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EDUCATION at Their Command

EDUCATION at Their Command

Black leadership at National Defense University oversees education, training of top military, civilian officials.


Much has been written about Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice — two African American key players in the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” But there are other African American officials, perhaps not as high profile, who also are making an impact on this country’s national security strategy.

Boasting long and distinguished military careers, Maj. Gen. Reginal Clemmons of the U.S. Army and Brig. Gen. Roosevelt Mercer Jr. of the U.S. Air Force head up National Defense University’s National War College and Joint Forces Staff College respectively. They are also the first African Americans to serve as commandants of the two colleges, which were established in 1946.

As commandants, (the equivalent of a college dean) a nominative position that rotates among the Army, Navy and Air Force, Clemmons and Mercer oversee their respective college’s education and training of the military’s and related governmental agencies’ cream of the crop. The student body, two-thirds military and one-third civilian, is typically made up of individuals between 40 to 45 years old. They are not admitted to National Defense University (NDU), rather they come highly recommended for their leadership potential to attend what is considered to be the nation’s premier center for joint professional military education.

Being selected to attend NDU is a “gem of an assignment,” says Capt. Charles D. “Duke” Smith, who retired from the Navy in 1997 after 25 years of service.

“In my opinion, NDU has a strong reputation for providing situations where senior officers and civilians can learn how to deal with political military situations that will face our nation and its allies,” says Smith, whose last assignment was as director of marketing and communications at the Navy Recruiting Command in Arlington, Va. He adds, “NDU also provides officers an opportunity to broaden their thinking and avail themselves to some of the leading defense educators and policy thinkers available.”

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government’s attention has been focused on fighting terrorism both at home and abroad, and NDU has had to shift their focus accordingly. But they never lost sight of their primary mission, which is educating “military and civilian leaders through teaching, research and outreach in areas of national security strategy, national military strategy and national resource strategy,” says David Thomas, assistant vice president of university relations.

NDU also focuses on educating leaders dealing with specific war-related operations and commands. With the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks and the potential conflict with Iraq, national security strategy now includes defending against new kinds of threats, such as terrorist attacks, as well as taking action to prevent future ones.

“In the past, the U.S. military was principally designed to battle Soviet Union military in a land war,” Thomas says. Today, the faculty is involved in teaching students to develop new approaches to adapt to new and unforeseen dangers, he adds.

Each agency and branch of the military is able to send a certain number of students each year to NDU, which is funded through Congress. Once a student completes a program at NDU, he or she returns to their agency or service equipped to go as far as they want to go, Thomas says, adding, “We stress that there is not a school solution to all the problems they might encounter.”

Ready for the Next Step

Students attending the National War College, headed by Maj. Gen. Clemmons, complete an intense 10-month program that includes a great deal of “rigor,” according to Clemmons.

The mission of the National War College is to prepare future leaders of the Armed Forces, the State Department and other civilian agencies for high-level policy, command and staff responsibilities. Seventy-five percent of the student body is composed of equal representation from the land, air and sea (including Marine and Coast Guard) services. The remaining 25 percent are drawn from the State Department and other federal departments and agencies. In addition, international fellows from a number of countries join the student body.

During the fall semester, students study the Fundamentals of Strategic Logic, the Nature of War and National Security Decision Policy. In the spring, students undergo a “crisis decision” exercise, study the global security arena and the process of making military strategy. Students also take two electives each semester and complete and report on an overseas seminar. With the school year beginning in August and running through June, students attend classes five days a week, while being paid by their sponsoring service or agency. Once they complete the program, they receive a master’s degree in national security strategy.

“The beauty of this program is that it is often their last opportunity for a formal education,” Clemmons says. The program allows students 10 paid months to devote to their personal and professional development.

“When someone is recommended for the National War College, they have been screened a number of times for their potential for moving up in their organization,” Clemmons says. “We are preparing these students for possible promotions two to three years down the road.” Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State General Powell is a graduate of the War College.

Currently, African Americans make up less than 10 percent of students attending the War College. Women make up around 10 percent, Clemmons says. While he points out that in his role as commandant he has nothing to do with who gets recommended for the War College, Clemmons says he pays close attention to the numbers. “I would like to see more minorities in senior colleges. Attending a senior college is one of the gates you need to go through to continue to advance.”

With a military career spanning 34 years, Clemmons has held numerous positions and has been stationed all over the world — Vietnam, Korea, Germany and closer to home in such places as Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina, to name a few. After serving as commandant of the War College for the past two years, Clemmons’ next assignment will be retirement. He says he has enjoyed watching students grow and develop intellectually and working with an outstanding and enthusiastic faculty, many of who are experienced in operational assignments and have a desire to educate.

“We provide our students with a quality education,” Clemmons says. “When we send them back to their jobs, they are ready for the next step.”

Preparing for Joint Command

At the Joint Forces Staff College (JFSC) headed by Brig. Gen. Mercer, students are being prepared as leaders to command military operations.

“Some students graduating from here will go to Cent Com (the U.S. Central Command covering the Middle East region) and help General Tommy Franks to prosecute the conflict in Afghanistan,” says Mercer, who has been commandant of the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va., since May.

Mercer, who always knew he wanted a military career like his father, has served in the military for close to 30 years and has been stationed all over the world — Germany, California, North Dakota, Florida and the list continues.

He describes his faculty as multilayered and diverse. “Senior fellows” or retired three- and four-star generals from all of the military branches teach many of the courses. “They are people who have been in key positions and who come back to help students understand the challenges that they face in a crisis,” Mercer says.

The two primary programs offered by the Joint Forces Staff College are a 12-week intermediate- and senior-level program focused on operational planning. The intermediate-level program focuses on joint operational planning for mid-level officers from all branches of the military, as well as international officers (of allied nations) and their civilian equivalents. The more advanced program is targeted to higher-ranking officers and officials.

Because the 12-week programs are intensive and include many faculty contact hours, students have been able to apply 17 to 19 credit hours toward a master’s degree at various universities, Mercer says.

Post-Sept. 11, the military and related agencies have had to review and re-evaluate their national security strategy. And the colleges within NDU are doing the same. Mercer says the Joint Forces Staff College is taking a closer look at the challenges associated with “asymmetric warfare,” which deals with a conflict between two unequal forces and how the smaller force might look for weaknesses in the larger force to gain advantage or to attack. In addition, the JFSC is placing greater emphasis on weapons of mass destruction in simulation and strategic exercises and are more focused on studying ongoing military operations both at home and abroad, such as Operation Noble Eagle and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Like most students attending NDU, students attending the JFSC come from all branches of the military as well as related government agencies including the FBI, CIA as well as the Department of State and the Department of Defense. And although the college has a very practical element, Mercer believes strongly that the JFSC is involved in more than just training.

“Students learn to analyze and assess issues and develop a course of action,” Mercer says. “The training aspect comes into play when students are put in a learning environment, such as simulations, to apply their knowledge. We train, and we educate.”

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