war on the rocks

Are You Enough? Our Speech to the PME Class of 2019

September 18, 2018

It’s back-to-school time! If we could give an opening address to the military leaders attending every mid-level and senior service college class this year, here’s what we’d say.

Congratulations to each and every one of you for being selected to attend one of the U.S. military’s most prestigious programs of advanced education! You represent the best and brightest among your contemporaries, and your ranks include the future generals and admirals of the U.S. military. Just think — in another decade or two, the person sitting next to you (or dozing off in the back row) might become the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Or that person might even be you!

During the coming year, this stage will be filled by a wide variety of speakers, including some of the most senior leaders of the U.S. military. Many will remind you of the invaluable opportunity to reconnect with family and friends this year before returning to yet another taxing operational assignment. Nearly all will tell you to take time to reflect and recharge your reserves of energy. Some might even tell you that 10 months of “taking a knee” at a staff college is the right thing to do — an opportunity you fully deserve, far away from the punishing daily demands of service in the field, on the flight line, and at sea.

We’re not going to say any of those things today. In fact, you probably won’t like what we have to say at all, since we’re going to tell you the exact opposite.

Our challenge, our question for you this year, is: Are you enough?

Are you enough for what the country will need from you in the next 10 or 15 or 20 years? Are you capable of leading the nation and the military through its next major war? That’s a really big question, and the fate of the nation may very well ride on the answer. Each and every one of you should spend the next year making absolutely sure that the answer is a resounding yes.

Here is a big idea to wrap your heads around: These next 10 months in school may be the very last time you will be able to think and reflect, to learn and grow, before you have to fight in the next major war. You must seize this opportunity to prepare yourself for it, and to do everything in your power to ensure that you stand ready to help the nation prevail.

Are you enough for that?

Are you smart enough? Have you thought deeply enough about what a future war could actually involve? You’ve been very successful in your careers so far, or you wouldn’t be sitting here today. Most, if not all, of you have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those conflicts will forever shape how you think about war and warfare. Yet your past experiences may be irrelevant — or even counterproductive — for the wars you will have to fight in the future. The world is changing at an exponential pace, and emerging global trends such as the Fourth Industrial Revolution are reshaping and disrupting every aspect of governance, business, society — and warfare.

So what don’t you know? What do you need to learn about global economics, technology trends, shifts in climate and water, national governance, capitalism and income inequality, and the U.S. national debt? Have you thought about the new power arrangements in the world, and the types of war that they make more or less likely? How will the fact that a few giant technology companies are increasingly dominating the global economy affect the next conflict? How would an Amazon or a Google or a Facebook, for example, behave in a future war between the United States and China, where those companies have huge economic interests? How will all of these dynamics change the character of war?

Are you open-minded enough? You may not realize it, but you are at great risk of a failure of imagination — being unconsciously trapped by your success, experience, and rank. Your past success makes you less likely to try new and unproven approaches in the future. You are part of an intensely hierarchical organization where age, rank, and power are almost perfectly correlated. Several years ago, two professors at the Army War College found that the military students at their institution were far less open to new ideas than the U.S. population as a whole. Even worse, the Army students selected for brigade command — those often seen as the most likely future generals — were the least open to new ideas of all. Are you willing to risk failure — maybe for one of the first times in your career — to try something totally new and different? Are you willing to question every assumption in your decision-making process, even when it comes to something you’ve done many times before? How will you overcome the natural deference to rank and other creativity-quashing aspects of a hierarchical chain of command? How will you learn from your most junior subordinates and benefit from their ideas and perspectives? What will you do to empower them so that you don’t become the leader you hated when you were in their shoes?

Are you adaptable enough? The extraordinary pace of global change means that adaptability may be the most important characteristic of the future force — and especially of its leaders. How will you use this coming year to improve your ability to rapidly adapt to unforeseen circumstances? How will you prepare yourself to make assessments at lightning speed of how the battlefield is changing? Will you even be able to grasp what is happening under the extreme duress of combat? How ready are you to throw out your doctrine, repurpose your technology, and invent entirely new ways of doing things on the spot? How will you react if nothing works (or even looks) like you expected — and the enemy is winning? How will you build your resilience so that you can cope effectively with repeated surprise, shocks, and setbacks?

Are you strategic enough? Until now, your professional lives have focused almost entirely on the tactical level of warfare. You are all top-notch troop commanders, fighter squadron leaders, department heads, and ship captains, and you rightly see yourself as the warriors who fight and win battles. But for those of you at the senior staff colleges, that is no longer enough. Since your tactical roles will continue to shrink throughout the rest of your career, you will need to become a true strategic leader — someone who understands the bigger and far more complex puzzle of how the nation wages and wins its wars. Those of you who become three-star or four-star generals or admirals will find yourselves operating at the political (not partisan) level of war, advising senior U.S. government officials on the critical decisions they have to make about when and how to use military force. How will you use the next 10 months to prepare yourselves for these possible responsibilities, for which you have little to no experience? How will you deepen your understanding of the other parts of the U.S. government and how they function? What classes will you take, or, even better, what will you read on your own time to get smart on global economics, emerging technologies, and other societal trends that will shape the conflicts of the future?

Those of you at the mid-level service colleges still have more tactical responsibilities ahead, but it’s actually even more important for you to start preparing now to be a strategic leader. The size and scope of challenges facing the nation today require strategic thinking at all levels, and strategy is a complex art that requires a lifetime of learning. To be honest, it may be too late for some your colleagues at the senior service colleges, since it’s hard to change your thought patterns in your 40s and beyond. Start thinking now about strategy and how it shapes every aspect of war. It will positively influence how you think about every problem you encounter for the rest of your career, and will pay huge dividends in your future.

Are you humble enough? The United States has never lost a major war, and the U.S. military is seen both at home and abroad as the most powerful and capable in the world. Yet it has not experienced large-scale fighting and heavy combat losses on the ground since Vietnam, and not at sea or in the air since World War II. How do you avoid the invisible complacency that comes from being at least two generations removed from those searing experiences? How do you address the deep-seated (and never examined) assumption that defeat in war can never happen to the American military? Just as importantly, how do you avoid creeping hubris in a country where worshipping the military has been described as the “civil religion” and where for decades the military has been rated higher in public approval than any other American institution? You and your fellow service members take justifiable pride in your military service. But what will you do to ensure that pride does not morph into a dangerous feeling of entitlement and moral superiority over your fellow citizens?

Are you enough?

Members of the class of 2019, ask yourself that question every single day of the coming year. If you answer honestly, you’ll find there are many things that you do not know yet, and that you will need to learn, adapt, and change. This year is your time to act. Fill the gaps in your skills and knowledge. Take the hard classes, not the easy ones. Study things that make you uncomfortable, that are outside your area of expertise, or that offer a whole different perspective. Start by assuming that you don’t know something rather than assuming you do. And learn how to write! (We’ve read your writing, and to be brutally honest, it isn’t good. Almost all of you need to learn how to communicate and persuade others far more effectively.)

Use these next 10 months wisely. Become what the nation needs you to be — not just fitter and better rested with a bigger professional network. Be enough for the hugely demanding tasks at hand. Push yourself. Learn, change, and grow while you can. As Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has stressed, “America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.” Do everything possible to make sure that you are enough to meet the difficult and unpredictable challenges of the next war.

 

Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (Ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are Visiting Professors of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Senior Fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also Contributing Editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.

Image: Naval War College