I had the great good fortune to attend the U.S. Army War College 2014 National Security Strategy Seminar, which ran from June 2-6, 2014.
The War College runs an annual course for colonels and lieutenant colonels, personnel from the other branches, as well as officers from foreign armies. According to the Army War College website the resident class of 2014 included 385 students including: (1) 216 Army officers: Active, Reserve, Guard, (2) 64 Navy, Marine, Air Force and Coast Guard officers, all components, (3) 77 international officers/ fellows, and (4) 28 senior national security civilian professionals.
The final week of the year, civilians are invited to attend the National Security Strategy Seminar, which consists of lectures and participation in seminar discussions. The NSS is very well organized and professionally run.
The seminar I participated in is depicted in this photo:
Military officers who reach these ranks are, in my limited experience, an extremely impressive group. The participants in this seminar were no exception, with most having served multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. The opportunity to listen to them in the seminars, and to talk to them informally, was the most rewarding part of the event, for me. I also had fascinating conversations with officers from foreign militaries.
The seminar discussions touched on many subjects related to the security of the nation and the future of the U.S. military. Some recurring themes in the discussion were (1) the impact of shrinking military budgets on the capabilities of the US military, (2) concern about losing the corporate knowledge gained in over a decade of fighting and non-combat activities gained in over a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, (3) concern about a disconnect between the military and the civilian population, (4) the over-use of the military, as the only part of the government that works, to solve all problems, to “hit the M button” instead of using the other DIME elements (diplomacy, information and economics), (5) discerning what the main threats in the future will be, and how to prepare for them, (6) making the professional transition from being executors of strategy and policy to originators of strategy and policy.
The concern about shrinking budgets and capabilities appeared to be the subject of greatest concern. Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, the Commandant, gave a talk to the visiting civilians. He mentioned that he had decorated the Commandants quarters with pictures of the Army during the era after the Civil War and between the World Wars, both eras when it had to struggle with reduced budgets. The public seems to think that despite cuts in the budget the US military will still remain very powerful. The internal viewpoint I was hearing was that the US military was being reduced massively, akin to early periods of virtually starving the military.
The lectures included a talk on the first day by Gen. Barry McCaffrey entitled “The Role of US Power in the World.” It was a good overview of threats facing the USA and it was a practiced presentation. However, Gen. McCaffrey had a habit of dropping politicians names, and being, to my ear anyway, overly obsequious about it. I did not see why that would have been necessary in the setting where he was speaking. I found it grating. Perhaps it is the norm. I hope not. The video is here.
The lecture on the second day was by Rachel Maddow. I was not sure what to expect. I do not watch her TV show, but I understand I would not agree with her on very much. However, she gave a good talk. She drew on her book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. The gist of her argument is that the American Founders intentionally made it difficult to engage the country in a war, and that it is now too easy for the political leadership to turn to the military to solve problems. Her regard for the military and her desire to see them only sent into danger after deep and due deliberation was clearly sincere. Generally, I agreed with her presentation. I added her book to my anti-library.
There was a choice of lectures on the second day, and I attended the lecture by Prof. John Troxell on the subject of Chinese Economic Power. Troxell was very good. It was interesting to contrast McCaffrey’s vision of China as a long term threat with Troxell’s vision of China as a nation and an economy so bound up with the USA, and with its own internal challenges, that open conflict would be too costly for China to initiate it. The video is here, and is worth a listen.
I also very much enjoyed drinks at the hotel with other civilian participants in the evening, who were an remarkably talented, distinguished and interesting group of people.
Overall, this was an extraordinary and unique experience. My respect and regard for our military personnel, always deep, was deepened further by participation in this event.
I am grateful to my friend who nominated me, to my sponsor, an Army Reserve Lt. Col. and a police officer in civilian life, to the participants in the seminar, and to everyone at the Army War College who made this event possible.