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The Military's Next Generation
Prestigious National Defense University seeks to create strategic thinkers

By Kathy Witkowsky
Washington, D.C.

It probably came as no surprise that the Bush administration's plan to invade Iraq was heavily debated on college campuses across the nation in the months leading up to the war. But it might surprise you to learn that similarly frank discussions were going on among the students at National Defense University, the nation's premiere graduate institution for military officers and federal employees engaged in national security. It certainly surprised Air Force Colonel and NDU student Mark Wasserman, who estimated in early March that only about half of his classmates in the school's prestigious Industrial College of the Armed Forces favored military action in Iraq.

"I was just a little taken aback," Wasserman said. "Military people not supporting the president? Wow, that's interesting."

That is not to suggest that NDU students are disloyal. Quite the opposite: They are deeply committed to protecting their country, which is why they're at the school to begin with. It is also why NDU's two graduate schools-the National War College (NWC) and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF)-emphasize the need for thoughtful analysis and free speech (even if it means respectfully disagreeing with the commander in chief) as they try to create strategic thinkers capable of dealing with future threats to national security.

NDU's main campus is located at Fort Lesley J. McNair, in Washington, D.C., an active Army base just across the Potomac River from the Pentagon. Military officers make up two thirds of its 500 graduate students, the bulk of its annual $102.5 million budget comes from the Pentagon, and the university president reports directly to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Its hallways are laden with military art and memorabilia; in accordance with the school's dress code, students wear either military uniforms or business suits, and their speech is peppered with military acronyms.

But in stark contrast to the Pentagon's often bellicose rhetoric, NDU's approach to foreign policy and military firepower is remarkably cautious, even humble.

"We believe that the military resort should be the last option," said James Keagle, NDU's vice president for academic affairs. That does not preclude the preemptive use of force, nor excuse the responsibility to do something about evil, he said, but "there are real consequences. People do die. And we don't want to go into the decision lightly."

Keagle knows about consequences. A retired Air Force colonel who holds a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University, he was wounded in action in Panama. Other professors at NDU also have had combat experience, he said, which makes them well-equipped to share the human anguish of war.

At NDU, Keagle said, "The real obligation is to develop critical minds."

That is an ambitious goal, especially given the military background of many of its students, said War College professor Melvin Goodman. The school's strict non-attribution policy, which prohibits citing the source of an opinion, allows students, teachers and guest speakers to speak freely without fear of retribution. "The real tension at the War College is education versus training," said Goodman, a retired CIA analyst who has taught at the college since 1986. "The military is devoted mainly to training. Education is a much more intense process."

Or, as Air Force Lt. Colonel Greg Burns, an ICAF student, jokingly explained it: "In the military, we write one-line bullets. Now all of a sudden we have to write subjects and verbs together. And then they throw punctuation in!"

In all seriousness, said Burns, whose most recent assignment was as a squadron leader at Misawa Air Base in Japan, he was enjoying the intellectual challenge and appreciated the time for reflection. Instead of simply preparing the U.S. to go to war against Iraq, he had the luxury of considering whether or not it should.

Those are exactly the sorts of big questions that NDU wants its students to pose. "If you ask our students how to bomb," said Mark Clodfelter, a military historian and professor at NDU's National War College, "They'll throw back: 'Why bomb?'"

"There's plenty of war in War College," continued Clodfelter, who is fond of talking about "friction," German war philosopher General Carl von Clausewitz's term for the combination of uncertainty, chance, danger and exertion that exists in all conflicts. "But we do plenty more than stress military solutions to national security problems." The school also encourages its students to consider economic, diplomatic and informational instruments of power as ways to achieve national security.

No matter what they thought of the plan to invade Iraq, NDU's graduate students were just as powerless as any other graduate students to affect the administration's policy. But they are likely to wield a great deal more influence when it comes to future national security decisions: Approximately one third of all U.S. generals and admirals on active duty are graduates of either the War College or ICAF; an estimated one third of the War College's State Department graduates have become ambassadors. The War College's list of alumni includes Secretary of State Colin Powell, Senator John McCain and three of the nation's six service chiefs.

Those statistics lend gravity to the school's seminars. As future leaders, NDU students know they may actually have to deal with the hypothetical threats they address in class. "I think it's incredibly relevant to the future of our nation to get this right, given the increasing threats that we face-really to our very existence," said Army Colonel and ICAF student Deb Lewis. Upon graduation from NDU, Lewis will have to think almost constantly about those threats; she has been tapped to take over as commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Seattle division, where her responsibilities will include securing waterways and helping to keep ports clear in an area that spans 100,000 square miles.

While no one can be expected to predict the future, some of the class discussions at NDU are prescient. A year before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, students engaged in a two-hour seminar about al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and developed a non-military strategy for addressing terrorism, said War College professor Bard O'Neill. "If the school was really named properly, it would be called the National Security College," added O'Neill, who wants his students to think in terms of long-term strategy instead of short-term gains.

Students in O'Neill's Global Security Arena seminar consider a long list of troubled regions around the world-and try to understand how they got that way. The fourth of the War College's five core courses (the others are Fundamentals of Strategic Logic; the Nature of War; The National Security Decision Process; and Doing National Military Strategy), the Global Security Arena, according to its syllabus, encourages students to "confront the reality that even if we have mastered the complexities of strategic logic, military theory and the interagency process, we may still fail-and in some cases blunder very badly-if we do not understand those we are trying to influence...The lessons of Vietnam, the Somali Republic and Lebanon remind us that fortune may deal unkindly with those who choose neither to pose the right questions nor seek answers."

During a recent class, 12 students representing the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, State Department, Defense Intelligence Agency and the Bulgarian military were engaged in a matter-of-fact but chilling look at the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. It is a place, O'Neill warned the students, where the possibility of nuclear conflict "is very real." His point was underscored by an Air Force officer and student who had visited India. Military officers there, he said, had indicated to him that they might be prepared to lose up to a million people-which, after all, comprise only one percent of their nation's population-to a limited nuclear war.

"This is likely to be a crisis on your watch," O'Neill told the students. "Where there are internal conflicts, leaders create diversions." And that is exactly what is happening in both India and Pakistan. India, O'Neill said, is plagued by economic and social instability, and its leaders have a legitimate fear that if Kashmir gains independence, other states would quickly follow-which explains why India will go to great lengths to prevent that from happening.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, meanwhile, despises India and faces his own set of troubles, including religious factionalism, tribalism and corruption. So Musharraf is not particularly interested in quelling the Kashmiri uprising, which unifies Pakistanis and serves his political purposes. Nor is Musharraf interested in expelling the al Qaeda operatives that have sought haven in the tribally controlled regions of his country, because that would mean clashing with the powerful Pashtun tribe.

But his reluctance to address that issue might lead to another potentially devastating scenario: O'Neill suggested that if al Qaeda carried out a large-scale assault on the United States with weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. might retaliate against Pakistan tribal regions for harboring terrorists. Noted O'Neill: "Pakistan's internal problems have in effect become our national security problems."

Added one of his students, an Air Force officer: "You don't have to worry about it with your head in the sand until it kicks you in the ass."

That is exactly what NWC and ICAF are trying to prevent. Students at NWC focus on formulating national security strategy; students at ICAF concentrate on how to marshal the nation's resources to support that strategy.

NDU also oversees a vast network of educational and research arms, including a second campus in Norfolk, Virginia, two other colleges that offer shorter certification courses, two think tanks and three regional centers that organize educational workshops for military and civilian leaders in Latin America, Africa and the Near East/South Asia. Each year, about 500 people earn a graduate degree from NDU, and another 4,500 people participate in one of NDU's programs, all with the aim of figuring out how to protect the United States and its interests.

"It's one of the best-kept secrets in Washington. Students get to come for a year, step back and see what the big picture is," said professor Goodman, speaking about NDU's National War College. Still, said Goodman, who often lectures at other institutions, "People who don't go there don't know much about it."

U.S. and foreign dignitaries often deliver speeches at the heavily guarded main campus at Fort McNair, but, with rare exceptions, the speeches are off the record. The school does not advertise or recruit. It doesn't even have an admissions office. Just about the only way to get accepted to either of NDU's two accredited graduate programs (the National War College's Master of Science in National Security Strategy or ICAF's Master of Science in National Resource Strategy) is to hold the rank of lieutenant colonel/Navy commander or above in the military, or hold an equally senior civilian position in the State Department or other federal agency. Then you have to be nominated by your employer. Two thirds of NDU's graduate students already hold master's degrees or Ph.D.s from other educational institutions.

Each of the four main branches of the military operates what is known in the military as a "senior service college." In 1946, the National War College was founded as a place where talented officers from all branches could learn to think more broadly and strategically in a "joint," or multi-agency, environment. That same year, the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (formerly the Army Industrial College) was founded with a similar mission. The idea is to avoid "group think," by moving people out of their limited professional circles and allowing them to network beyond their own military branch or agency.

Today, the schools are considered the "crème de la crème" for the 20 percent of military officers tapped to pursue professional military education at a senior service school. Army Colonel and ICAF student Deb Lewis called it "the finest school I've attended," a rich academic environment where no subject is off-limits and where "there's no right answer." That is high praise, considering the fact that Lewis was a member of the first class of women to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and later earned an M.B.A. from Harvard.

One aspect of her education that excites Lewis is learning about the media. Not only is she enrolled in a news media elective, she has also chosen the media from among 20 industries ICAF students can focus on for their required end-of-year field studies. The power of information is a main theme at NDU, one that repeatedly surfaces in classrooms.

In February, for instance, several dozen NWC and ICAF students who were enrolled in an "Information Engagement and National (Soft)Power" (sic) class-one of about 70 school electives-were listening to a guest lecture about strategic communication. The lecturer, Bruce Gregory, is now executive director of George Washington University's Public Diplomacy Council. As a State Department employee, he helped to write a 2001 Defense Science Board Task Force report about "managed information dissemination"-in other words, public relations.

"Information," the report noted, "is a strategic resource-less understood but no less important to national security than political, military and economic power." Among the report's recommendations: The government should expand its use of radio, television, print and internet sites; significantly increase foreign opinion research and studies of foreign media environments and influence structures; and take full advantage of commercial media production methods-in other words, use advertising specialists.

During his lecture, Gregory made a case for the necessity of these measures. Strategic communication, he pointed out, is used by everyone from candidates and policymakers to corporations, non-profits, unions and litigants-as well as the U.S. and foreign governments. But the government does not put a high priority on communication, he said, so it is compartmentalized, underfunded, and released with little or no coordination or strategic planning. Meanwhile, other organizations- with other agendas-are carefully crafting their messages.

"The government," Gregory said after class, "has every right to do the same thing."

Arguably, that is exactly the sort of thing one would expect to hear in an Information Engagement class. But the importance of public relations also surfaced that week in a less likely setting: In his seminar on mobilization, Professor B.F. Cooling posed this question: "What other tools are important to mobilization besides things that go bang in the night?"

The students already had zeroed in on the mobilization of public support as key to the U.S. success in what Cooling referred to as "the first" Persian Gulf war, and the lack of public support as problematic in the Iraqi invasion that President Bush was lobbying for at the time.

"We can be prepared for the physical aspects of war," said one Army officer. "But we're losing the PR battle."

"We're really doing an abysmal job of diplomacy-internally and externally," added a civilian Navy employee.

James Keagle wants to make sure that NDU doesn't make the same mistake. "We have to be part of America. People need to know what we're doing," said Keagle, explaining why he's a major advocate of the university's new emphasis on outreach-an attempt to show the public and other government agencies what he called the "better side" of the Department of Defense. "They need to understand that we aren't all trigger-happy bums," he said.

Two years ago, the school established a public relations office. This year, it hired former CNN Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno to teach courses on the media. The school has redesigned its website, which includes links to student papers and a short video that features praise from Secretary of State Colin Powell: "The education I received at NDU was without a doubt the most significant learning experience of my military career," Powell is quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, NDU is trying to be a better neighbor. Each of its senior colleges has "adopted" an inner-city District of Columbia school where NDU students can volunteer as mentors. In 2001, NDU became a member of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. It has hooked up with George Mason University to offer weekend and night courses on homeland security and counterterrorism, and is considering similar cooperative ventures with other nearby universities.

Ironically, while the Bush administration has invaded Iraq without approval or help from many of its allies, NDU has been looking to extend its outreach overseas: There is talk of increasing by 50 percent the number of foreign military officers enrolled in the graduate programs, from 44 to 66, to encourage more international connections and goodwill.

Keagle has even proposed a motto for NDU, its first: "America's University: We Play Home and Away."

Keagle said his motto reflects the military's paradigm shift (post-September 11, 2001) from an emphasis on overseas missions to homeland security. As proof, look no further than the NDU campus itself: Visitors to Fort McNair are now subjected to rigorous car searches, and there is an air monitor set up outside the National War College's Roosevelt Hall to detect a chemical or biological weapons assault. NDU is even considering establishing a separate homeland security college.

But the fact that Keagle has bothered to come up with the motto at all reflects the school's-and the government's-recognition that broad public support is key to the Pentagon's success. No matter what their opinions, members of the military ultimately will obey their commander in chief. But the real battle is for the hearts and minds of the public. And that battle starts at home. "Mom decides (if her children join the military)," said Keagle. "If Mom doesn't support what we're doing, we're not going to get the next generation of folks."

Kathy Witkowsky is a freelance reporter in Missoula, Montana, and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio.

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