Army graduate school teaches lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan

Medill News ServiceMay 20, 2010 

Army Maj. Randall Wenner is a Special Forces officer, and later this year he'll head to Afghanistan for his fourth tour, armed with a new Master's degree in Military Arts and Science.

Maj. Jose Laguna is headed to Afghanistan, too, to join the international forces' planning staff. Maj. Dennis McGee will be stationed in Seoul, planning future U.S. strategy on the Korean peninsula, where tensions have been rising since South Korea accused North Korea of sinking one of its naval vessels.

The three Army officers are headed in different directions, but their starting point is the same. On Thursday, they completed the training program at the Army's elite School of Advanced Military Studies at Ft. Leavenworth, Kans., which educates the Army's next generation of strategic thinkers and planners. Their class of 124, which graduated on Thursday, is the school's biggest yet.

SAMS, as it's known, has had to adapt in recent years, incorporating lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fighting insurgents and terrorists, who adapt quickly, move faster and are less predictable than standing armies are, requires different skills than conventional warfare does.

"You need smarter officers to be able to see that and be able to define complex solutions to combat the things that are not in our national interest," said Col. Stefan Banach, the director of SAMS. "We teach officers how to think about an environment that has no right answer."

SAMS, like its Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps counterparts, is a school for younger field-grade officers, in the Army's case majors and lieutenant colonels. To attend the school, officers must apply after they finish their intermediate level education, and then they must pass a written test and an interview with the school's director and other officers. Only about one of three applicants is accepted.

Once accepted, they undergo an intensive yearlong program that teaches military history, doctrine and strategy.

"We learn a lot of history, a lot of political science, we study strategic decision making," McGee, 37, said. "It's more than just (looking at) when those decisions were made and who made them, it's why those decisions were made."

To cover all that material, students have to read 150 to 200 pages a day. "That's almost a book a day," Laguna, 40, said, admitting that the reading has been the most challenging part for him.

"Sometimes you get lucky, and it's only about 70 pages," McGee joked.

On most days, the students have four-hour discussions about their reading material. In blocks of six to nine weeks, they cover topics such as national security structure, regional issues around the world and 21st Century conflict.

Peter Schifferle, one of the instructors, said the school is unique because of its two-tier program. Higher-ranking colonels and brigadier generals from the more advanced program that Schifferle oversees teach their lower-ranked colleagues, mentoring them along the way.

"SAMS is the only school . . . that has officers who are two ranks senior to the students teaching them," Schifferle said. "It's an official part of the program.

Another important part of the program is exercises, so-called war games, in which students have to devise solutions to given problems, such as an armed conflict in a certain country.

"What I expected from the school," Laguna said, "was a more thorough understanding . . . of doctrine, a more thorough understanding of U.S. policy, strategy and how the U.S. government employs its instruments of power."

"What I didn't expect," he added, "was as big a foundation in theory and critical thinking. That was actually a pleasant surprise."

Wenner, 37, agreed: "SAMS really helps you to be a critical thinker. It gives you tools to look at things from a different angle."

(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.)

ON THE WEB

The SAMS homepage

SAMS students discuss how to redesign the Army

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