War on the Rocks has just published a piece by Carrie Lee and Bill Lewis of the US Air War College entitled “Wargaming Has a Place, But is No Panacea for Professional Military Education.”
The school year is about to start, and not just for the kids. Senior-level professional military education is about to begin a new academic year, with new classes of students from across the services preparing to embark upon ten months of education that is meant to elevate their thinking from the operational and tactical to the strategic level. In the two years since the release of the National Defense Strategy (and the now-infamous paragraph that declared professional military education to be “stagnant”), a heated debate has emerged on the pages of this website about the best ways to accomplish the mission of professional military education. Suggestions for improvement have spanned the gamut, from teaching students to be good staffers to introducing diversity — both in the faculty and the curriculum — to improving the ways in which we assess strategic competency. Others have pushed back, pointing out that professional military education already is highly responsive to change and warning about the dangers of the “good idea fairy.” In April, James Lacy of the Marine War College proposed another solution: All professional military education institutions should include board game wargaming as a part of their curriculum.
While this recommendation may hold appeal with those who are explicitly focused on military history and operational art, Lacey’s proposal is both short-sighted and misses the importance of diversity in professional military education — both between service colleges and in the curriculum itself. There is little doubt that experiential learning can be a valuable part of any education, including professional military education. But it also comes in many forms, all of which have benefits and costs. If the mission of professional military education is to educate the next generation of senior leaders about the strategic level of war and expose them to the tools they will need to succeed at that level, then we must use a variety of methods across the service colleges, rather than defaulting to a series of one-size-fits-all solutions.
In order to best educate and prepare our students for this complex and challenging environment, a variety of tools are necessary, and “one size fits all” solutions may do more harm than good. There are many types of immersive programs that can be employed to achieve a broad range of learning objectives. We should strive to view our curriculum not as a checklist of required activities but instead as a wholistic educational experience.
Lee and Lewis are right, of course, that serious gaming is not some magic educational bullet. It takes times. Not all wargames are fit for educational purpose, even if they work well as hobby or analytical games. Academic schedules are crowded, and you can only do so much. There are many teaching techniques available. There is even overwhelming evidence that simulations, when used poorly, can do educational damage.
That being said, I’m not sure they really offer a great deal of guidance in what should be used when and in what ways, how this relates to other teaching techniques, and how we know we measure the effectiveness of all this.
Jim Lacey, who the authors critique as a point of departure, was quick to post a response to Facebook (reproduced here with permission):
Well it is not every day my approach to teaching strategic studies is called “shortsighted” by folks who apparently have no idea what I do. But, I suppose it is always an easy-out to set up a strawman – no matter how it departs from reality – as a foil to base an article upon .
In any event, it may have helped if you had read my earlier article on the topic
But in hopes of increasing your understanding of how we educate MCWAR students, please allow me to offer the following.. During the course of the year MCWAR students participate in a number of experiential events, including:
- Conducting several staff rides, including Yorktown, the Overland Campaign, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Normandy. – FYI, the students also go on a two week trip to either Europe and Asia to immerse themselves in current issues
- Engaging in multiple simulations (as you describe them). This includes participating in two multi-day geopolitical simulation at Tufts and Georgetown universities. Moreover, we employ a number of in-house simulations throughout a spectrum of historical, current, and future related topics.
- I would dare say we also employ a large number of models (as you describe them) throughout the year.
- When it comes to wargaming MCWAR employs the entire gamut: seminar games, matrix games, board games, computer assisted games, etc.
- Engage in a number of simulations and wargames based on future scenarios against China, Russia, and Iran, which feed directly into ongoing concept development and Title 10 wargames
- We also use boardgames, but they remain both a subset of our overall curriculum and a subset of our experiential learning program.
In any event, boardgames are never used in isolation. Let me give one example.
As part of our military history curriculum we examine the Civil War. The structure of that program breaks down as follows:
- The students are given a set of readings to finish before they enter the classroom
- They are then directed to a website I am developing, where they can listen to lectures from some of the best Civil War historians in the nation.
- They are also given CDs so that they can listen to other lectures in their cars
- Then, once they have absorbed this material, we conduct our seminar sessions. We only have two seminars at MCWAR…. So I break each of them into two parts and conduct a series of seminars with only 7-8 folks in each (as close to an Oxford tutorial as I can get).
- After all of this we conduct a board wargame. I run 3-4 wargames at the same time, so all of the students can fully participate. I have local community volunteers (long-time wargamers) sitting at each game to take care of the game mechanics, so that the students can focus on strategic decisions
- Then, when all of that is done, the class goes on their staff rides.
I am always looking for way to improve, and am hopeful that you can suggest ways I can do so.
In any event, I just wanted to clear the air and correct any misperceptions you and your co-author have as to how MCWAR sets-up its curriculum, as well as my approach to teaching and the use of wargames. Of course, a much of this could have been easily cleared-up with a phone call or an e-mail before you went to print. But, moving on… if there is anything I can do to assist your efforts to increase and enhance the use of modeling, simulations, and wargaming – or any other experiential learning methodology – at the Air War College, please do not hesitate to ask.
Thank you for your time and comments. I look forward to learning more about the Air Force conducts experiential learning.
This isn’t the first such debate. I’m not sure is should even be a debate, however. Rather, it points to the value of a common-sense “toolkit” approach to serious gaming. Wargames are tools. Sometimes they may be the best tool for the job. Sometimes there are better tools. Sometimes they are a pretty bad fit. Almost always, they need to be used in conjunction with other techniques.