Best Defense

Why I cherish teaching at CGSC

Bottom line up front, as required by the Army, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) provides teachers — aka instructors, professors, and, on occasion, educators — an opportunity to engage with some of the brightest young minds in the service of the United States, and indeed the world. (

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By John T. Kuehn, Ph.D.
Best Defense guest columnist

With all the negative discussion going on about the Army’s command and staff college, I thought it might be useful to articulate some of the positive benefits of teaching here.

Bottom line up front, as required by the Army, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) provides teachers — aka instructors, professors, and, on occasion, educators — an opportunity to engage with some of the brightest young minds in the service of the United States, and indeed the world. (We have 120 or so international officers who are without a doubt the best their nations have to offer.)

Why should a teacher cherish this job? Where else in this country might one engage in an in-depth discussion with an up-and-coming field grade officer on Clausewitz’s concept of the defense? That sort of dialogue continues after the class. Here is, verbatim, with the officer-student’s consent, one such e-mail exchange:

Question: When a strategic attack bogs down in enemy territory and the attacker must assume a defensive posture, such as happened, for instance, in the case of the German invasion of Russian in WWII after Stalingrad, the defense he assumes is much weakened and this weakness is another of the liabilities pertaining to strategic attack. Why is such a strategic defense more difficult? In what probable future theater of operation must the U.S. both most mindful of this effect? 

Student Answer: Such a defense is made more difficult by the location of the defense. Ideally, an army conducts defensive operations within their own theater of operations. Assuming a defensive posture, however, well within the theater of your adversary poses particular problems. Naturally, the lines of communication are extended and thus are much longer and weakened. Attempting to secure these lines saps strength from an already weakened army. In addition to this, the defending army does not have the advantage of their own fortresses or depots as they would within their own theater. To the contrary, the opposing force now remains intact and possesses the resources to mount an offensive. The defending army also has to contend with a population that is supportive of their foe and may also involve themselves in military efforts directed against the “invaders”.

The probable future theater for such a circumstance has already come to pass. Operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan saw coalition forces spread out across adversarial territory with extended LOCs and a hostile population with nothing but time on their side.

My response : Bingo, and the question (by the SAMS students) was written over 30 years ago, too! Sometimes asking the right questions is the most important thing.

This sort of thing happens here on a routine basis; every day, many times a day, all over this “campus,” and in an ongoing continuum of professional discussion. The personal and professional rewards of such a “job,” and the relationships and conversations stimulated by it go a long way toward making up for the some of the negative aspects offered about this institution in some recent critiques on this blog.

There is no institution or bureaucratic structure that is perfect, and that is certainly the case with CGSC. However, I have made it known before that the situation is not quite as dire as some of these critiques paint it–although I think criticism necessary to a healthy dialogue and as means for improvement. I am arguing that CGSC’s fundamental nature as an institution (not organization) where learning actually takes place is not in question or at risk. Any time one throws bright, committed people together and asks them to engage in intellectual activity, no matter how flawed the structure, productive and even positive things can result. I suggest that the majority of my faculty colleagues are convinced of the same. I also suspect that a similar sentiment populates the bulk of the teaching faculty of the other institutions of American professional military education out there.

John T. Kuehn, Ph.D., is William A. Stofft Professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of CGSC, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Paul McCoubrie/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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