"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Religion, PME, and Punishment - ACSC/DL

I am nearly complete with the Air Command and Staff College Distance Learning program. I think the program's concept is very good and has a great deal of potential. Recently Tom Ricks wrote an article in the Washington Post suggesting that certain PME should be closed down (Air War College specifically) because it serves to merely reinforce assumptions rather than challenge perspectives (Ricks, 2009). Unfortunately, I think his comments are validated by recent experience with the ACSC/DL program although I think it can be reformed rather than closed.

In an ACSC/DL "Cultural Studies" course it became apparent to me that my view--that American religiosity was putting at risk our objectives in the Middle East--was not appreciated by the course instructor. I noticed strong evidence of punitive grading. At the midpoint of the course I began to question the instructor in private about grading practices and standards that were confusing me and other students. This prompted unprofessional public action by the instructor who did not appreciate my feedback. In fact he told me not to coordinate with other students on the issue stating that he had checked with ACSC/DL leadership and they all agreed we should be focusing our time on the final essay (ACSC/DL leadership later stated this was incorrect and they were not informed of the issue by the instructor). I filed a complaint against the instructor which was supported by six other field grade officers in the course and which prompted a separate complaint from another officer. ACSC/DL leadership agreed the actions of the instructor were inappropriate and said that action was being taken. They would not provide detail.

At the end of the course the instructor gave me a poor grade on my final essay which resulted in me getting the lowest course grade of my nine course experience. My discussion of religion was cited in the feedback to my final essay. While I can't go into detail about the topic of the essay it was made consistently clear that my academic views on the topic were not appreciated. While my essay may certainly have merited the grade assigned, the feedback from the instructor was, in my opinion, lacking. More importantly the grading rubric directed by the assignment wasn't used or provided to justify the given grade. I filed a grade appeal in accordance with ACSC/DL Student Handbook guidelines.

My grade appeal was limited to two pages and resulted in three faculty members re-grading my essay and all finding it worthy of a significantly lower grade. ACSC/DL leadership said the process should result in me getting the lower grade but because of the issues with the instructor they would allow me to keep the original grade. The feedback provided did not include the rubric directed by the assignment though I was informed the rubric was used by the re-graders. The feedback provided by the re-graders was short on examples and wrong in several parts. It also emphasized my discussion of religion was problematic. I again asked ACSC/DL to provide the rubric for the assignment so I could see where points has been taken and for what. This prompted a call from the Dean of ACSC/DL. He was angry that I was not satisfied with the process, told me I would not get the rubrics used in the grading, and asked for the name of my commander. I gave him the name and asked if he intended to call my commander for following an established ACSC/DL grade appeal process. He said he just wanted to have the name close by. I told him I would follow the Student Handbook process and file a second grade appeal.

The second grade appeal did not carry the page limitation so I spent a three day weekend compiling a 39 page document detailing the punitive environment fostered by the instructor to include punitive grading and the supporting comments of several other field grade officers. I detailed the limitations of the feedback I had received and further emphasized a desire for the rubric directed by the assignment to show where points were taken from my essay.

The result of the second grade appeal was a simple notification that my grade would not change and, not only would the directed rubric not be provided, but I would get no further written feedback on my essay.

I can't prove I was punished for my academic view of the religious cultural factor but there is certainly some evidence to support this. Another student in the class said he felt I was brave to have discussed the religious cultural factor as I did on an Air Force associated website due to his experience of excessive entanglement in the service. A different student shared that he thought my problems with the instructor started with our discussion on the religious cultural factor from the first discussion. While I can't prove I was punished for my academic perspective on religion's importance to warfare there is no doubt I was punished. It may have been for my viewpoint. It may have been because I dared to provide feedback. Or it may have been a combination of those two reasons.

I'll conclude by saying that my grade may certainly have been deserved. My essay was far from perfect. But the way the process was handled detracted from the credibility of the process. I am of the opinion, however, that my perspective on religion's importance in counter-insurgency was at the heart of the issue with the instructor. As one of the most combat-experienced pilots in the Air Force, with a degree in religion to boot, I would have figured my perspective would have been more welcomed. Especially given the increasing frequency of military religious entanglement issues reported in the media and the import of President Obama's recent speeches in the Middle East.

Source Cited:

Ricks, Tom Why We Should Get Rid of West Point, The Washington Post, 19 April 2009.


  1. "As one of the most combat-experienced pilots in the Air Force, with a degree in religion to boot, I would have figured my perspective would have been more welcomed."

    Ignoring for a moment the factual basis of your level of combat experience vice the rest of the Air Force, I fail to see the relevance - specifically in a 'Cultural Studies' course. I'll go out on a limb and say that I have a rough understanding of the scope of your experience in the AOR. Given that, how exactly do those 1000+ hours relate to an understanding of the role of religion in a counter-insurgency?

  2. How is my combat experience relevant to an understanding of the role of religion in a counter-insurgency. That's a good question.

    My combat time was steeped in counter-insurgency operations (more broadly it can be said that all of our efforts there are). In my opinion, that gives me some measure of credibility with counter-insurgency that many of my PME peers did not have but you are correct that it doesn't make me an expert on the role religion plays specifically. I do think the religious discussion is central to our counter insurgency operations so that experience does provide some bit of relevance to religion's role. That wasn't why I mentioned my combat time, however. I mentioned it because it should indicate that I am vested in the counter-insurgency effort. The outcome matters to me. While our leadership has thankfully taken the Air Force "all in" it seems to me that we still have sub-cultures that are not as vested as others. For example, the two-star F-15C pilot that briefed students and instructors in AETC, just before the former CSAF was fired, and called Iraq and Afghanistan "skirmishes" and said we should be focusing on the real war of the future. While that was prior to our new leadership I still hear the same message in the trenches. I mention my combat time to show that I am not one of those people. Be that as it may, it doesn't mean anything I say is right just because I'm vested. I do think, however, my views on counter-insurgency merit something more than a quick dismissal due to my experience.

    Add to that a religion degree and it seems to me my viewpoint should have been more welcomed on religion's role in counter-insurgency. Just my opinion. Again, it doesn't mean anything I say is correct.