Who’s Afraid of Montgomery, Alabama? Tom Ricks it seems …


Tom Ricks is a well-respected defense correspondent, having worked for both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, and is now a Senior Fellow at the groovy DC think-tank, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He also has a popular blog called Best Defense that is published by ForeignPolicy.com, and it is some recent postings here, here, here, here, and especially here by Ricks and a guest or two about Air War College and SAASS that gave me cause to 'register my complaint on the Internet'.

The correspondence – as such – between Ricks and I, and others, can be found here, but the following are the more relevant extracts:

Enough is enough

Rick Andres is a former colleague of mine at the School of Advanced Air & Space Studies (SAASS). I still work at SAASS and find a number of his assertions in this post do not jive with the recollections of a number of his erstwhile colleagues.

This, however, is besides the point. I am more disturbed at the fact that what began as an eminently arguable excoriation of the Air War College has somehow morphed into unfounded condemnation of Air University as a whole and other schools, such as SAASS, here at Maxwell AFB that are entirely unconnected to the Air War College. I do not work at AWC so I am unable to provide informed commentary about the veracity of Dr. Hughes' claims in his now (in)famous chapter. I have met Dan Hughes, however, on a number of occasions and found him to be an irrascible, if eccentric, colleague. But hey, we're all human. It should cause followers of this AWC thread pause, however, to consider that both Dan and Rick were happy to take Uncle Sam's dime for many years here – indeed Rick still does given that he now works at NDU – before throwing rocks at the institutions they served for so long from afar.

In defense of SAASS, I will say this in response to Rick: we have mandatory courses on irregular war, cyberspace, space and national security, and campaign planning, as well as the foundational courses on strategic thought, military theory (and not just airpower), and military history. All of our students must complete these courses – an intense experience consisting of literally a book-a-day, 3,000 word essays at the end of each course, a Master's level thesis and a two hour oral comprehensive exam in order to graduate. Where most Master's courses of this calibre are of 18 month duration, we expect our students to complete this comparable degree in 11 months. General Officers from all services beat down the door here to recruit our graduates whose intellectual acumen stands head and shoulders above their counterparts from sister services, allies, and even a large number of supposedly reputable civilian schools.

To imply that we are not 'current' or concerned about our current wars is not only a fallacy, it is an insult to the countless graduates, and faculty members here, who have left the relative comforts of SAASS to do arduous deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond. Reports from the AOR consisitently laud our graduates and faculty for their exceptional contributions to the fight – exceptional contributions that were honed here at SAASS. Furthermore, every year we send 2-3 of our graduates to do a faculty-development Ph.D. at a civilian institution, mostly Ivy League schools, as well as places like the University of Chicago, Georgetown, and the like. In short, our graduates – and I'll come out with it, our faculty – are hardly out-of-touch intellectual slouches.

Before working in PME I also worked at civilian institutions. Each have their unique foibles and drawbacks, and each requires certain compromises in order to survive and indeed thrive. I have found that my time at SAASS to be the most intellectually and professionally rewarding experience of my life.

Lastly, I'd like to throw down the gauntlet to Tom Ricks. We'd love for you to come down and visit AU and find out for yourself exactly what it is we do here. Speaking for SAASS, we have nothing to hide and believe that many of the misconceptions, and at times disingenuous claims made in this thread, will be dispelled if you were to spend a couple of days with us.

Are you up for it?

John B. Sheldon, Ph.D.
School of Advanced Air & Space Studies
Maxwell AFB, Alabama

Tom Ricks replied:


Dr. Sheldon,

Thank you for the invitation. As I've noted before, I have visited the Air War College and Maxwell AFB several times, though I admit not recently.

As long as you are asking, though, I've been underwhelmed by the professional journals put out down there.


To which I replied:



I don't recall referencing AU professional journals in my comment, and the fact that you're underwhelmed by them seems insufficient reason to turn down a genuine invitation to visit.

You admit that it has been some time since you lasted visited Maxwell AFB, yet you have been vocal in your assertions that several institutions here be immediately shut down for not being, in your opinion, up to snuff. Besides, to the best of my knowledge, you have not visited SAASS.

Some might find such a stance a shallow one if you're not prepared to check the facts on the ground personally rather than rely on hearsay from widely regarded disgruntled ex-employees – especially when you have a genuine invitation to come visit.

In light of that, how can we take seriously the claims by you and others that AWC and the rest should be shut down?



After some further prompting from other commentators, Ricks replied:

Ok, I'm game

What do you think I might see if I spent two days hauling back and forth from here to Montgomery, Alabama, that I didn't see when I was down there when Col. Warden was there?

To which I replied:

AU Visit


I know – not think – that you will see dedicated professionals of the highest calibre educating great officers and giving them the intellectual faculties they need to make exceptional contributions to the fight. You'll also see that a good number of us have the intellectual and experiential credibility to do the job.

You'll see that the tax payer gets good value for money here and that the nation benefits from our exceptional graduates.

You'll also see something you did not see on your visits in the days of Colonel Warden – you'll see SAASS, and I know you will be greatly impressed by it.

And you might as well take up Maj. Gen. Kane's offer to pop by the Air War College while you're down here.

Dinner will be on me.

If you're serious let me know the best way of contacting you and we can make the arrangements.



And there the matter rested for several hours, and a number of us actually became excited at the prospect that Ricks might actually come down to visit and see for himself the good work we do here. However, a few hours later Ricks posted:

JOHNBSHELDON, here's a compromise

OK. Put aside SAASS for the moment. There have been many comments to the various posts on AWC from people with experience saying in various ways that their academic experience was less than rigorous. They spent (or distance-learned) much more time than I would spend there.

Here's an interim compromise, not unlike what I did recently with the Naval War College Review recently. (at http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/04/07/the_naval_war_college_review_why_tom_s_harsh_assessment_is_off_target

Could you post links to, say, the best 10 articles or papers to come out of Air University in the last couple of years?


Oh dear, how disappointing. It also left a number of us scratching our heads wondering 'how is this a compromise?' The next morning someone going by the monicker of Iggy1962 posted:

Generalizations & Misinformation – its time to walk the ground

The author made a generalization that may give the reader an incorrect perspecitve on the war college. You'll note that his bio states that he taught at the School of Advanced Airpower Studies (SASS). Although this school is a component of Air University, it is not the Air War College. The challenges in each school should not be confused in any way, as these are two separate schools that, in my five years experience, have no interaction. It should also be noted from his bio that Mr Andres' views are more than three years out of date and formed from hearsay during his employment experience at a different school.

I would like to say that the comments concerning Air War College avoiding debates on the current conflicts are unfounded. Iraq, Lebanon 2006, and Afghanistan are all taught, discussed, and debated at length during a typical academic year and have been for my entire time at the war college. The challenge we face in teaching these topics is a lack of scholarly publications – credible articles and books tend to take a years of research, review and publication before being available (and yes we do consider Mr. Ricks' books in our curriculum). In the interim we teach the topics using whatever writings we can find. I would also like to note that teaching the current conflicts is enhanced by the military student and facultys' recent experiences in the combat zones – something that institution-based academics are unable to provide.

Mr. Ricks, you seem to be very critical of the war colleges, but I must note that your opinions are enhanced through the words of disgruntled and former employees who seem to very much enjoy grinding their axes. I must also note that you indicated in a previous response that you've visited the Air War College; however, your visit must have occured prior to my five year tenure. Perhaps you're knowledge has become stale throught the many years since your last visit and the taintings of others. I would suggest that it is time for you to come and see what we really do at Maxwell AFB.

To which Ricks replied:

Iggy, how about some articles?

Maxwell is a long haul. So far, I haven't seen a reason to make it.

I would like to see a list of worthwhile articles.

I'd also like to see something besides attacks on the critics, like an attempt to rebut their criticisms.


An interesting reply. Ricks claims that he has yet to see a good reason to make the 'long haul' to Maxwell AFB, nor has he seen a reason to make it. A strange comment since he seems to have every reason to shut down Air War College despite not having visited it 'recently'.

At this point I replied:

Getting to Montgomery is hardly like getting to Afghanistan


I echo Iggy's call for you to come visit.

While we're more than happy to send you a list of worthwhile readings, frankly it's not for us to prove our worth to you, it's for you to justify to us toiling away down here at Maxwell AFB your calls to shut down Air War College and the other schools, as well as justify the diatribes of those who you have been cheerleading.

You call for a compromise, yet I and many others here fail to see how such a compromise would benefit us. A good colleague of mine reliably informs me that your last visit to Maxwell AFB was in 1995 – 16 years!!! A lot has changed here since then – a whole generation's worth of change, yet you seem utterly uninterested in seeing for yourself these changes and seem content to be an armchair critic from afar.

Also, your claim that a trip to Montgomery, Alabama, is a 'haul' doesn't wash, especially for a man who has made real hauls to Afghanistan and Iraq. Not including a relatively short layover at Charlotte, Memphis, or Atlanta (depending on which airline you fly), it takes little over 2 hours to fly from the DC area to Montgomery, Alabama. We have running water, electricity, and even internet connections too, so your every comfort would be assured.

I'll put together the best of student research over the past ten years from Air War College, Air Command and Staff College, and SAASS, for you and your readers. Doubtless a good number of you will find something to gripe about but we are more than confident in their quality and relevancy.

In the meantime, however, your stock at Maxwell AFB isn't doing that well. Perhaps you don't care, and if so the loss is entirely yours.

That said, let me know if you change your mind and we'll be more than happy to make the arrangements for your visit.



And there, as of the writing of this post, the matter has rested. Ricks' silence has been deafening and something tells me that his silly campaign to shut down the Air War College will die the quiet death it deserves.

But the whole sorry episode does beg this question: for a man who has reported on the horrors of combat in so many different wars, why is Tom Ricks afraid to visit Montgomery, Alabama?


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Filed under Air War College, Professional Military Education, School of Advanced Air & Space Studies, Tom Ricks

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