Drilled For Success War Colleges Teach Lessons Of Past Battles To Commanders Of Future Conflicts

April 07, 1991|By A. M. Chaplin

The air war was still raging in the Persian Gulf, but at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., it was just another day in the trenches.

Classes and seminars were meeting in room after room off the spit-and-polished corridors of Root Hall, named for Secretary of War Elihu Root, who founded the college in 1901 after the Spanish-American War. The only reason we'd won that one, he declared, was geographical accident -- i.e., pure dumb luck. Thus the war college, to see that senior officers were trained in strategy in case we weren't so lucky the next time.

Ninety years later, the college is still going strong -- with some classes that might have surprised Secretary Root if he'd been able to come back for a visit. In one room an instructor in an Air Force uniform was talking about drug interdiction, flashing maps that showed things like cocaine smuggling routes. Upstairs, in the George S. Patton Jr. Room, students were debating great ideas in Western thought. In another class the subject was terrorism, and a civilian instructor was prodding his students to grapple with the idea that one man's terrorist can be another man's freedom-fighter.

But the most interesting was the seminar on military strategy and practice. There, students were discussing the Civil War campaigns of Robert E. Lee, but it was the Persian Gulf campaign of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf that was on their minds.

One student speculated -- this was before Allied land forces moved into Kuwait and Iraq -- about what shape a ground war might take. Might General Schwarzkopf apply some of Lee's strategic concepts in the Persian Gulf, the student asked. Could he try to cut off Baghdad by driving through Iraq the way Lee had tried -- and almost succeeded -- in cutting off Washington by driving through Pennsylvania?

The instructor gave no direct answers, no simple yes-he-coulds and no-he-couldn'ts. The closest he would get to that was to point out that "Stormin' Norman" had more than once compared himself not to Lee, but to Lee's great foes, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. "You don't look to history for solutions," the professor warned.

Was he trying to remind his students, representatives of an institution that values discipline more than questioning, that their job at war college was to learn not what to think, but how to think? It's possible. After all, at end of the class, he said it again: "Don't look to history for solutions -- history only raises the questions."

"HISTORY'S NO RECIPE" IS the way one officer put it, with the directness military people favor when they're not being evasive for the benefit of the media. In other words, you can't memorize the last war and expect the next one to come out the same. Just think of the disaster of the Vietnam War, much of which was fought with help from books written in World War II, according to Anthony H. Cordesman, military analyst for ABC-TV and an adjunct professor with the national security studies program at Georgetown University.

But at the same time you do have to learn the lessons of the past or be fated to repeat them -- which is one reason the U.S. military succeeded in the Persian Gulf, where it applied every painful lesson it had learned in Vietnam, from building up manpower quickly to synchronizing the four services, to controlling the press.

It's a tough job, preparing for the future -- especially if you're in the business of fighting wars. But somebody's got to do it, and right now the job belongs to the nation's five war colleges. Sometimes called graduate school for the military, the war colleges teach selected officers of lieutenant-colonel rank (or the naval equivalent) the advanced skills they'll need if they are to deal successfully with high-level command -- and with the next conflict the nation encounters, whatever its nature may be.

The curricula at the five war colleges are similar and overlapping, but they do vary somewhat in emphasis. The three service colleges -- the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.; the College of Naval Warfare in Newport, R.I.; and the Air War College in Montgomery, Ala. -- stress high-level military strategy, and the role of the particular service in it. The Industrial College of the Armed Forces, at Fort McNair in Washington, emphasizes logistics, or the deployment of resources. And the National War College, also at Fort McNair, emphasizes what's called national security policy.

(If tactics is how to fight battles, and strategy is how to fight wars, then national security policy might be considered how to keep peace: Its objective is to secure the nation's interests -- by fighting if necessary, but chiefly by economic, political and psychological means.)

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