CARLISLE — With unrest in Egypt, U.S. military officials looking for insight might test the ties they formed with the Egyptian defense minister, Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, when he was a student at the Army War College.
“In this little historical Pennsylvania town, the most important school in the world operates under the radar,” said retired Col. Stephen Gerras, a professor of behavioral science at the Carlisle Barracks.
Al-Sisi was Gerras’ student. In 2006, he watched the Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks, 21-10, in the Super Bowl in Gerras’ home. Gerras remembers him as a warm man, quiet and devout.
“My mother was at our little party, too, and al-Sisi took her around my home and explained to her the meaning behind the Turkish artifacts that my wife and I had picked up when we lived in Turkey,” he said. “At the time he was here, he was only a one-star general. We never dreamed at the time he would go on to lead the Egyptian army.”
Political unrest and a troubled economy marked the first year in office for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, until a military coup ousted him on Wednesday. Al-Sisi, who deployed troops to cities when clashes broke out between supporters and opponents of the government, said the chief justice of the constitutional court replaced Morsi, the first elected president.
Recruiting al-Sisi and military leaders from other U.S. allies to build professional and personal relationships at the Army War College is an investment in the future, said Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, commandant at the college. Its international fellows program began in the 1970s.
“It is so critical to know that the voice on the other end of the line is someone you trust because you have spent a year together studying, talking about everything from Thucydides (a Greek historian and Athenian general) to ethics to favorite sports teams,” said Cucolo. Social events help their families to form bonds.
That can pay off when a crisis erupts in a country.
“You now have a friend, or at the very least a colleague, you can call to receive situational updates outside of known information from the media,” Cucolo said. “They also have the ability to call you for advice and guidance.”
Situated about 120 miles from Washington, off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Army War College is considered the country’s top military training program.
Armed guards at the entrance gate show visitors this is not a typical campus, though its mature hemlock and oak trees and 19th-century buildings give the feel of Ivy League grounds. A fly-fishing stream, LeTort Spring Run, a tributary of scenic Conodoguinet Creek, runs through the property.
The average student comes with 22 years of experience, which these days includes Operations Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom. A board of military officials in Washington invites candidates to attend.
Despite its name, the college welcomes more than Army students for its yearlong course. The class of 2013, graduated on June 8, included 225 Army, 15 Navy, 32 Air Force, 17 Marine Corps and one Coast Guard officer; 24 civilian intelligence officers from agencies such as the CIA and the National Security Agency; and 71 international officers.
Classes begin on Aug. 1 to teach military men and women leadership skills, the theory of war and strategy, national security policy, campaigning and regional security. Elective subjects include cyber strategy, the industrial base, stewardship, board security and exploring the legitimacy of and alternatives to targeted killing.
Many attendees come with battlefield experience that involves making black-and-white decisions.
“Our intent is take these soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and intelligence officers to go from tactical-level operations and decision-makers to direct leadership roles,” said Bill Waddell, director of the command and control group and the
cyberspace operations. “They have gotten promoted for being decisive and getting things done. Now they come here, and they have to get ready for roles where some of them will be general officers, admirals or on the staff of a senior leader.”
That means learning to think like those leaders and giving them a broader perspective, he said. At that level, there is no black-and-white; issues become complex.
“That officer who was being rewarded for being decisive and making things happen right finds decisiveness can be somewhat dangerous in the leadership environment,” Gerras said.
This is a college where professors do not lecture. Though military strategy is the mission, attendees swap their military regalia for shirts and ties.
They begin most days by discussing reading material from the prior day — typically topics such as the civil war in Syria, anti-government riots in Turkey and Egypt’s turmoil.
They are taught to think their way through problems, Waddell said, and to consider the perspectives of other stakeholders.
Government agencies and foreign countries “all have different cultures, and they don’t appreciate a military officer saying, ‘Do it because I said so,’ ” he said. “That just doesn’t work in this world.”
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, a four-star Air Force general, was one of four keynote speakers this summer at the college’s National Security Seminar on the implications of social, political and economic problems.
“The transition from tactical thinking to strategic thinking is not as easy as it sounds,” Hayden said.
He likes the international fellows program for its ability to introduce participants to American society.
“These people are living in Carlisle; they bump into normal Americans every day,” he said. “If they have children, they attend school here. They shop and dine here. You don’t get much more ‘Main Street America’ than the Cumberland Valley in Pennsylvania.”
Steeped in history
The land that houses the Carlisle Barracks has been some sort of military facility since the founding of the country.
Dubbed Fort Washingtonburg to honor a young George Washington, a post built here in the 1750s protected settlers during the French and Indian War.
During the Revolutionary War, captured Hessians from the Battle of Trenton became prisoners here. The guardhouse they built still stands.
And it was here that President Washington gathered his troops with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, marking the only time a sitting president has led a battle.
The property served as an armory and recruiting station and, in 1838, became the Army calvary training center. Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart swept into town and burned the barracks on July 1, 1863, at the start of the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was established on the grounds in 1879. During its 39-year existence, coach Glenn “Pop” Warner fostered distinguished athletic teams. His star athlete, football and track idol Jim Thorpe, is memorialized throughout the campus, including the gym where he honed his skills.
The Army War College was founded by President Theodore Roosevelt’s War Department secretary, Elihu Root, in 1901 in Washington. It moved to Carlisle in 1951.
Root wanted to school elite military leaders not to promote war, but to preserve peace through intelligent preparation to repel aggression.
The mission for Army War College faculty members won’t change as the U.S. military makes one of its largest transitions in decades after 12 years of war.
Cucolo, who commanded the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq, said America’s battle-hardened military is tactically effective.
“For the future, I would offer, though, that our concentration on fighting over the last 12 years has caused us to atrophy in our abilities to apply the strategic art,” he said.
Though the military has effective strategists, he said, “we just believe they are too few, and I’m not sure people understand just how hard this sort of activity is and the education and skills required to do it.”
“It is said that at the strategic level, there are rarely any good options or course of action — only the best of nothing but bad options.”
Since 9/11, military leaders have been asked what element of surprise keeps them up at night.
“We just don’t predict very well,” Gerras said about enemy unknowns that nag at him. He worries, too, about diminished resources for the Armed Forces. “Because we don’t predict this stuff very well, are we going to have the resilience and agility and the resources to respond to what might happen?”
The steep drawdown of resources that inevitably follows the end of a conflict worries Waddell, too.
“If the budget cuts are catastrophic,” he said, “we just need to know we have some flexibility and agility with our forces.”