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Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 32 Learning how to fight the American way…

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FORT LEAVENWORTH, was founded in 1827 and is situated on a strategic bend in the Missouri River – on whose banks you can still discern the ruts made by the wagons of the earliest settlers if you know where to look – and it’s where as previously stated the US Army Command & General Staff College (henceforth USACGSC) is located. The contiguous county town of Leavenworth, to which the Fort has given its name, is a typical small mid-western town of roughly 36,000 souls.

Leavenworth’s main claim to fame is the number of prisons it boasts, including the federal US Penitentiary, Leavenworth, and the US Disciplinary Barracks, the US Army’s only maximum security prison. Although these institutions give the town a somewhat severe façade, it is a pleasant place to live and work, and not too far from Kansas City for those who seek a bigger environment and brighter lights.

Rather naively I had assumed that being a fort it would have a guarded perimeter, or perhaps even a traditional, historic palisade curtilage like those featured in every western film you have ever seen, but not so. It is more of a cantonment than a fort, at least it was in those pre-9/11 days, and open on all sides. It is also home to several other US Army schools and colleges and has the reputation of being “the intellectual center (sic) of the US Army”.

 

Holding the Union Flag at the course opening ceremony.

Where do I begin to describe the US Army staff course? Well, for starters, there were 1,280 students on the course I attended, about ten times the number of the equivalent British course then at Camberley. The vast majority were, unsurprisingly, Americans drawn from all four of their services – Navy, Army, Airforce and Marines. We “International Students”, as we were called, numbered about 70 if I remember correctly and I was the sole UK representative. The course also included the first Russian and first Ukrainian army officers, part of the general rapprochement following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.

The course itself followed the usual curriculum on doctrine, tactics, and leadership and was taught mainly in small syndicate groups of about ten, presided over by a US Army Lieutenant Colonel (British abbreviation Lt Col, American LTC; don’t get me started on Americanisms … ). I have to say I was very impressed by my new American colleagues on the whole. They were professional if a tad serious but were good at what they did. There was an enormous amount of reading doled out as part of the course, and I warmed to them even more when one of them whispered in class to me “it’s only a lot of reading if you actually do it”. My sort of people!

There were, of course, many aspects that I found quite amusing, in a laugh-with-them rather than a laugh-at-them kind of way. One that struck me straight away was that it was impossible for me at first to distinguish very senior officers from my lowlier compatriots. They all wore the same uniform, and sometimes the only indicator of rank would be a discreet five stars (that’s pretty senior by the way) hidden on a rank slide on a uniform indistinguishable from everybody else’s. Addressing the US Army’s Chief of Staff as “mate” as you politely ask him to get out of the way is not seen as best practice, not in anyone’s army, but you couldn’t tell.

 

Moi, in my tropical service dress on the back porch.

They also had a pathological fascination with getting their hair cut. The onsite barbers seemed to be at it day and night, with queues of US Army officers outside its door waiting for their already extraordinarily short hair to be coiffed even shorter. It was a bit like a skinheads’ convention at times, without the big boots and tattoos. Meanwhile we Europeans were swanning around the campus in our strange and outlandish uniforms tucking our flowing locks into our berets. To be honest, much of the time I made my uniform up; whatever was comfortable or clean would do in any combination. Who knew otherwise?

The hours that many of them kept were also a source of constant amazement. It was not unusual for the US students on the course to be in work at 5 am, which was close to when some of the International Officers were just going to bed. In the evening they would turn in at 9.30 pm, which was before many of us had had our evening meal, ready to get up fresh and eager for the next working day. Just couldn’t understand it, but each to their own I guess.

But I must say again just how welcoming, pleasant, and kind our hosts were. And they too must have been amused by us much of the time. When at work my American chums seemed to be unfazed by anything they were asked to do or any role they were asked to play. Tell a British student at one of the UK staff colleges at a map exercise that they’re to fill the role of Corps Commander and they’ll have kittens; tell an American the same thing and they’ll deal with it exactly the same as they would if asked to command a platoon. They were, and probably still are, much more comfortable at scale than we are.

We had a couple of trips within the USA as part of the course and they were good fun; not quite as hedonistic as similar trips undertaken by the British staff college back in the day but fun nonetheless. The detail is lost to me now, but I do remember one aspect of a trip to Washington DC, where we visited the Pentagon and similar institutions. One of our number, a Kiwi SAS officer and serious rugby player, took great delight in saying to everyone we met in the streets wearing a back-to-front baseball cap – which was virtually every male under twenty-five – “excuse me, do you realise you’re wearing your hat the wrong way round?”, which provided endless, childish amusement. Looking at him it was clear that no-one was going to object.

 

The house I rented in Leavenworth complete with a Lion Rampant.

There was much greater emphasis on the reading of military history than there had been at Camberley as far as I can remember. Our first piece of required reading was The Killer Angels, a historical novel by Michael Shaara that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975. The book depicts the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War, much of it told through the real life character Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine, whose  20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment held the left of the Union line during the battle and whose defence of a feature known as Little Round Top was critical to the defeat of the Confederate Army.

We visited the battlefield, and stood on Little Round Top, which was a sobering but fascinating experience. I was also able during my time in Leavenworth to research and present to my classmates on the Battle of Caporetto (aka Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo) in 1917, a heavy Italian defeat at the hands of the Germans and Austrians, of particular interest to me as my grandfather had been there. Few people realise that there were British troops fighting in Italy in the First World War, but there were. My grandfather was part of an all volunteer medical unit which he had joined with all his pals, as they did in those days. Typically, he never spoke very much about it, except to say that he had been “the first man in the retreat” and his Italian comrades had all thrown their rifles in the canal and run away.  Perhaps they had learned that a German officer called Rommel was one of those attacking them!

The senior American officers who came to speak to us were very impressive. Many of them had served in the Vietnam War and were grizzled old veterans, and some had also been involved in Desert Storm in 1991. They tended to bounce on to the stage in the vast central auditorium deep in the college and shout out the name of the syndicate they had been part of when they had attended in the past. This usually resulted in the current iteration of that syndicate jumping to their feet and shouting “hooaah!” in the way that American soldiers tend to do. It was great theatre, and the generals were great speakers, much better than their British equivalents in my opinion.

The course was overall a very busy and comprehensive one and thoroughly enjoyable for me and my fellow International Officers. It wasn’t all work, of course, and away from the course there were a myriad of other social, sporting, and cultural events which went on. Some of them were great fun to take part in and showed colourful aspects of mid-Western life which were, in some cases, not too far from the Hollywood images so familiar to all of us. I’ll write more about this in the next episode.

To come in Part 33; living and working (and playing) in Kansas (continued).

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Photos by the author.

© Stuart Crawford 2021 

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