The War On Myopia (What I learned from my week at the United States Army War College)

The United States Armed Forces has long defined cognitive myopia, the inability to see outside narrow or habituated frameworks, as a national security concern. And just as a poet or rock musician makes a career of combating narrow-minded thinking, the Armed Forces works to do the very same thing. It may explain why a group of generals and colonels picked someone like me; with my pork pie hat, off-kilter metaphors and a decidedly non-military issue goatee to attend the National Security Seminar at the United States Army War College. It was there that I found myself in lecture halls with politicians, medical experts, journalists, and business leaders this past week, discussing geopolitics, diplomacy, and leadership —all of us working to help both students of the War College and ourselves, expand our worldview.

The NSS was instituted to give soon-to-be graduates of the War College, all of whom are senior leaders, the chance to have their beliefs challenged by civilians from various walks of life, as well as to give those civilians the opportunity to experience what goes on at the highest levels of military leadership. When Holly Raider, a friend and professor of mine from the Kellogg School of Management asked if I’d be interested in having her nominate me to attend the NSS, it took me just three seconds to say, “Let me think about it —yes!”

I don’t deign to know with any certainty how Americans feel about the military of the United States. I can only say that the perspective I’ve gotten from many people is that it is something of a clumsy, far right wing, leviathan organization that continually makes inept decisions, devours our national budget, and does nothing particularly well. More than that —or perhaps, worse than that— I often sense that our military is perceived as an institution which exists so far apart from American economic and cultural life, that it hardly merits any thought at all. While I have been disabused of most of those opinions through my work with soldiers returning from combat and their families over the last several years, what I found during my week at the National Security Seminar was a completely new understanding and appreciation for what goes on in the military.

During my time at the NSS I met a group of people with such creativity, such commitment to cognitive diversity, and such sheer intelligence that it made me take stock of the ways our citizenry is diminished from knowing so little about what these exceptional men and women have to offer. That ignorance is due to many factors; a cynicism born after the war in Vietnam, a sense that our long campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan has been nothing more than a colossal screw-up, and another, which the entirety of the U.S. Armed Forces seems to be wrestling with: The notion that our all-volunteer military has found itself becoming something of a warrior class; an elite society with a “military-mind”, made up of an inordinately high percentage of men and women that are offspring of people who have served in the Armed Services. One large assembly I attended at the NSS illustrated this dilemma. When the lecturer asked for a show of hands of students who had been the first in his or her family to serve in the military, scarcely a half dozen out of the over four hundred raised their hands. What all this means is that there is a growing, and potentially dangerous divide between the civilian population and the military. I’m not a social scientist, and I’m not particularly versed in historical trends, but the military-civilian divide got my attention. Alongside the fissures, which already polarize our nation, at very least, a yawning civilian-military chasm keeps the general population from accessing the vast and important insights the United States Armed Forces has to offer.

In our small group seminar, a question surfaced about what the military is doing to reach out to the many civilians, who, while largely thankful for the efforts of individual soldiers, still seem resentful towards the institution as a whole. This engendered a discussion around an ill-fated military funded National Information website that had been attempted a few years back (with the help of a major ad agency no less!). It was abandoned soon after the idea had been mocked once on a late night talk show. That failed idea notwithstanding, I believe there needs to be a creative vehicle to bridge this gap.

But why is this important? And why would I, a person with absolutely no time spent as a soldier, care about this issue? Well simply put, it’s due to the military’s clear-headed insistence on putting our nation on a war footing. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about this war-footing having anything to do with a clash of nations, or a fight in the area of cyber-security, or even with a war against non-state actors like Isis and Boko Haram; I’m talking about what I perceive to be the United States military’s ongoing campaign against our nationwide myopia. I too, believe we need that war right now, that we need an all out confrontation with an insularity so pervasive that left unchecked, it threatens to disrupt our way of life without our enemies firing a single shot.

We read only what we are comfortable with; we watch only the news that we agree with, we socialize only with those with whom we already have consensus. We take our polarized positions and embrace them with bellicosity —instead of with curiosity. That cognitive myopia came upon us so slowly that most of us never took notice of the point at which we started living in too-comfortable information bubbles. It’s in these information bubbles that bias passes for understanding, and where bite-size nuggets of pseudo-information have supplanted intellectual rigor. And the price we pay for the ease of getting everything we know from the Internet is that we now exist in a world where nearly every one of our basic assumptions about our political system, our economy, and our culture appears to have been upended.

On the final day of the National Security Seminar, following a lecture from, Jeffrey Frieden, a Stanfield Professor of Government at Harvard University on the likely effects of the diminishing influence of globalization we were treated to a short farewell address by the Commandant of the Army War College, Major General William E. Rapp. Major General Rapp began that address by putting the word: FACTS on a screen. “These are the facts,” he said, and then he proceeded to tell us several things everyone already knew. Here are just a few of them:

“The Earth revolves around the sun.

Napoleon was short.

Lemmings commit suicide by following one another off the edge of a cliff.

Humans have five senses.”

After giving his audience a few moments to wonder where this was all going, he began to debunk each “fact” in turn.

“The Earth, doesn’t actually revolve around the sun,” he said. “Technically, what is going on is that the Earth, Sun and all the planets are orbiting around the center of mass of the solar system.”

“At 5’7” Napoleon was not at all short for his time. He surrounded himself with his personal guards, each of whom stood at 6”1’ or more, making him appear short by comparison.”

“Lemmings never have and never will follow other lemmings off a cliff. This was a myth created for the Disney film, White Wilderness where the only lemmings that fell from cliffs were those who were tossed off by filmmakers who staged the “suicides” to make the film more interesting.”

“Most scientists believe that we possess as many as twenty-one senses, including balance, hunger, thirst, and the ability to perceive temperature.”

By the time the Major General finished, it was apparent that it was his astute way of describing what the U.S. Armed Forces aspires toward: A search for truth, no matter where it leads. Knowing fact from fiction becomes the highest imperative if your sworn mission is to provide security and keep the peace. The gist of his parting words to both the National Security Seminar guests, and the assembled students, (all of whom would be graduating the next morning and soon deploying to positions of leadership around the globe), were these: Watch widely, read widely. Don’t get your news from just one source. Learn from opinions that you vociferously disagree with, and constantly seek opportunities to create dialogue with people outside your own frame of reference.

When the military talks about diversity — be it, racial, cognitive, or cultural, it isn’t done as a nod to political correctness. For the leadership of the United States Armed Forces, the very idea of diversity seems to ignite an ongoing thought exercise about the importance of gathering varied points of view. This level of intense engagement with diversity in all its forms is a requirement, not only from an ethical perspective, but also from a national defense perspective. The awareness of the need for a broad range of ideas derives from the understanding that our democracy is not something to be taken for granted, that it is a singular institution in the annals of humankind, and one that is neither natural nor normative. Rather, our democratic systems and the freedoms it affords, is something intensely —unnatural. Democracy is not a given, or some default of human nature. It is entirely human-made, forged from the intellect of great leaders, purveyed with creativity and integrity by an informed and wide-ranging citizenry, and underpinned by the power of the military of the United States of America.

Among the most important lessons gleaned from my time at the Army War College had to do with the delicacy, the fragility of our democracy. I began to appreciate that its continuity derives from the strengths —and challenges— of an entire nation that eagerly accepts, rather than rejects diverse views, not merely as platitude, but as the essential source of its resilience.

The last place I ever expected to be schooled on creative thinking was at the United States National Army War College, but indeed, I had been. And it’s from those lessons learned that I resolved to ratchet up the war on my own myopia.

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