20 January 2009

Get out of the intellectual comfort zone

General David Petraeus mentioned once that attending higher education was one of the most rewarding experiences of his military career, even at a time when officers were somewhat discouraged from taking time away from their careers to obtain their masters and doctorate degrees.

General Petraeus said that being in a civilian educational institution was beneficial, as it took him out of his intellectual comfort zone.  In the military, there might be a debate between whether or not a tracked vehicle or a wheeled vehicle is better, or the advantages of a bore evacuator on a tank's gun, or an autoloader, and differences in these viewpoints are seen as a huge deal.  But in the realm of the civil educational system, the questions become much greater and more difficult--one might have to get up in front of peer students and lay down a compelling case for why the military is involved in this nation or that, why have bases here or there, or why even have a military in the first place.  

It's an intellectual challenge that causes you to question many of the fundamental beliefs that one had in the military.  In many ways, the military can be a sheltered community.  Military bases are self-contained cities that have miltiary-run shopping centers, theaters, schools and parks.  They house people with similar belief systems who may not have much interaction with the world outside of the military.  Simply breaking out of the traditional miltary mold can give any soldier a remarkably fresh approach to the world's problems, and a path to the solutions to win in the world of Fourth and Fifth-Generation Warfare.

I had the opportunity to break out of the traditional mindset when I wound up with a few weeks' notice that I was going to go to Honduras to serve as a battalion operations officer (usually a major's job) in a joint Army/Air Force battalion that specialized in search and rescue operations (which was actually in the news recently), disaster relief, stability, nation-building, and security operations all over Latin America.  I felt uneasy about being out of the cockpit for six months, but they wound up being the best six months of my life.  (And that's not even counting the ungodly amount of alcohol I consumed and my experiences with women with questionable moral values.  If you ever get the opportunity to get stationed there, I highly recommend it.) 

I was forced to learn the things about foreign areas that you can't learn in a book.  What do the  people value in this area?  What is a man's role in society, and what do they value?  What about women?  Where is the money, and how does the money (or lack thereof) affect the culture?  Who has the power, and what is the source of that power?

I learned the things you only learn by doing, for example, how to talk my way out of trouble with the "police" in Spanish, despite never having taken a day of Spanish in my life (hint:  money makes many things possible).

I was forced to work with people from different job fields in the Army, different branches of the military, and with foreign governments.  I got to work for a commander who was publishing a book.

Every day I wished I were back flying air assault missions at Fort Bragg, yet I still knew that I was learning things that few other captains in my career field got to experience, and I was probably better off for it.  The experience truly shaped my worldview as an officer, and gave me a better appreciation for the subtle nuances that define America's "small wars".  I learned something I couldn't have learned flying yet another mission around Fort Bragg.

Focus:  What were those assignments or experiences you had that truly shaped your world-view?  Do you feel that the assignment took you off your "track" in life, or did they help you along your way?  How can we give our junior leaders similar experiences, and truly grow the diverse "Pentathlete" leadership we need to fight the wars of the 21st Century?   

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am curious what the difference is between a commander who is publishing a book and one who isn't.