This Month at the War College: April - May 2012
Students at the National War College concluded their school year with two courses designed to provide them with capstone experiences in strategy: Course 6600, Applications in National Security Strategy, and their travel experience in Course 6700, Field Studies in National Security.
The Applications course is designed to allow students to bring to bear substance from the preceding courses in the curriculum and tackle comprehensive strategic problems, to "do" strategy in as complete a fashion as the students will do during the year.
This year, Course 6600 examined two case studies of strategy in depth, one dealing with Mexico and one focusing on China. The Mexican case presented the students with briefings on border security, Mexican politics, the Mexican perspective on key issues, and many other aspects to provide a wide-ranging survey of the variables involved. Students were then asked to develop a U.S. strategy. The China case covered such issues as governance, economics, development, politics, and the military, and was posed as a scenario planning exercise: Students developed various potential future scenarios and developed strategic options from them.
With its travel portion beginning immediately after the conclusion of Course 6600, the field studies experience is an integral component of the War College curriculum. The international fellows have been traveling around the United States during the entire academic year. Now near the conclusion of the year, the U.S. students, in groups of 6 to 10 plus two faculty sponsors, travel to countries around the world to examine key strategic challenges. The idea is to put strategic logic to the test on the ground in individual countries (or small groups of countries) of strategic significance to the United States. This year the trips visited such places as China, India, Russia, Korea and Japan, Tunisia and Morocco, Brazil and Paraguay, and many more locations.
For the trips this year (as they always do), the students spend literally hundreds of hours to ensure a rigorous academic experience. They participate in roughly ten sessions under the guidance of their field studies faculty, many of which are built around outside speakers with expertise in the countries or regions to which they will travel. They take an entire semester elective course to prepare them for the trip. They spend significant time outside class preparing research papers and performing logistical support tasks to build strong agendas for the 10-day periods they will spend on the ground.
Before they depart, students prepare rough-draft proposed U.S. strategies toward their countries or regions based on their studies to date. The idea of the meetings on their trips-usually, wide-ranging sessions, lasting often eight to ten hours a day, with military officers, government officials, academics, students, journalists, civil society members, business leaders, and others-is to test the propositions against current realities on the ground. The vast majority of students change their views significantly in the process, which is one of the crucial learning goals of the whole process: to teach the students that assumptions developed in the abstract, outside a specific context, may not stand up to the acid test of the situational realities.
Upon their return, each student group developed a final version of its strategy, which it briefed to a selected senior official responsible for the relevant country or countries. These sessions often provide excellent additional lessons, testing strategies honed in local contexts against the realities of the Washington policy process.
The field studies process serves as probably the most comprehensive strategy-building exercise of the year, and student surveys routinely point to it as one of the few most influential components of the curriculum. This year's slate of trips proved broadly successful and once again demonstrated the value to the curriculum of this academic exercise.
These courses conclude the AY2011-2012 academic year. Students graduated on June 7 and have moved on to their next assignments. The new academic year begins in August and September 2012, when we will begin surveying the curriculum's progress again.