There I was, not flying upside down, but getting a personal briefing from former head of the CIA, Gen. Michael Hayden. “Mike,” my new BFF, who has had the ear of several Presidents, talked about Syria, North Korea, cyber warfare, the NSA and other important issues, and wanted my opinion. But, to be truthful, we weren’t the only two people in the room. I was with several hundred students, faculty and guests at the Army War College’s 59th National Security Seminar (NSS) in June of this year.
When friend and air show pilot USAF Col. Jill Long nominated me to take part in the NSS, she said it was very selective and not to be disappointed if I wasn’t chosen. Only 150 people are invited to participate each year based on the diversity of their backgrounds. Who knew that this year an air show pilot would be one of group?
For 59 years, the Army War College in Camp Hill, Pa., has held the NSS with the purpose of reaching out to civilian leaders to better acquaint them with the future leaders of the Armed Forces. I was thrilled when my letter of invitation arrived. I had no idea what to expect, but knew I’d be intellectually challenged. I called a friend who was also invited and asked him, “How much propaganda do you think they can throw at us in one week?”
I’ve known military pilots who have gone off to War College after a flying tour and had visions of studious officers hunched over board games like Axis & Allies and Tide of Iron, playing out dramatic battles with toy soldiers. The National, Army, USAF and Marine War Colleges are the nation’s top finishing schools for military officers in leadership positions and offer graduate programs in strategic studies. To give you an idea of just how elite this institution is, graduates of the Army War College include Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., and Gen. George Patton. It’s a kind of “think tank” combined with networking opportunities.
I arrived in Harrisburg in my V-tail Bonanza direct from Norfolk (ORF), after performing low-level aerobatics over the water in front of 100,00 of my closest friends at the Virginia Beach Patriotic Festival. I flew north and a little east to give wide berth to the Washington, D.C. ADIZ, deciding it would be poor form to show up at Capital City Airport (CXY), with an armed military escort (or maybe not?). I was about to trade my flight suit for “business” wear and had an extra suitcase packed in the back of the airplane.
I was met by USAF Col. Stephanie Williams, a C-130 pilot who was just finishing her year at War College. On the way to my hotel, Stephanie told me a little about what to expect and gave me a packet of information describing the week of talks, seminars and tours.
Just as you might expect, in the U.S. Army everything runs like clockwork, and we had a full schedule starting with our 0715 morning departure to the evening events. I’m obsessively über-punctual and wondered if that’s a result of my own family history with a father in the Army Air Corps, three uncles at West Point and a grandfather who was killed in action in World War II when he was with Merrill’s Marauders in Burma.
The 20-minute ride from the hotel to Carlisle Barracks took us past the prettiest green fields of the Susquehanna Valley. The manicured campus is just a few miles north of Gettysburg, the defining Civil War battle site that was once occupied by Confederate forces. After the war, it became part of the Indian School program and finally, in 1951, the War College.
By 0900, we were in Bliss Hall Auditorium for our welcoming address from the commandant, who made it very clear we were there to talk openly about anything pertaining to national security. To punctuate his point, there was a microphone in front of every seat in the auditorium, encouraging us to ask questions at the end of every talk. There were a number of visible panning cameras in sight, and I wondered about the ones that we couldn’t see.
We split up into smaller groups, seminars of about 15 people consisting of faculty, students and invited guests. Our leader was faculty member Dr. Tami Biddle, a Yale-educated world-renowned scholar of the history of strategic bombing of World War II. My group consisted of yours truly, the air show pilot, other businessmen and women, students including my escort Col. Williams, a Marine, a state department official, other high-ranking officers and three overseas students from Senegal, Bangladesh and Finland. The diversity of the group was a mission accompli!
Each morning, they dazzled us with world-class speakers—Gen. Hayden; Susan Herman, president of the ACLU, who presented “Challenges to American Tradition of Liberty, Due Process and Equality in a Changing World;” Norm Ornstein from American Enterprise Institute and more. Those encouraging microphones had the desired effect, and there were a lot of Q&As after each talk. In our seminars, it was hard to keep track of the many tangents we took during the week, like cyber warfare, domestic terrorism, China-U.S. policy, North Korea and Syria. Dr. Biddle masterfully led us into controversial topics while showing great leadership in bringing us back to the center when the discussions got heated. The group was outspoken and passionate, and with so many views in one room, we were forced to turn to the “other channel.” I have to believe it was an enlightening experience for everyone.
I was particularly interested in leadership issues, as the military has provided many important leadership opportunities for women as they’ve fought their way to the top. One hot topic in our group was the issue of whether women should serve in infantry combat positions, and I found it amusing to hear many of the same old arguments that were used to keep women out of flying combat positions. Personally, I’d like to see elite all-women special forces, but that’s just me (people who say women aren’t as aggressive as men obviously haven’t been to high school).
I hated high school, and the only degree I have is from the school of life, often the poorest teacher, but after being at War College, I asked “Where do I enroll?” We even had electives in topics like “Critical Thinking and Judgment for Strategic Leaders,” “Civil War in Syria, What Should the United States Do?” And because of my personal interest, I chose a very informative and fascinating lecture, “Mali and the United States: Interests, Insurgencies and Terrorist Groups in West Africa.”
During the week, Stephanie made sure I wasn’t left to my own devices for too long. This was a big deal, because I never knew if I’d find my way back from the ladies’ room. The hallways of Carlisle Barracks are a beautiful and confusing symmetry of corners, angles and squares. I started to sight off the by-then familiar paintings of Civil War battles, plaques of famous generals and framed quotes from Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz like, “The enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan.” Now, doesn’t that sound like aviation?
Our big outing wasn’t mandatory, but was certainly de rigueur: Gettysburg. During my tour of this extraordinary place, I found myself wondering why I had been to Normandy and not been here. The site is stunning. Battle markers are placed at the spots the battles were fought; each state has their own version of their memorial to their fallen soldiers. The park service has done an amazing job of maintaining the entire area of the battle much as it was in 1863, and considering the great number of casualties, it’s no wonder there are rumors of ghosts in the movie set-perfect town of Gettysburg.
So, was it a week of propaganda? I didn’t think so. The military is like a parallel universe to the civilian world. When we think of the military, there’s often a sense of “them” and “us,” which is understandable for my generation, who saw firsthand the ugly hand of the law during the Vietnam War.
Since then, I’ve flown many times at military bases around the world. Being a dove and not a hawk, I was conflicted at first about my role there and wondered if I was going straight to hell for going over to the dark side. After a lot of thought and experience with the military, I’ve come to the conclusion that while I may not agree with everything they do, when the manure hits the fan, I want them to defend me. Therefore, I have to support them even when I disagree, and place some degree of trust in the politicians who give them their marching orders.
As an air show pilot, I owe a lot to the military. My career in air shows has taken me around the world demoing military airplanes to sell to foreign governments, and I’ve flown many air shows with the U.S. Airforce Thunderbirds and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. Without them I’d still be just a dusty barnstormer. This year, the Sequestration has hit the air show industry hard. Along with the cancelation of the jet teams, a lot of air shows have been canceled, so it’s been a sad and difficult year.
To some extent, each of our lives is affected by the military. I think the National Security Seminar at the Army War College is a genius idea and exceeded any expectations I might have had. We were able to be together on a first-name basis in open discussion with some of the brightest minds, the best strategists and scholars, to get a better understanding of important issues. Maybe it was propaganda, but the civilians I spoke to all came away with a stronger faith in our military leaders. And, because we all know that peace is patriotic, there just might be hope for us yet.