I always wanted to command an Infantry Company in combat. I thought it was the pinnacle of an Infantry Captain’s destiny. I went to Iraq in 2005 with the 42nd Infantry Division, a storied and proud unit of the New York National Guard.
The unit had fought with distinction in both world wars and being among the first responders during 9/11. But when I reported in to the unit in the summer of 2004, it was light years from where I wanted to be.
America was In Iraq trying to put a country back together after overthrowing a long standing dictator. In the summer of 2004 at Fort Drum, the home of the 10th Mountain Division- the most deployed unit in the army, the war was seen as long overdue.
I was an Active Duty Infantry Captain assigned to the mighty 10th Mountain Division, the workhouse of the 18th Airborne Corps. I volunteered to go to the cold, isolated post of Fort Drum, NY to make sure I went to war. Instead, I was assigned to a National Guard unit about to head to Iraq. Worst yet, I was on staff.
If I had controlled my own fate, I would have been at that moment, in the first year of the occupation of Iraq, blazing across the desert atop an Infantry Fighting Vehicle, raining hate and discontent on Islamic insurgents near some unpronounceable Iraqi village.
I would be wearing the Combat Infantryman’s Badge that I would have earned leading my company to glory while defending America from evil and smiling from ear to ear like a kid who just scored a date with the prom queen.
Instead, I was assigned to a National Guard Division Staff. One of many Captains assigned the boring job of studying maps and giving recommendations to the G3, the Operations Officer, making coffee and useless PowerPoint Slides. I knew it was an assignment I would be bored to death with.
Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Michael Hamlet
LTC Mike Hamlet was another active duty “augmentee” assigned to the 42nd Infantry Division. He was mischievous and charming in equal measure. He was a charismatic jokester who loved telling Monty Python jokes.
Hamlet was 45 years old and had a large forehead, a receding hairline that was cut into a high speed high and tight, and a thick muscular torso that looked like he did dips and pull-ups all day. He came to us with a very impressive resume.
As a platoon leader he had jumped into Panama with the 82nd Airborne Division in 1989. As an Infantry Company Executive Officer, he had spent five freezing months in the Saudi Arabia desert waiting for the ground offensive in Desert Storm. He said of the experience, “All that waiting only to have it be over in less than 4 days.”
Throughout the 1990’s as a Captain and a Major he had split his time between various hardworking units in the army. The 82nd Airborne Division he was a Company Commander in Bosnia. The 101st Airborne Division as a strategic planner. When he said, “planner” my young, impressionable mind thought, “Now there is a job I wouldn’t brag about?” How wrong I was.
Command and General Staff College
In 1993, after returning from Bosnia, as a senior captain Hamlet had been chosen to attend the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. It is where the Army sends the top 50 percent of its officers for advanced training.
Although the school is usually reserved for Majors, but Hamlet one of a handful of officers selected to go early. It was here that Hamlet’s career took on a new direction.
The school followed a 10 month long curriculum that schooled the Majors on strategy and doctrine. Hamlet ate the teaching at the school up. He ended up graduating first in his class, ahead of more than a thousand other officers, most of them already majors.
School for Advanced Military Studies
Hamlet’s instructors took notice of his agile mind and his ability to help his classmates through teamwork and encouragement. He was asked to stay on for an additional year that would immediately follow the 10 months he had spent at CGSC.
The course he volunteered for was called the School for Advanced Military Studies (SAMS). It is the army’s intellectual version of the Army’s Ranger School, a two month commando course which is famous for pushing its students to their absolute physical limits.
By design SAMS would provide a broad, deep military education in the science and art of war at the tactical and operational levels beyond CGSC in terms of the theoretical depth and application.
Huba Wass de Czege
In 1981, then a Lieutenant Colonel, Huba Wass de Czege published an article that examined the conventional military education approach of mid-career field grade officers. The paper created a debate over the CGCS curriculum. It was the genesis for SAMS (Olson, 2012).
Huba Wass de Czege, an Army officer descended, unusually enough, from Transylvanian nobility, had served as a captain and major in Vietnam. As a Lieutenant Colonel, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, he observed the Army’s premier warfighting manual FM 100-5, “was confined to the science of tactical engagements only,” (Ricks, 2012).
The manual was an attempt at putting the army back on its feet again after an exhausting decade in Vietnam.
Wass de Czege had been pondering the Army’s lack of strategic ability for more than a decade, since he was a young Army officer “on a hill in Vietnam wondering why all the field grade officers above me hadn’t a clue about what they were sending me out to do,” (Ricks, 2012).
In January 1982, Wass de Czege was selected to attend the Army War College. He applied and was selected to be an Army War College Fellow with duty at Fort Leavenworth.
During his Fellowship year, he researched and wrote a thesis that documented the need for an additional year of intermediate level education for staff officers within the Army.
His thesis said, “For nearly ten years we have attempted to train CGSC [Command and General Staff College] graduates of the ‘First Battle’ and for virtually nothing beyond that yet-to-occur confrontation.”
They did so by designing a second year of intense academics designed to address the previous year’s shortcoming and move a small group of students into a higher level of knowledge and capability.
Fulfilling a Gap
SAMS fills a critical niche in the Army. When implementing change, the rule must be “first” do no harm.” However, as the Army executes is final missions in Afghanistan and begins a new mission in Iraq, SAMS planners are at the forefront of these efforts.
The US is the sole superpower in the world. The international environment will continue to be uncertain. Ill-defined threats that elude the state
Today’s leaders cut their teeth in the cold war, in the contest between nation-states. They’re not comfortable with thinking that the world’s greatest power can be threatened by a couple of Arabs with long beards, squatting around a desert campfire in Afghanistan. It doesn’t register in their state-centric paradigm of a uniformed enemy.
During the first decade of the 21st century, the US Army force structure struggled with changing from a military trained to carry out short and decisive conventional operations against a uniformed enemy in formations. It fought Desert Storm remarkably well, but almost failed to carry out a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.
It is highly probable that the US military will continue to be called upon to conduct short duration operations that entail high risk. As the future unfolds the military may not fit the contingency, and forces will need to be tailored, formed, and trained to execute specific missions.
This will require an officer corps, and especially planners, that are mentally flexible, comfortable with developing technology, and educated across the breadth and depth of military art and science (Olson, 2012).
Olson, S. E. (2012). A Comparative Study of the Advanced Military Studies Program and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Leavenworth, KS : School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College.
Ricks, T. (2012). The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. New York: Penguin Books.