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Discussing war: Academy cadets get senior officials’ perspectives of U.S. combat operations

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. - Cadets studying history at the Air Force Academy spent time with national strategy experts earlier this year to discuss the American way of war.

Their assignment was part of Lt. Col. Ryan Menath’s “American Way of War” class, designed to spark critical analysis about modern war fighting among classes’ 101 students.

Menath, a 2001 Academy graduate and history professor at the school, has taught the course for four semesters.

“The course has an overarching purpose,” he said. “I want cadets to be able to enter the conversation of the effect our U.S. culture has on the way we determine and decide to engage in war, in combat operations and our tactical, strategic and operational efforts in those operations. I also want them to be prepared to have these conversations at all levels after they commission.”

“Additionally, I want them as cadets and future officers to spark these conversations across the board, whether it be with the Airmen they lead or the Airmen who lead them,” Menath said.  

Three of Menath’s 101 students this semester are Cadets 1st Class Camryn Gostel, Matthew Mickey and Kathryn Power. Mickey interviewed Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, the Joint Staff director for operations at the Pentagon; Gostel interviewed Senior Master Sgt. Phillip McAlpin, the senior enlisted leader for the 460th Civil Engineering Squadron at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado; and Power interviewed Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark. 

“Each student selects three subject matter experts on active duty or who at least maintain an influential position in national security,” Menath said. “One of their subject matter experts has to be an enlisted service member.”

Better, Not Bigger
Mickey and Taliaferro discussed the influence history has on modern military operations.  

“We discussed the notion of response time and range,” Mickey said. “Looking at World War II, for example, the general American approach was to be bigger industrially but not necessarily better. We had a long time to mobilize the entire economy and nation behind the war effort and focused on being bigger.”

Mickey said the bombing raids over Germany during World War II is an example of “trying to be bigger.”

“These raids consisted of thousands of aircraft all at once but that’s no longer how we fight,” he said. “With new technology, the expectation for the American military is to be better, not bigger. Understanding how long it took to mobilize when all we had to do was be bigger allows us to see the importance of being prepared to respond in a rapid manner.”

Taliaferro also mentioned the importance of military range, Mickey said.

“We’re no longer able to fly huge formations directly over targets as defenses are growing, so the capability to operate from a longer range is critical,” he said.

Mickey said Taliaferro’s perspective is that cadets’ careers as officers depends on their commitment and energy.

“As cadets, we have all we need to succeed and go as far as we want to in the Air Force,” he said.

A Common Understanding
Gostel was excited to spend time with McAlpin, one of the Air Force’s 12 Airmen of the Year in 2019 and get his perspective as a senior enlisted official.

“Senior Master Sgt. McAlpin said ‘when preparation meets opportunity, you’ll find success.’ He believes studying history and finding this American way of war will prepare future leaders to be adequately equipped to lead in the future fight,” she said. “This is something that really stuck with me and made the interview and assignment seem really applicable to my Air Force career.”

Conversations about the American way of war are important for every Airman, Gostel said.

“We need to be united by a common understanding of how and why we wage war. “If we are not, we will not be united in our overall mission,” she said. “These conversations spark dialogue that leads us to common understanding.”

The Big Picture
Power said her interview with Clark broadened her strategic perspective.

“His advice to me as a future officer is to always remember the broad purpose of day-to-day assignments,” she said. “In defining the American way of war, active duty service members need to recall the big picture.”

Power said Clark’s contemporary mindset focuses on the future and embodies the purpose of the Academy’s academic and military programs.

“His interpretation of the American way of war is that it’s less rigid than many people describe it and consists of multiple threads of continuity,” she said. “Between Lt. Gen. Clark’s approach and analysis, I learned a lot about how experience lends itself to academic thought.”

 The history department assignment was crucial in helping Power define her interpretation of the American way of war and create meaningful conversations with her chain of command at the Academy and with senior officers, she said.

“This project and other assignments are part of why Lt. Col. Menath’s American Way of War class is so engaging,” she said.

Mickey and Power are slated to attend pilot training after graduating later this year. Gostel is scheduled to train as an intelligence officer.