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War College professor briefs officers during Wingman Day

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

Today's terrorist enemy blends in. His goals are harder to understand, as is what motivates him. His attacks are random, often suicidal and target civilians. And while the U.S. military knows it is in a fight, conventional goals of victory culminating in signed peace treaties seem impossible.

For those in the warfighting business, it is a major adjustment and all have a sense we are making new history, evidenced by just how little the history of conflict and battle applies to the current state.

But that's no reason for despair and neither is the prospect of a lengthy war with no (conventional) end in sight, says Dr. Christopher Hemner, a professor at the Air War College, who was a guest speaker on base Wednesday a part of Wingman Day.

Professor Hemner was invited by Col. Robert Moriarty, 6th Mission Support Group Commander and former student of Hemner's.

Professor Hemner took a few moments to speak with a reporter about the evolving conflict and the military response. He's pragmatic and thoughtful, careful, but perhaps most notably, confident that things are going about as well as they can under the circumstances.

Though the problem of terrorism is tougher for the military to get its hands and minds around, at least compared to past conflicts, the Air Force is adapting to the task, said Professor Hemner, who is one of many serving as guide and facilitator in the strategy rethinking process now under way.

Paramount in the process is the need for a better understanding of the enemy, as well as all dimensions and the dynamics of the present struggle. History helps, but Professor Hemner's first caution to the officers he frequently addresses these days is be careful when making comparisons.

"There is nothing in history that is a perfect metaphor for what is happening now," he said, adding that the one mistake he sees most frequently is the all-to-human tendency to try to understand and quantify events by equating them with the events of the past.

Enter Hemner's reasoning, which requires very quick shaking of the head to release preconceived notions and conclusions. This is a "totally new" type of war and it requires totally new approaches. In question and answer sessions Professor Hemner challenges those who think they have a handle of the nature of the enemy and the current conflict to explain why they hold certain beliefs. He said it doesn't take long to establish that conclusions can be wrong, or at least lacking.

Professor Hemner said his aim is to brief leaders on the importance of using history as a tool of understanding, but rather than pluck a past period or event to serve as an example, to browse many past events and piece together bits and pieces that when reassembled begin to hint at the "big picture" in the modern puzzle board.

"We want people to realize there is a bigger picture out there and that to see it, many things have to be considered," said Professor Hemner. He adds that it is instructional to understand that our enemy is and is not waging a holy war. It is and is not about U.S. foreign policy and it is and is not about ideology.

"It's a mix," said Professor Hemner. "As an example, if you assume this is just about Islam, then you have to ask: 'who gets to define Islam.'

"For some of our enemies it is a holy war but that's just a narrow slice of the problem."

The same goes for assumptions that U.S. foreign policy is the cause of enemy rage, said Professor Hemner. It's a factor, but so is dislike for American ideals, morals and the influence the most powerful country on the planet wields.

"As the most powerful nation on Earth, we are the center of responsibility for all that goes wrong around the world," said Professor Hemner. "It's the price you pay for being on top; there is a tendency to blame (the U.S.)."

Whereas awareness of all the political, social and religious factors in the past may have been the exclusive purview of politicians and policy advisors, today it is essential that commanders and leaders in the field possess the same levels of understanding.

While he admits there are drawbacks to filling the heads of warfighters with politics, religion and the concept of nuance, what they gain when the information is applied to developing strategy and tactics outweighs the possible drawbacks of giving fighters more to think about than what traditionally is required to meet mission requirements.

The scenarios facing leaders and warfighters today are a challenge and also a challenge for Americans who are divided over how best to deal with the problem of terrorism. Professor Hemner said we have seen a lot of success since action began in Afghanistan, with significant blows to the infrastructure, funding and leadership of terrorist organizations. Elections there and in Iraq, steady rebuilding and a sense things are going in the right direction offer enough positive news for military members and Americans at home to encourage them about the future. He said people underestimate the staying power of Americans on the battlefield and at home.

"People will withstand a lot as long as they believe in the cause and see enough success to encourage them," said Professor Hemner. "People are starting to see the possibilities," he said. "That's a good thing."

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