West Point is going to war.
There was a time when West Pointers regularly marched the globe, outside American combat, to learn from world military affairs as reconnaissance for our own future fights. In 1919, cadets surveyed World War I’s battlefields and soaked up important lessons from still-warm fighting fronts. In 1875, General William T. Sherman reassigned Civil War hero Emory Upton from his post as commandant at West Point to tour the armies of Japan, China, India, Persia, Italy, Russia, Austria, Germany, France, and England. Upton later penned an influential paper on his observations. And Richard Delafield, in 1855, led a team to observe the Crimean War’s Siege of Sevastopol and returned to write his report of the battle while serving as superintendent at West Point. One historian found that the American military went abroad on such trips over 150 times in the antebellum period alone.
Following this tradition, this week, a detachment of cadets and faculty with the Modern War Institute (MWI) at West Point are in Sri Lanka, amidst spent shell casings and raw emotions, getting as close to combat experience as an educational institution can allow, to understand the island’s three-decade civil war that ended in 2009.
This encounter could be the most important military education these emerging warriors will ever know. Mastery of war requires us to not just be content with looking far back into military history via books and archives. We must seek out experiences and knowledge on more recent and ongoing events as well. Just as young doctors study the recently deceased and law students follow present-day cases, cadets must analyze current conflicts. While necessary, studying distant military history is clearly not sufficient, because really, who would visit the doctor limited to the medicinal properties of leaches or seek advice from the lawyer fixated on the Hammurabi code? Still, military history does provide an important guide. In Sir Michael Howard’s famous 1961 essay, he counseled officers to study military history in “depth,” “width,” and “context.” Similarly, in the study of modern war, there’s another trinity to consider — the strategy, the society, and the self.
Grasping a conflict’s strategic logic is self-evident enough because it answers the basic issues and objectives being contested. War for oil. Kill for power. Free the oppressed. Defend the defenseless. This is the rational stuff of commentary, analysis, academic papers, and can be routinely read on the think tank wire. Prior to departure and while in Sri Lanka, the cadets and officers with the MWI will study the strategic logic of the civil war there: tactical choices, operational methods, diplomatic overtures, political grievances, human shields, the birth of industrial strength, weapons grade suicide terrorism — in order to make rational sense of the conflict.
Yet, to war is human, and by extension, social. To update Whitman, the real war will never make it into a smartphone-read news story; even if 4G networks let us have one view on a conflict, they will never replicate the act of walking that particular ground. There’s just no substitute for being as close as one possibly can get. ISIS’s brutality, Russian aggression, North Korean threats, savagery in Sudan — none can be entirely understood from across vast oceans and distant continents. Like storm chasers, where the closer you get the more you know, cadets and officers must get acquainted with a war’s “ground truth.” To ignore this lesson risks military strategy that doesn’t fully consider crucial factors like the enemy’s mind or influencing environment. Indeed, strategy is only sound when it is anthropologically, sociologically, and psychologically informed. In Sri Lanka, the MWI team will engage Tamil Tigers, government pacifiers, and their supporting social networks — to get to know these vital views, perceptions, and narratives from the war.
Just as this trip will offer a window into this war, it also provides a mirror. The study of modern war always reflects back on the self. Like sex, war is personally intimate in a way that can’t be known until it’s experienced. To know war’s corpus, one must confront war’s corpses. Empathy and sympathy are required. Stephen Biddle describes this particular challenge: to be “objective and analytical without being so bloodless that you lose track of the enormous scale of human suffering associated with the undertaking.” The poets hold sway here, as they eloquently describe personal contact with war — Karl Marlantes vividly recalled an enemy soldier’s “black pool” eyes in What It is Like to Go to War; Tim O’Brien focused on the precise weight of rucksacks in The Things They Carried; Sebastian Junger spent pages on combat’s chaotic choreography in War; and Janine di Giovanni recently described the Syrian War as “smell[ing] of carbine, of wood smoke, of unwashed bodies, of rubbish rotting, of…fear.” Because war’s pungent odor persists, while faint, MWI’s cadets and officers will find such lingering fragrances in Sri Lanka as they engage warfighters with still-fresh experiences and lasting lessons to pass on, made exponentially more powerful by the fact that these conversations will occur on the very soil over which the fighting occurred just a few years ago.
Why does this matter? Why does it matter whether cadets and officers have such a close, immersive, in-depth experience with modern war?
First, if we fail to fix their gaze on the still-warm embers of war, we place these young lions at greater risk when they confront the flames certain in their own future. Humanity makes them mortal; the profession makes them expendable — such a high price demands sufficient education.
Fortunately, West Point remembers an old and better way. The cadets in the Class of 1919 internalized and preserved the lessons of the Great War just as the cadets in the Class of 2019 will from the Sri Lankan Civil War. One of those cadets of a century past grew to become General Albert C. Wedemeyer, the principal author of World War II’s “Victory Plan” who went on to command the war against the Japanese in China. His trip returned to a new superintendent at West Point, Douglas MacArthur, whose well-worn observation might be refurbished for good use today: “Studying the fields of current strife will sow the seeds that on other days, on other fields, will bear the fruits of victory.”
In 1919, they studied modern war — they studied the strategy, they studied the societies, they studied it for themselves — and they won the war we needed them to win when the time came. 2019 will do the same.
ML Cavanaugh is a U.S. Army Strategist, a Non Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and has served in assignments from Iraq to the Pentagon, and Korea to New Zealand. A Contributor at War on the Rocks, he looks forward to connecting via Twitter @MLCavanaugh. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.