Video Games Won’t Teach You About Soldiers

Rethinking your assumptions about war and peace.

Last week, I attended the Current Strategy Forum hosted by the Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island. The War College was founded in 1884 to educate the future leaders of the armed forces of the United States and our allies in the national security arena. The Naval Academy, located in Annapolis, concentrates on basic entry-level professional formation. The Naval War College steps in as, essentially, the Naval graduate school. Who knew? I certainly knew all about the Naval Academy in Annapolis but had never heard of the Naval War College on beautiful Narragansett Bay. My first thought, when approaching, was “what a peaceful place to contemplate something not very peaceful at all.” Well, like the 1,600 students presently attending, I was about to get an education.

The conference started early and included an array of speakers—from military personnel and scientists to historians and a filmmaker. All of them addressed global trends and their implications for national policy and the Maritime Forces. Robert Work, under secretary of the Navy, spoke of where the Navy would be needed in the future and what types of Naval presence would be necessary considering the changing geopolitical environment. Ian Bremmer, president of a leading political risk research firm, talked about the global political infrastructure and its future. Susan Avery, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, spoke of global warming and its implications for maritime trade routes and naval capabilities. Peter Singer, of the Brookings Institution, talked about robots and their future in global warfare. There were many more speakers, all equally brilliant and informative.

At the start of the day, I expected several things. I expected to be preached to. I expected to hear partisanship politics and bickering about drawdown. But, most of all, I didn’t expect to understand any of it. I figured the speakers would all address military subjects in military mumbo jumbo. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not one speaker said anything in the least that was political or partisan. The topics were global and easily understood by a layperson. Not one military speaker uttered an opinion about drawdown. In fact, the pervasive sense was one of doing the best job possible within the parameters given, those being ones of money, manpower and mandate. No preaching, no pandering, no politics. The term “an officer and a gentleman” seemed redundant after a while.

I left feeling humbled and a little foolish. How naive we are as the public at large. We have a predisposed notion of a soldier, or a sailor or a marine based on Hollywood and video games. These service men and women are the selfless heroes of our time and deserve all our respect and admiration. And the Naval War College, the place that I thought was all about war, is really all about peace. The College admits naval officers from other allied countries; sixty-two countries were represented in the class of 2011. These naval officers learn the history of war and strategies of peace during their tenure in Newport and then take that knowledge back to their own naval service. These officers create lasting global bonds that have been useful in times of tension, so say several officers I asked about the program.

So next year, when I attend, I will have more accurate expectations of the content of the conference and a greater understanding of the institution. The caliber of the men and women, however, will astound me anew, I am sure.