Megathoughts

For our country's and for liberty's sake, you want good people thinking them

Issue: "Religious liberty fight," June 20, 1998

My invitation several months ago to give up a whole week in June, head for Carlisle, Pa., and spend Monday through Friday getting to know a group of military officers baffled me. I'd heard of the Army War College-and I've enjoyed a variety of reporting assignments in military settings, including Saudi Arabia during the Desert Storm buildup. But a whole week discussing military theory and strategy?

In fact, the week was too short. In retrospect, I'm embarrassed about the gap in my own awareness about this facet of our national-security structure. And I'm sorry a great many more civilians don't have the opportunity to see up close the kind of thinking being done by these professional strategists.

The Army War College in Pennsylvania is one of three such institutions; the Navy and Air Force conduct parallel schools in Rhode Island and Alabama, respectively. To these programs, and only by invitation, come the crème de la crème of the military leadership. "These folks are the future generals," a friend told me while encouraging me last spring to accept the invitation; "these folks will run the Pentagon in a few years."

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If that proves to be the case, our nation will be blessed. For these are quality people-the kind you'd be happy to leave your youngsters with for an evening, and your 18-year-olds for their careers.

In spite of its name, the Army War College doesn't specialize in high-tech matters. The people here, to be sure, are not ignorant about smart bombs and tanks that can see in the dark. But such "toys" are not their main preoccupation. They come here instead for a full year's reflective study of the macro issues that shape our world, the megatrends that seem likely to lead big countries like India and Pakistan either to go to war or to hold back. The specialty of the commandant here, Major General Robert H. Scales Jr., is to think about "The Army After Next" project-pondering what war might be like not just during the coming decade, but in the years 2015 or 2025.

So here are a few informal observations of this elite crew peering so thoughtfully into the future:

Skilled, proficient, and competent though these folks might be, they're not the arrogant, domineering, hard-drinking, profane officers of yesteryear's military. That's not to suggest they're not competitive and disciplined; they wouldn't have been invited here if they hadn't worked their way to the top. But a surprising number of them are actually introvertish. They think before they answer a question. And when they do speak, their answers are likely to be nuanced instead of frontal. I have a hunch they'd fight a battle the same way.

They take their "service" role seriously. Twice during the week, they were encouraged to study humility as a trait that would serve them well. They know they command significant force around the world, but they seem genuinely focused more on the values of freedom they are sworn to protect, and on the needs of the personnel whom they command, than they do on the firepower they could deploy.

They have come to terms with the military's diminished role in the world after the end of the Cold War, and they are not whining about that reduction. They know the goal of having the United States ready to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously in different parts of the world is no longer realistic. At the same time, they are concerned that a sloppy-thinking administration, Congress, and general public might get so carried away with the paring process that we soon won't be ready even for a single major regional conflict. When I asked whether the United States could right now re-stage Desert Storm, they were unanimous that we could not.

They know that war in the future is likely to be a very different activity from what most of us have known. We walked some, in the rain, around the nearby Gettysburg Battlefield, and we were shown how today a skilled group of 10 soldiers might well command a space that during the Civil War required 150 soldiers to secure. The ratio will continue to drop. Invasions seem far less likely than terrorist attacks on national infrastructures. States and countries themselves may play no larger role than corporations and ethnic groups in future conflicts. In that sense, politics may not dominate future conflicts as it has in the past.

They know the world is still a dangerous place. During the Cold War, knowing one enemy well was perhaps enough. Now you have to know a dozen enemies if you really want to be prepared. And you have to know all the variables of how those dozen enemies might be allied with or against each other.

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