How Iraq, Afghanistan have changed War 101
A college for officers at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., draws on the experience of those fighting the war on terror.
FORT LEAVENWORTH, KAN. — A few years ago, Maj. Hilton "Bo" Gardner might have sat in this cramped classroom trying to unravel the riddles of the "green sheet."
Back then, this college for mid-career Army officers had clear tactics and maneuvers in war, and the green sheet was the last word. These days, however, Major Gardner is probably the closest thing this class has to an absolute authority. As a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he is more precious than any handout, answering fellow students' questions about the insurgency and its lessons for the Army – with the quiet consent of the teacher.
The war on terror has changed the Army in many ways, from boot-camp training to Pentagon doctrine. Here at the Army's intellectual hub, it is reshaping the education and expectations of the service's next generation of officers.
Some of the changes are as obvious as the addition of counterinsurgency and language electives to the curriculum. Yet at the most fundamental level, Fort Leavenworth's Command and General Staff College has had to reorient itself to stay relevant for veterans like Gardner, who come seeking to make sense of wars when tactics seem to change every hour.
Where once the college sought to instill its officers with the tactical know-how to defeat the Soviets, it has now turned to the challenging prospect of teaching soldiers how to think for themselves.
"It's a shift from a baccalaureate education to a master's-level education," says Brig. Gen. Volney Warner, deputy commandant of the college. "It's about developing in an individual the capacity to handle a broad range of problems."
In many respects, this is a task allotted to the entire military, as the uncertainty of today's unconventional wars calls for more thoughtful privates and sergeants, as well as officers. Yet some of today's majors will become tomorrow's three- and four-star generals, who help set the course and character of the Army. The Command and General Staff College, then, is something of a weather vane for the future of Army thought.
At the moment, the arrow is pointing directly toward Iraq and Afghanistan. The college has already added eight counterinsurgency-related courses, and students can now take electives in Arabic and Pashtun. In a dim hallway outside the main auditorium, a metal rack holds reams of suggested reading lists – but the slots for "cultural awareness," "counterinsurgency," and "militant Islam" have already been emptied.
In Gardner's class, tabletops teem with copies of "The Sling and the Stone" and "No True Glory" – officers' must-read texts on the nontraditional warfare of the new century. The topic for this day's seminar, too, is a twist on the traditional.
A few years ago, a lesson about the Soviet Union would probably have involved detailed study of troop formations and geography in Eastern Europe. But this is one of the new counterinsurgency classes, so the subject is the Soviets' failed foray into Afghanistan – and what the United States can learn from it.
Quite a lot, it seems. When students step to the front of the class to give their part of the presentation, moments of recitation occasionally give way to sparkles of spontaneity. One student seeks to draw parallels to what is happening in Iraq. "Absolutely," a student-leader responds. Another wonders aloud what victory might look like in an Afghan insurgency. A third suggests that it is more about the prosperity and education of the local people than any brilliant military maneuver.
At every turn, students look to Gardner to explain the climate, to describe the interrelationship of tribal leaders – to understand. Every so often, the teacher steps in to direct the conversation, but he knows this is not his show, and the students know it, too. They are helping one another connect the dots.
"The greatest thing is learning from my peers," says Gardner. "The discussion in class has given me a better knowledge of how things can be done in the future."
Clearly, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have given focus to their discussions. The college is no longer simply a comfortable 10-month post where officers can lean back and talk about Sun Tzu and "The Art of War."
"They come in with a huge amount of experience and some very serious professional questions," says General Warner. "They come here [saying], 'I've done two tours in Iraq; help me understand what all this means.' "
That has bred an openness to new solutions. Looking at how the Afghan resistance against the Soviets seemed to have no center of gravity, one student suggests that the best solution is just to try something – and if it works, to try it again.
It's just the sort of flexible thinking that the commandant is trying to instill. "Rather than critiquing your answer, let me critique your problem-solving process," says Warner. "The right answer is something that is not immoral, not illegal, and not unfeasible."
The college, too, has had to learn to be flexible. The days when instructors would just run through 120 stock slides are gone. Today, teachers are trying to incorporate real-time lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We used to say we needed two years to change the curriculum," says Steven Davis, director of the Digital Leadership Development Center, which runs the school's training simulators. "Now, if something happens in theater [in Iraq], we should have it in the schoolroom two to three days later."
For his part, Maj. Tom Hairgrove is grateful for the new curriculum. Before he enrolled in the counterinsurgency class, he had no idea that America has such a long history in fighting guerrilla wars. "It's amazing the amount of material we have in the US experience when you get to digging – the banana wars, the Philippines, Vietnam, the Indian wars," he says.
It won't supplant the basic education he and all soldiers receive on battlefield tactics and troop maneuvers. "But it gives me more tools," he adds. "We need this."