The Tower of Voices at the Flight 93 Memorial, Shanksville, Pa. (National Parks Service photo).
By Charles D. Allen
Each year at the end of July, a new Resident Education Program student body arrives in Carlisle to begin the U.S. Army War College.
This year’s cohort is part of the USAWC Class of 2022. My similar journey began two decades ago with meeting our seminar mates in early August 2000, then engaging in the curriculum, and finally completing the course with graduation in June 2001.
Like our new students, I was excited and anxious about the year ahead.
From our first meeting, I was impressed by the quality of my seminar peers. Each of us came from diverse backgrounds of branches, services, and components (active, guard/reserve, and civilian), as well as from various countries represented by international fellows.
It was clear that although we had very bright individual members with extensive experience and unique expertise, no one was as bright as the collective talent within the seminar.
Egos, therefore, had to be placed in check. We had to manage our personalities and be aware of our preferences as well as biases in this new learning environment. Appropriately, an early objective for the War College was to establish norms that would guide our behavior within the seminar and with members of the other seminars across the student body.
The War College curriculum remains about the same, with core courses in strategic leadership and defense management, theories of war and conflict, principles of national security policy development, and doctrine for planning military operations and campaigns.
The survey courses of the core curriculum present several higher-level concepts as well as abstract theories that may be introduced to students for the first time during the War College year. The challenge for students is to be able to apply their newly acquired knowledge to the problems facing the nation and its military.
Each year inevitably provides a series of case studies that emerge from global and national events. On the international front, in October 2000, our War College class was fixated on news reports of the attack on the USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden by two suicide bombers in a small boat from some then little-known group called Al Qaeda. That brazen attack killed seventeen U.S. Navy sailors and injured another thirty-nine.
I still remember our naval officer showing images of the damaged guided missile destroyer being towed away to sea.
In November of 2000, the nation concluded a highly competitive presidential election campaign that saw the contestation of ballot counts. Over the next month, we witnessed the recounting of votes and audits of ballots with ‘hanging chads’ in Florida, as well as accusations of illegitimate voting followed by legal challenges in the courts. The December ruling of the US Supreme Court to stop the recounts ultimately decided the election result. That ruling subsequently led to the peaceful transfer of executive power to a new administration.
As our June graduation approached, we were confident that the United States had the most powerful military in the world—the best equipped, best trained, and best led.
We heard our leaders proclaim a ‘strategic pause’ where no peer-competitor nation would emerge until 2025. They also implored us to embrace the opportunity to transform the force with new technologies. Little did we know the plans and actions of Al Qaeda would shatter that confidence and demonstrably challenge our arrogance.
Over the many years after the September 11 attacks, our Class of 2001 members became the senior leaders within the national security profession.
While many classmates deployed as the fighters in the operational force, others worked on staffs, in headquarters, and in agencies of the enterprise across the joint force and in other elements of our US government.
Still others among the international fellows led allies, partners, and coalition forces in the Global War on Terror. In subsequent decades, we declared the end of military operations in Iraq and then Afghanistan, followed by the reduction and withdrawal of US forces. Thus far, the results in both nations and across the theater of operations have been unsatisfying.
My suggestion to U.S. and international members of the Class of 2022 is to look forward to your year ahead. Be curious and improve your knowledge over a broad range of topics.
Develop your strategic thinking skills by challenging yourself with the curriculum. Pay attention to national and world events; use them to test the theories, models, and frameworks that the War College will present.
Be skeptical and open-minded. Learn about yourself and others as you establish relationships that matter. Build and be part of teams that are better than you are alone in facing tough circumstances.
Prepare yourself for the uncertain future. Our nations are counting on you.
Opinion contributor Col. Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, ret’d) is a professor of Leadership and Cultural Studies in the School of Strategic Land Power at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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