This Month at the War College: August 2012
This August, as the new class of students arrives for the 2012-2013 academic year, they begin their studies with the introductory course of the curriculum: Core Course 6100, "Introduction to Strategy." The course sets the stage for the entire academic year, and as such it must cover a wide range of ideas and concepts in a relatively short time.
Course 6100 "introduces the elements of strategy, critical thinking and strategic analysis to develop the foundational strategic thinking skills required for the balance of the curriculum," the syllabus explains. "Using selected frameworks and examples of strategy, students will begin their year-long examination of the components of national security strategy, the assumptions behind strategic choices, relationships among the instruments of national power, the orchestration of the instruments of power in pursuit of national security objectives, and the roles of leadership and ethics in national security strategy."
The goal, explains the course director, Dr. Bernard Finel, is to "give students an introduction to the whole curriculum-and to provide them with tools that will serve them during their entire time at NWC, and beyond."
That's a lot to accomplish in the roughly one month allocated to the course-some 14 topics. To achieve its goals, the course focuses on a detailed investigation of the basic elements of strategy-ends, ways, means, objectives and related concepts. It allows students to investigate several case studies in depth, including the early Cold War years and the response to 9/11. The course aims "to be a blend of models and frameworks," Dr. Finel notes, "with a heavy stress on case studies and practice. The idea is to encourage students to "derive principles from the study of strategy as it is practiced."
Major readings include John Lewis Gaddis's Strategies of Containment, Richard Neustadt and Ernest May's Thinking in Time as well as dozens of essays and articles from authors including Thomas Schelling, Richard Betts, Colin Gray, Eliot Cohen, Michael Lind, Jack Snyder, Barbara Tuchman, and Walter Russell Mead.
Apart from the substance, an equally important task for course 6100 is to jump-start the new students into the mindset of the year: Open, critical thinking; rigorous seminar discussions; a willingness to question one's own assumptions and those of one's colleagues and classmates; and a desire to learn. It is critical to success that the War College unleash all these qualities as quickly as possible during the year, and the first course-in its approach to material, its spirit of inquiry, its philosophy of learning-inevitably plays a key role in setting the right tone.
In the process, Dr. Finel has designed the course as "an opportunity for an early self-assessment as strategists," he explains. What are their strengths and weaknesses as critical thinkers and strategists? Do they have gaps in their knowledge? Are they too wedded to conventional ways of viewing issues? "We're all strategists in our own way-trying to behave purposefully," Finel contends. "But we seldom take the time to figure out what our strengths and weaknesses are." In the first several days of the course, students will consciously assess what "kind" of strategist they are as the year begins: Are they primarily an intuitive strategist? Do they prefer an empirical and analytical approach? Do they rely heavily on well-accepted theories? And what are the advantages and risks of each preference?
This effort supports a central focus of the NWC year: Encouraging students to reevaluate their own assumptions and perspectives, one key aspect of the path to becoming a better critical thinker. And that path begins with course 6100.