of today.


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As I bury myself in writing chapters and looking for jobs, I have not had much time to keep up with the blog circuit. However, I finally got around to this interview with LTG Paul Van Riper, USMC (Ret.), on Midrats–and it is awesome. There is a good amount of time devoted to John Boyd, media-military relations, and the learning culture of the military, but the most fascinating bit for me was a discussion of training infantry in the same way combat aviators are trained a la “Top Gun” and the like. Small arms training has been an interest of mine for a long time, and the feedback I have gotten from those who know much more about the topic than I do is that the military needs to spend more time training the basics and training them in line with current best practices. This is much more important than worrying about the latest, whiz-bang SALW system whether we are talking the faux-revolutionary XM25 or the endless string of M16/M4 replacements that get proposed every year.  At any rate, go listen to that interview.  There is something for everyone.

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Small Wars Journal published a short piece I wrote on selecting texts for a counterinsurgency course and the lessons we draw from them:

In “Teaching COIN to a (Mostly) Non-Practitioner Audience,” Dr. Robert Farley discussed his experiences teaching a class on counterinsurgency at the Masters level.  His intent is to give would-be instructors “a sense of the promise and possibilities of a Counter-Insurgency course.”  Nearly ten years into the United States’ multiple interventions following 9/11, the promise and possibilities of such a course should be self-evident to those who have devoted themselves to the serious study of counterinsurgency across the diverse practical and philosophical spectrum of its proponents and critics.  What remains are some serious questions that have been left unexplored in regards to the pragmatic and canonical choices in teaching counterinsurgency to practitioner and non-practitioner alike.

What is the value of teaching counterinsurgency—especially to non-practitioners?  According to Farley, knowledge of counterinsurgency will “help them get jobs and (more importantly) excel at the jobs they got.”  With troop levels declining abroad and a rash of civilian hiring freezes in federal agencies and departments, these good intentions may be two or three years too late.  Moreover, the value of counterinsurgency expertise may be flagging if history repeats itself.  Few would dispute Rupert Smith’s contention that the wars of the future will be “amongst the people,” but the shadow of budget cuts will likely mean the Obama Administration will look to more limited and indirect options than the costly, time-intensive counterinsurgency proposed by some.  Better advice to students might be to adapt that experience into a broader specialty less sullied in the strategic and political debates of the last decade such as “irregular warfare.”

Read more at the Small Wars Journal blog.

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This semester, I have been teaching a survey of American Literature course at the University of Florida titled “Narratives of War, 1865-present.” (For the initial draft of my syllabus, see this post. I have changed it since then.)

We began the class with Walt Whitman’s Civil War poetry such as “The Wound-Dresser,” Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, and Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Each has had its unique teaching moments. With Whitman, it was the complex emotions towards war ranging from near-jingoistic patriotism to his profound sympathy for those wounded and killed on both sides of the conflict. Crane gave us a chance to explore the trauma and transformation of a young soldier whose expectations more closely resembled the fantasies of 300 than the realities of the Civil War. Then, we read Bierce’s short story as the last moments of–to borrow Kilcullen’s phrase–“an accidental guerrilla.”

On the anniversary of the September 11th Attacks, we moved forward in time and for the first time addressed a conflict that all my students had experienced in one way or another. Indeed, I underestimated the extent of their experience. Most were only 11 or 12 when these attacks occurred, so I thought it would be necessary to remind them how scared we all were on that day. However, they too had been afraid. Those who had had been living near or on military installations repeated the same thing: “we thought we would be next.” Some teachers had sheltered them from the coverage, because they had family members who might be at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, or otherwise involved. However, there was sense among almost all of them that something was wrong. Many parents came to get their children and took them home. As I look back at that day now, it was not merely fear that motivated these parents. There was a collective reaching out to friends and family on that day and afterward that was made more palpable in light of those on the hijacked airliners and in the World Trade Center and Pentagon who were forever lost to their loved ones.

Over the summer, I struggled with what would be the most appropriate commemoration of that terrible day and those who died and settled on Paul Greengrass’ 2006 film United 93. As always, a memorial–film or otherwise–is a painful thing. Some students cried watching the film; others were demonstrably moved in class. I lectured more than wanted, which was more difficult than I expected. This film’s teaching moments had even higher stakes than the other cultural works we have studied so far. We discussed the ethical and artistic choices that Greengrass made in representing the hijackers and their victims. It was necessary to explain so much: the cultural and religious forces driving Al Qaeda, the history of Western intervention in the Middle East, and tragic ignorance of pre-9/11 America. Moreover, the class reopened a wound of my own–much less of a wound than so many but a wound nevertheless–and I found it difficult to focus.

Throughout it all, students wanted to understand how and why this could happen. There were the inevitable questions: “How could the terrorists bring knives aboard?” and “Why didn’t someone try to stop them before 9/11?” Regardless of question, no explanation was adequate.

If today’s class was any indication, it will be members of this generation who are the harshest critic of our failure to stop the attacks. It is not that they have forgotten. They were afraid. They were most vulnerable. Most importantly, they were just old enough to remember yet young enough to believe that they had been safe.

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Jeff Withington, posting at the US Naval Institute blog, shared an email exchange he had with Admiral Jim Stavridis on the value of an English major and the impact it has had on his life.  Admiral Stavridis also recommends a “must-read” list for midshipmen before receiving their commission. Well, I have one-upped the admiral.  In the fall, I will be offering an American literature course entitled “Survey of American Literature: Narratives of War, 1865-Present.”  You don’t even have to be a midshipman or an English major–only a student at the University of Florida.

“Narratives of War” will focus on novels, short stories, films, and memoir that deal with aspects of armed conflict since the end of the Civil War.  The course will encourage students to think critically about an number of issues including but not limited to post-traumatic stress disorder, women in the military, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” Arab-Americans after 9/11, Revolution in Military Affairs, and counterinsurgency.

My inspiration for the course was John Nagl’s characterization of American military culture as one of survival in the face of existential threats. That culture of survival permeates all of American culture including the struggles facing various waves of immigration, the GLBT community, and Arab Americans post-9/11. As diverse as America itself, our military faces many of these same challenges.

There are no shortage of texts, so it is inevitable that I will miss some here or there. My goal was to cover a wide swath of historical periods and genres. There may be some changes, but here it is as it stands today:

Week 1
Monday (8/24): Course overview and introductions; reading journal explained

Wednesday (8/26): American Civil War; Walt Whitman, selected poems

Friday (8/28): Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1-75)

Week 2
Monday (8/31): Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (76-152)

Wednesday (9/2): selection, Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “A Son of the Gods,” “One Officer, One Man,” and “One of the Missing” (Available at The Ambrose Bierce Project, http://www.ambrosebierce.org/works.html)

Friday (9/4): Spanish-American War; Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden” [Available at http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_2/kipling.html%5D; Mark Twain, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” [Available at http://www.logosjournal.com/issue_4.3/twain.htm%5D

Week 3
Monday (9/7): No class

Wednesday (9/9): Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat” [Available at http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/CraOpen.html%5D

Friday (9/11): September 11th; Flight 93, directed by Peter Markle (in-class screening)

Week 4
Monday (9/14): 9/11 and Arab Americans; Randa Jarrar, “Lost in Freakin’ Yonkers” and “A Frame for the Sky” (course packet)

Wednesday (9/16): Introduction to Research Writing: Asking Questions and Finding Answers; Group Activity on Topics, Questions, and Problems

Friday (9/18): World War I; selection, Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (3 – 35) [course packet]

Week 5
Monday (9/21): Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (36 – 74) [course packet]

Wednesday (9/23): Ernest Hemingway, “Soldier’s Home”

Friday (9/25): Research Writing, continued: Sources and Citation

Week 6
Monday (9/28): World War II; Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (part 1)

Wednesday (9/30): Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (part 2)

Friday (10/2): Research Writing, continued: Claims and Support; for class discussion, watch the following WWII Disney Propaganda films: “The Spirit of ’43” [Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqMVpcbhpqw%5D, “Der Fuerher’s Face” [Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZiRiIpZVF4%5D, “Commando Duck” [Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H81Nna8fo5g%5D

Week 7
Monday (10/5): Vietnam War; selection, Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

Wednesday (10/7): selected poems, Yusef Komunyakaa

Friday (10/9): Revolution in Military Affairs; selected military technology articles; Donald Rumsfeld, “Secretary Rumsfeld Speaks on ‘21st Century Transformation’ of U.S. Armed Forces,” US Department of Defense, January 31, 2002 [Available at http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=183%5D; John Nagl’s and Frederick Kagan’s responses in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife [e-reserve] and Finding The Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy [e-reserve]

Week 8
Monday (10/12): Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers (1-75)

Wednesday (10/14): Heinlein, Starship Troopers (75-150)

Friday (10/16): No class

Week 9
Monday (10/19): Heinlein, Starship Troopers (150-225)

Wednesday (10/21): Heinlein, Starship Troopers (225-272)

Friday (10/23): 1991 Gulf War; Jean Baudrillard, “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” Jarhead [in-class screening]; Reading Response Paper due

Week 10
Monday (10/26): Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; selection, Gabe Hudson, Dear Mr. President; James J. Lindsay, Jerome Johnson, E.G. “Buck” Shuler Jr. and Joseph J. Went, “Gays and The Military: A Bad Fit,” The Washington Post, 15 April 2009, A19; Andrew Exum, “DADT and the Age Gap,” Abu Muqawama

Wednesday (10/28): The War in Afghanistan and the 2003 Iraq War; Colby Buzzell, My War: Killing Time in Iraq (1-75)

Friday (10/30): Buzzell, My War: Killing Time in Iraq (75-150)

Week 11
Monday (11/2): Buzzell, My War: Killing Time in Iraq (150-225)

Wednesday (11/4): Buzzell, My War: Killing Time in Iraq (225-300)

Friday (11/6): Buzzell, My War: Killing Time in Iraq (300-368)

Week 12
Monday (11/9): Women in the Military; Kayla Williams, Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army (1-75)

Wednesday (11/11): No class

Friday (11/13): Williams, Love My Rifle More Than You (75-150)

Week 13
Monday (11/16): Williams, Love My Rifle More Than You (150-225)

Wednesday (11/18):Williams, Love My Rifle More Than You (225-300)

Friday (11/20): Williams, Love My Rifle More Than You (300-320)

Week 14
Monday (11/23): Counterinsurgency; Spenser Ackerman, “Women Prominent in Defense Movement (Seventh in a Series: The Rise of the Counterinsurgents),” The Washington Independent; Research Paper (First Draft) due

Wednesday (11/25): Montgomery McFate, “The Military Utility of Understanding Adversary Culture”; Roberto J. González, “Towards mercenary anthropology? The new US Army counterinsurgency manual FM 3-24 and the military-anthropology complex”; Montgomery McFate, “Building Bridges or Burning Heretics?”

Friday (11/27): No class

Week 15
Monday (11/30): No class; student conferences (required)

Wednesday (12/2): No class; student conferences (required)

Friday (12/4): No class; student conferences (required)

Week 16:
Monday (12/7): Unmanned Systems; Sig Christenson, “Air Force looks to keep more pilots grounded,” MySA.com; David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum, “Death from above, outrage from below,” Eagle Eye, directed by DJ Caruso [in-class screening]

Wednesday (12/9): Conclusion; Research Paper (Final Draft) due

I will be interested to hear your feedback on the syllabus. If you are a student at UF, the course is AML2070: Section 1625. I would welcome any cadets or midshipmen from the ROTC program.

I may require a blogging component to students’ reading journal, because I am sure students will have some great perspectives not only on the works themselves but also the issues we will cover together.

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Recently, I had the chance to read Martin Evans’ Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics for the first time. One of the things that struck me most was  it struck me how education (specifically, the philosophies of education) was a marked fissure in the rise of the Taliban. According to Evan’s account, a divide opened up between those who received a secular education from institutions such as the Law Faculty of Kabul University and members of the Taliban who have their roots in Deobandi madrassas. As Evans writes, “[i]t is not merely the ethnic or tribal divide that separates the Taliban from such ‘Islamists’ as Rabbani, Hekmatyar and Massoud, but also the fact that the latter were educated in ‘modern’, rather than ‘traditional’, educational institutions” (204-205).

As I thought about it more, I began to see education as a significant thread throughout the Long War.  Indeed, the theory and doctrine of counterinsurgency is intertwined with the notion of education. COIN, so says FM3-24, “is not just thinking man’s warfare—it is the graduate level of war.” More important, it is a difficult, ongoing, and perhaps impossible education. One of the most widely read books on the subject, John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam says so much in its title, borrowed from the writings of COIN icon T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence himself was a practicing archeologist before he found his way into the Arab Revolt to promote British interests. He was a warrior-intellectual in a time when, as documented by Fussell and others, British commanders’ lack of creativity lead to the needless slaughter of tens of thousands.

As embodied by the likes of General David Petraeus, the warrior-intellectual is the new vogue. Among them is Craig Mullaney, author The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education.  On his website, he remarks on the difficulties of educating counterinsurgents:

The ideal soldier would be a micro-financier with a doctorate in anthropology, speak Dari and Pashto, be an expert marksman, and have served as a mayor in a farming community. The military doesn’t have the resources or time to produce this bionic counterinsurgent, but it can do a better job educating soldiers so that they’re faster at learning and adapting in unfamiliar environments. We do a great job of making sure units have the weapons they need to fight, but in a counterinsurgency, often the best weapons don’t shoot. The challenge is to fertilize units with the right mix of additional specialties so that they’ve got the right “weapons” for this kind of fight.

Indeed, this fact that the best weapon does not shoot complicates the the education of the soldier who must yet rely on weapons that do shoot. As Dave Grossman wrote in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, overcoming the resistance to killing involves a number of factors including the creation of cultural distance between the warfighter and the enemy. At the same time, counterinsurgents promote collapsing that distance through ever-greater cultural awareness.

The way we think about education our fighting men and women has been challenged in a number of other ways.  Tom Ricks has opened the debate on the closing of the military academies. Others like Gian Gentile have argued against the increasingly dominant position of COIN, making the case manuals such as FM3-24 have divorced the actual fighting of war from doctrine. Others still debate our focus on training for counterinsurgencies and whether it has diminished our capacity to fight conventional “peer competitors” and hybrid threats.

This is by no means an exhaustive list how education plays a role in our current conflicts, but I intend to follow this thread again in the future.

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