“Dr. Bonin, Would You Like to Come In?”
by Michael E. Lynch, Ph.D. student
With these words, Dr. Gregory J.W. Urwin welcomed John Bonin, Temple’s newest Ph.D., into the club. Bonin defended his dissertation on March 2, 2006, in front of his committee: Dr. Urwin, Dr. Jay Lockenour, Dr. Richard Immerman, and Dr. Doug Johnson of the U.S. Army War College. Bonin’s dissertation is titled “Army Aviation Becomes an Essential Arm: From the Howze Board to Task Force Aviation, 1962 to 2004” and addresses the development of Army aviation doctrine from the early 1960s to the present. It describes the rise of aviation from a near novelty to the full employment of its capabilities in combat.
The committee invited students to sit in. Graduate students Brady King, Eric Klinek, Michael Dolski, Jason Smith, and Michael Lynch took advantage of the opportunity to see what lies ahead for those in the Ph.D. program. Comparing notes after the defense, both the candidate and his audience agreed that the defense did not seem as frightening as expected.
To Bonin’s fellow students, he appeared relaxed and firmly in command of the situation. The defense was conducted in the History Department’s Graduate Student Lounge, with the committee and the candidate sitting comfortably in a circle, which helped put the candidate at ease. The committee’s questions aimed to allow the candidate to discuss his dissertation, and to put it into a larger historical context.
Typical questions included:
- Where does this book fit on the historian’s shelf? What does it add to military historiography? Who is the primary audience and why?
- If you were told to cut the dissertation by one-third, what would you cut and why?
- Of the fifteen important issues in the dissertation, what are the six most important and why?
- How did military culture affect your topic? How significant was Army Aviation’s relationship with the Air Force?
- Who were the most important personalities involved?
- What did you leave out, and where does this go next?
- This is a military topic. Given the make-up of the committee, what applications does it have for diplomatic history? For European history?
As a retired Army officer and experienced educator, Dr. Bonin has briefed numerous senior officers and civilians. He was therefore not apprehensive about speaking in public. Facing the committee at the end of a ten-year process, however, was different. “I felt fully confident about my dissertation and realized I knew the topic better than anyone else,” Bonin said. “But the defense gave me the opportunity to take a broader view of the scope of my research.” The committee’s questions allowed him to synthesize his thoughts on Army Aviation and how it related to the entire field of history. Dr. Bonin saw this as an opportunity to look at his work in a different context: “In the process of researching and writing, I had not concerned myself too much with larger audiences. The defense forced me to think of the potential audiences that could benefit from this study.” He regards this as good advice for other students now completing their dissertations.
Dr. Doug Johnson has supported Bonin’s work both as a mentor and as a colleague for many years, and he believed Bonin had a difficult and complicated task: “John wove together the essential threads of this episode in history to create a complete fabric. He addressed personalities – inside and outside the Army Aviation community, within the Army, with the larger Defense establishment, with Congress, and with industry.” Johnson asserted that Bonin did an excellent job of “following the money” from Congress to the Defense Department to the Army, and describing how budgets affect doctrinal development. He believes doctrine is a vital but often deadly boring topic and its development and continuing maturation are important. Bonin is one the Army’s acknowledged experts on force structure and doctrine development, and this study makes him one of the leading authorities on Army Aviation. Dr. Johnson also observed, “The dissertation addressed institutional processes, barriers and paths to success within the Army as an institution, and also in the Civil-Military realm. He [Bonin] addressed basic leadership and the leadership-management connection that exists above the direct leadership level. He reviewed developments in Research and Development, Science and Technology and the processes by which some good ideas die and have to be resurrected when conditions change.” Johnson concluded, “All in all, I found it to be one of the most thoroughly balanced presentations of a military subject I have ever seen.” The defense was successful, and all the observers and committee would like to congratulate John Bonin, Ph.D.!
The author gratefully acknowledges assistance from Dr. Doug Johnson, Dr. John Bonin, Brady King, Michael Dolski, Jason Smith, and Eric Klinek.