Aloha, Military Strategy: A West Point Teacher’s Last Letter to His Cadets

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

*Editor’s Note: Those who have followed the WarCouncil site know I’m an assistant professor at West Point, where I teach DS470: Military Strategy.  Unfortunately, I find myself at the end of my three year teaching tour, and this summer I will move on to the Korean Peninsula. At the end of each semester, I give my cadets a letter – which I’ve reproduced below. I wish I could have handed out more of them, taught more cadets (really, where does the time go?); which, I suppose is what motivates me to make public something that is fairly personal. I hope the letter is as useful to a reader as the experiences that led to it’s creation were to me…  

From Personal Experience to Course Concept

I was twenty three when I went to war and I was terrified.  I acknowledged I could die, but my sense of invincibility led me to think it would happen to someone else.  The fear was from the unknown. Even after West Point and Officer Basic Course, war was this vast, black hole, completely unfamiliar to me.  I even went to the doctor to investigate the possibility that my recently surgically repaired knee would keep me at home.  I physically couldn’t run and quietly hoped I wouldn’t have to go. My hopes were dashed when I got a jar of pain pills and the doctor assessed I was “good to go.”  

The depth of what I understood of war was: kill bad guys + take capitol = victory parade. I can’t recall thinking any more than that.  It took until my second year, in Tal Afar, Iraq, to recognize that war was about more than the “bad guys” I could see.  The Regimental Commander ensured that each trooper knew our unit’s mission was to enforce the current United Nations Security Council Resolution in Iraq.  War became purposeful; the implementation of policy with force.  This revelation assuaged the loss of good soldiers and extinguished some pain in my personal life.  It also has, years later, driven me headlong into designing a course which would steer you right where I went wrong.  My purpose in designing DS470 was that my unknown would be your known.

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