Major Matt Cavanaugh speaking at War Council: Crimea (March 2014). Major Matt Cavanaugh speaking at War Council: Crimea (March 2014).

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

Like all good things, it started with a threat.

In early fall 2013, as a response to Bashar Al Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, President Barack Obama threatened a cruise missile strike to deter the Syrian dictator from future use of such indiscriminate weapons.  The cadets wanted to talk about it.  So I named (“War Council,” via the military’s Council of War tradition), organized, and then held an event.  And we’ve had nine more since this first one in September 2013, on conflicts in:

  • Iran
  • Crimea
  • Gaza
  • Afghanistan (two) discussion with Sebastian Junger and Major Dan Kearney, and screening Korengal
  • ISIS (two) one featuring Iraqi special forces officers fresh from the front
  • Panel on Iraq, Afghanistan, and military leadership with General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal

To top it off, having gone everywhere else, we went to the future.  We held a panel on the future of warfare, at which Colonel Greg Daddis provided thought provoking insight that he’ll (soon) share with the world in a National Interest essay.

In sum: ten events, approximately 3,000 attendees (1,100 attended the Korengal screening).

But there was a problem.  Occasionally, I’d get random requests, like one from a lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division in November 2013, to get the War Council’s analysis and commentary out into the field.  So, over December 2013, I purchased the domain name, paid $200 for a year of website support (renewed once in December 2014, setting me back another $200 for a total of $400), and built the site’s architecture.  In sum, there are about 320 curated, thematic links to audio, video, and great reads in the “Self Study” section.  Other figures from the 17 months, or about 500 days, has been online:

  • Approximately 200,000 unique visitors
  • 188 blog posts (including this one). I wrote 115 (ditto); 64 other authors wrote 73 total posts
  • 44 separate entries in the WarBooks series (ironically, I never got around to it!)
  • Noteworthy contributors: Sir Lawrence Freedman, Admiral (Ret.) James Stavridis, Lieutenant General HR McMaster, Lieutenant General (Ret.) Dan Bolger, cyber-strategist Richard Bejtlich, Prof. Steven Metz, Prof. Andrew Bacevich, Prof. Rob Farley, and Tom Ricks.  Special thanks, of course, is due to Tom Ricks for helping the site get a start by featuring it in the early days.  Whatever else is said (and I’m sure there’s lots), he truly is a friend to the military profession by providing a forum for candid discussion and criticism. Through these arguments, we come out a better Profession of Arms.
  • Interestingly, our most read post in 17 months, by a wide, wide margin, was written by a First Lieutenant, Scott Ginther, as he was stationed in Afghanistan.  Somewhere around 100,000 people read this entry.

I feel proud to have contributed something to the Profession of Arms in a tangible way. I introduced people to new books by helping popularize the “shelfie,” had a hand in inspiring what became the Military Writers Guild, aided in straightening out rules for military writers (hat tip to Major Dan Maurer), showcased the importance of brevity, asked hard questions, and got to try out some crazy ideas.

Of course, I’ve benefitted greatly from this process. I am a better teacher and earned an award for innovation in academia.  Additionally, within my professional field as an Army Strategist, I was recently recognized as the youngest recipient of the Order of Saint Gabriel the Archangel.  I’m immensely proud, and likely seem a bit over the top by including such a large picture of the medal (below).  In my defense, there’s no tech guru here and I can’t seem to make it any smaller!

Also, budding strategists take note: I possess no significant quantity of raw natural intelligence.  I just enjoy the work and work hard at it.  If you think this describes you, then keep at it and you’ll earn one as well.

order of saint gabriel the archangel; patron saint of the us military strategists association. order of saint gabriel the archangel; patron saint of the us military strategists association.

So what lies ahead?

Owing to the War Council’s success, in both physical events and the website, a small group of us in the Department of Military Instruction pitched a concept for a privately-funded organization at West Point that would focus entirely on the study of modern war. It literally started with a single page, poorly worded (and titled!) “concept sketch” of mine.  The idea has undergone changes and adjustments; notably, the organization is to be called the Modern War Institute.  Ultimately, the Superintendent at West Point supports the Modern War Institute’s creation, and approved a healthy initial operating budget. It’ll take some fundraising and some time to get the bureaucratic gears moving in the right direction, but the MWI will be a real entity in the not-too-distant future.  The tentative Mission:

“The Modern War Institute at West Point is a non-partisan, national resource that expands knowledge of current and coming conflict through rigorous research, insightful analysis, and relevant education in order to improve the nation’s strategic performance in peace and war.”

The kicker: I’m turning the War Council over to the Modern War Institute.  While I’ll lose out on some of the fun that goes with writing so much, the continual pressure to dream up novel ideas, I think this course of action is better for those in the Profession of Arms that enjoy off-hours professional development. With resources (money, time, a real editor!) beyond what I could ever hope to provide, War Council will become an exponentially better, more responsive site, and a better forum for inspiration and ideas. And this is just the tip of the iceberg; we have a pretty big vision for the MWI going forward.

All this will take some time.  I will be on my way to the Korean Peninsula shortly, out of the loop for awhile.  In the meantime, I’ll be handing the keys (well, passwords) to the War Council “kingdom” to someone affiliated with the MWI – and they’ll take it from here.  I may pop back up on the site from time to time, but likely that will be sparingly and intermittently.  I guess this is Aloha for now…

Last thought: I’m also turning over the @TheWarCouncil Twitter handle to the new MWI site manager – so please consider following my new Twitter “persona” @mlcavanaugh.  Thanks – it’s been fun!