National War College Delivers Life–Changing
Experience for COL James Baker, USAF
Colonel James Baker spent the last four years, 2007–2011, serving in a key position of influence on the Joint Staff: Director of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Commander’s Action Group (CAG). He offered advice to Admiral Michael Mullen on a wide range of defense and foreign policy issues, from force structure to Afghanistan-Pakistan to the Libyan operations. He coordinated the Chairman’s testimony and transition processes, and consulted on and contributed to Admiral Mullen’s major speeches and statements, as well as coordinating key questions throughout the Joint Staff and working regularly with two- and three-star flag officers.
A key responsibility of the CAG was to think strategically and to challenge the Chairman’s thinking on the whole range of issues that came before him–geostrategic, questions of the use of force, civil-military questions, and others.
Even a few years before, Colonel Baker would not have imagined himself in such a role. He had been a highly successful Air Force officer–flight commander of a test unit and then chief of strategic plans and command and control systems at Eglin Air Force Base; leader of the mission systems product team for the F-35 program; deputy director for tactical aircraft in the air warfare directorate at the Defense Department. He had been distinguished graduate of every major school he had attended–Air Force ROTC, Squadron Officer School, and Air Command and Staff College class. He had been officer of the year at Eglin Air Force Base and won several medals.
Yet he did not see himself, yet, as a strategic thinker. He was immersed in the management and operational details of Air Force acquisition. He “never expected” to attend NWC.
When he did, it changed his career.
“About two thirds of the way through,” Baker explains, he began to notice that the War College was “stretching me intellectually in a way I’d never been stretched before, a challenge I’d never had. And that was exciting.” He also learned that he had a natural interest, and aptitude, for issues he hadn’t had to tackle before (and in fact would end up as one of the roughly 20 Distinguished Graduates from his class). The result, he explains, was that his War College year “fundamentally changed me and enabled a mid-career course change, in a completely different direction than I ever would have anticipated.”
What Baker found especially useful, beyond specific analytical tools or particular readings, was the consistent, disciplined approach to learning. This approach made the College an experience that could not be replicated by self-study. The College would tell students, in effect, “Here’s thought provoking reading. Here’s a lecture by an always world-class, sometimes world-famous person with expertise in that topic.” The lecture would then be “followed by guided seminar in which you are demanded to think critically and originally about the topic. That cycle produces much deeper learning than you would ever get out of the most intense individual grazing of whatever book or article you find.”
In his policy work in the Pentagon, Baker has found a few cases in which “the fundamentals are called into serious question and you do a classic National War College exercise–ends, ways, means.” But those are infrequent. Much more common, he argued, “there’s a whole set of critical thinking skills [the College] engenders–argumentation, assumption challenging, analytical skills–that you use every day.”
Students also come away from the College with a network–a “Rolodex of people all over the world, peers of yours, who are embedded all over the place. Plus contacts with the War College faculty, and speakers you can reach back to,” asking for their advice on particular issues. “I have done that routinely,” Baker explains.
Altogether his year at the National War College was tremendously influential for Colonel Baker. It was, he concluded simply, “a life changing experience.”
|Ambassador Hugo Llorens|