Where would one find the U.S.'s greatest weapon? Try traveling to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the home of the Army's War College.
You will enjoy the trip. The College's stunningly beautiful campus hosts historic buildings that reflect the service's proud warfighting history in a dignified yet refreshingly unapologetic manner. Just being there makes you stand straighter and -- importantly -- think clearer about serious subjects.
Clear thinking about serious subjects is what marked the Army's XIX Strategy Conference convened there in early April. The premier convocation of its type, the meeting displayed an often misunderstood aspect of how the U.S. military improves itself: by welcoming critiques from the widest variety of sources, and encouraging opposing ideas to collide with great force.
The ability to think, learn, and adapt is what makes America's military the finest in the world. Though it does not use these words, the Army exploits conferences like that at Carlisle to, in effect, tap into a concept from the Nation's powerful engine of change, its free enterprise system.
Free enterprise triumphs as an economic system because it respects and empowers competition. Competition breeds efficiency and innovation. Unfortunately, the competitiveness outsiders may see in military debates can be misread as mere parochial squabbling. Sometimes that's true, but more often the rivalry reflects honestly-held but differing beliefs as to how to use the military instrument most effectively in today's very complex environments.
The good news is that those differences can make the U.S. military a devilishly difficult problem for our adversaries. Increasingly Iraqi insurgents are finding themselves watched and targeted by the Air Force's unmanned drones linked to high-flying bombers. The satellite-guided weapon that lands precisely in their lair could come from aircraft they never saw or heard.
There is really no escape. Just when the insurgents think they've somehow outsmarted the Air Force's high-tech surveillance capabilities, a young Army captain could show up on their doorstep with a platoon of no-nonsense U.S. and Iraqi troops. How? Today's captains carefully cultivate information sources among the locals as the Army's new counterinsurgency manual teaches them to do. Schooled in the manual, such captains deliver offers the insurgents can't refuse: be captured or be killed.
These are exactly the kinds of dilemmas the U.S. military loves to impose upon our enemies.
To get to the point where differing approaches are meshed to produce battlefield success requires passing through a crucible where white hot exchanges of ideas are forged into joint and interdependent "steel". The process is not always "pretty", and certainly not for the timid, but is one that -- regardless -- works.
The Army's conference is central to this eminently "American" way of strategizing for war. Panels convened to wrestle with such questions as how can the interagency process work more effectively? What is the right balance of military forces? What is the role of civilian specialists? How can the armed forces optimize themselves for the future?
Moreover, the attendees, who represented a myriad of organizations in and out of government, showed no hesitation in challenging panelists with the toughest questions.
If you were hoping that at the end everyone stood and sang "Kumbaya" you will be disappointed. Disagreements still exist -- and may (should?) always exist -- but views do evolve. Military professionals know that being challenged intellectually forces them to re-examine their thinking. In some instances it will simply make views even firmer; in other instances, fresh information produces new insights. Both results are valued.
The finest military leaders want, indeed, demand, that differing ideas be ruthlessly explored. They expect and encourage vigorous debates. Can that process go awry? Sure. When it devolves into personal attacks and gets mired in finger-pointing, progress ceases. Accountability for the past may have its place, but it is vastly more important to look to the future. The stakes are too just too high.
Looking to the future is what took place at Carlisle. The American way of war is renewing itself. Our most powerful weapon - the competitive analysis of security issues by America's military - is taking the field. Our enemies ought to beware. And update their wills.
Lt Col Nagl was one of the principal authors of FM 3-24, the Army/Marine Corps' new counterinsurgency manual; Maj Gen Dunlap is the author of "Shortchanging the Joint Fight?" a critique of that same manual. These are their personal views.