FT. LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — Sixteen military officers sit at a U-shaped row of desks. They complain about their housing stipends, type away on academic papers and laugh at a YouTube video that makes fun of the Navy. Amid the chitchat, they discuss the day’s news, leadership strategies and their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These officers — most of them Army majors — contemplate their changing roles as U.S. military leaders. “When we’re deployed, we don’t necessarily do what we’ve been trained to do,” says Maj. Douglas Lindbo. “We’re starting to work a lot more with other countries. We have to understand their capabilities.”
Adds Navy Lt. Jose Vargas, a cross-service exchange student: “The problems that we’re facing today — there are no textbook solutions.”
The officers here belong to the roughly 1,000-member class of 2010 at the Army’s Command and General Staff College. They’re preparing to lead their colleagues through the perils of an increasingly complex battlefield — where they will face deadlier adversaries, stark cultural barriers and uncertainty at home about the value of their missions. It’s a battlefield that requires soldiers to switch in an instant from Gandhi-mode to Rambo-mode and back again.
The military is transitioning from a group of one-track warriors to a force of multitaskers who can advise, assist and attack — all in a day’s work. Achieving success in Afghanistan will require a combination of all three, military leaders tell National Defense.
“What you do today has to be different tomorrow, and what you do the next day has to be different yet,” says Brig. Gen. Edward C. Cardon, the college’s deputy commandant. “If you do the same thing three days in a row, you’re going to have a problem, I guarantee it.”
In 2003, U.S. and coalition forces invaded Iraq and carried out a clearly articulated mission — with the take-the-next-hill objectives that armies have always understood and performed. Less than two months after the invasion, then-President George W. Bush stood before a “Mission Accomplished” banner and declared an end to major combat operations.
But military and civilian leaders soon realized that the meanings of the words “mission,” “accomplished” and “combat” were changing. Unexpected challenges arose. Roadside bombs killed and maimed thousands of U.S. troops, violence erupted among the country’s complex mix of Muslim ethnic groups and there was an influx of foreign terrorists who used the chaos to their advantage.
After nearly seven years, the roughly 140,000 U.S. troops there are now turning security operations over to the Iraqis. In that time, those who train Army leaders have had to rewrite the books, literally. They’ve revised field manuals, rethought counterinsurgency strategies and updated course curricula. Military leaders say the training overhaul is vital to operations in Afghanistan, which now resembles Iraq at its worst.
“We didn’t use to think this way; it was conquer, come home, that’s the mission,” says Lt. Col. Robert Whetstone, a director at Ft. Leavenworth. “Now you have to be able to walk back through an area where you just had a firefight and be a humanitarian.”
Today, soldiers at the staff college learn foreign languages, study world religions and write essays for publication. They blog, tweet and conduct media interviews. They talk with foreign military leaders, debate each other over Army doctrine and plan combat operations that involve working with local populations.
The Army’s Sergeants Major Academy, in Texas, has also increased its emphasis on language and cultural education.
Sgt. Maj. Raymond Chandler, who in June became the only enlisted soldier to ever command the academy, says lessons have been migrated down so that soldiers learn to perform not just their traditional duties, but their superiors’ duties as well. Classes focus more on creativity and critical thinking, and less on mundane tasks.
“Yeah, you can shoot your rifle, you can hit a target,” Chandler says. “But what’s the impact of that action on what you shot at, and what does that do to the mission you’re trying to achieve? How does it impact the population that you’re serving in the area where you’re deployed?”
Some of the academy’s programs have had to be shortened, he says. This allows more students to move through the courses, and it better accommodates troop rotation schedules. But it means they spend fewer hours reviewing material.
There’s also now an emphasis on civil-service operations, such as laying waterlines, building sewer systems and installing electrical grids. “We’re fighting wars that are not like what we’ve trained for over the past 20 years,” Chandler says. “We’ve had to focus on understanding culture and understanding the impact of our culture on other societies.”
Cardon says the resounding theme in the past six years has been adaptability. Instead of just following orders, soldiers are now expected to make complex decisions within a cultural and strategic context. Also, he says, such decisions are increasingly made at lower levels in the chain of command. “When you operate inside a population, it’s all human intelligence, human interaction, human dynamics,” Cardon says. In today’s wars, he adds, soldiers on the ground are more equipped to make certain calls than their commanders. “There’s no way the top can know more.”
At Ft. Leavenworth, the college’s 10-month program for majors culminates in an exercise in which Iran invades a fictional country. The soldiers function as a staff — just like they would in the real world — as they identify tactical problems and develop a mission plan. They evaluate the situation from multiple viewpoints and discuss the long-term impacts of their actions. Before graduating, each student also has to be interviewed by a member of the media, write a published essay and take part in a community or public-speaking event.
On the day a reporter visits, students discuss the challenges of being modern military leaders. Some worry that as they’re asked to do more, they could forget their basic skills. They also say their time at the college gives them a chance to step back and examine big-picture issues that are easily overlooked in theater.
“When we’re deployed, we don’t have time to think about what’s going on,” says Maj. Dan R. Brue II. “Because when you’re out there, you’ve got your blinders on.”
Each morning, they examine military coverage in the media. They discuss the day’s news — and the way that news is presented. The soldiers say they’ve seen a sharp decline in war coverage, and they’ve noticed fewer reporters embedded in their units.
“Often, the stories aren’t a complete picture,” says Lindbo. “They’re just snapshots.”
Adds Maj. Derek Carlson: “We lost soldiers recently, and it barely made headlines.”
For many, being at the staff college has allowed them for the first time to see their children off to school in the mornings. These soldiers represent a group of military leaders who are expected to battle insurgents, engage with tribal elders, build nations and assist at home during catastrophes — all while remaining prepared to fight the all-out conflicts the military has traditionally trained for.
Do they think the country is asking too much of them?
“No,” says Maj. John O’Brien. “If you look at the wars of the past, they’ve never been easy.”