Norwich College, Vermont: April 2012
Two years ago, I flew to Vermont for the two day Colby Military Writers Symposium, interested in their discussion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Norwich College, where the gathering was held, was charming; Then, it was cold, snowy and picturesque. On return this year, I found it chilly, mostly dry and still picturesque. Both the town of Northfield and the college.
To explain: The Colby Military Writers’ Symposium is named after former CIA Director, William E Colby, a WW 2 OSS veteran. A long time friend of Norwich University, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Public Service in 1992. In 1997, the Military Writers’ Symposium was named after him.
As before, I found the participants thoughtful and considered in their discussion of the country’s present problems - the title of the symposium was Afghanistan and America’s Endless War on Terrorism. And certainly not boring.
But preceding the symposium proper. there was a day’s presentations by four authors. All their recent books but one were with a military theme: a novel about the Civil War, a study of Naval warfare in the South Pacific during WW2, a memoir of a Marine’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the status of today’s media by thirty year ABC Journalist. It was a nice balance of participants: a retired light Colonel, a Marine Captain who had moved onto to strategic analysis, a naval historian cum literary agent, and the long time reporter.
Barrie Dunsmore, who wrote There and Back, talked about The Demise of the News Media and Why That Matters. pointed out past commitment of networks to the news. In recent years, though, ratings went down. Beancutters moved in, a business model prevailed plus the challenge of cable and the Internet in all varieties. One comment that scored for me, a former Journalism student, was that current audiences seemed to identify with opinionated commentary rather than factual reporting.
I was most interested in Ralph Peters, retired military, author, commentator, and columnist - I have read several of his books and follow his column in an American military magazine. Don’t always agree with him, but find him articulate and knowledgeable. He has written one of the best travel books I’ve read, Looking for Trouble. His current book, Cain at Gettysburg, is a novel of the Civil War so it was logical he spoke of Myths of Gettysburg.
One comment Peters made about writing: the historian gives the facts while well done historical fiction captures the flavor and emotions of the time. Also, while the current thesis we have never been so politically divided, is not true when one considers past intramural conflicts. Peters talked at some length about the battles at Gettysburg and the leaders. For him, it was clear that Meade won Gettysburg for the Union.
Nathaniel Fick, a infantry officer. had won the Colby award in 2006, with his book, One Bullet Away. Now CEO of a security research organization, his topic was American Power and Purpose in Afghanistan, Iraq and Beyond. A classics major as an undergraduate, he read of the Peloponnesian Wars before his active duty which found him with the canceled mission at Tora Bora. He talked of the difference between Iraq, urban warfare, and Afghanistan, which was definitely rural. And the college’s cadets poured in to hear him.
In his comparison of conflicts, they range from Insurgency (ie: Iraq and Afghanistan) through conventional warfare to the nuclear option (North Korea and Iran). Two comments that got my attention: the Interest on the debt will soon be exceeded by defense expenditures; our allies are spending less on defense while we are the world’s biggest defense spender. Also, : the US is good at building but needs be more flexible and relevant.
I remembered James Hornfischer from the 2010 Colby; his third book, Neptune’s Inferno, is just out. And that was what he talked about, the WW2 naval engagements in the South Pacific during WW2, at Guadalcanal. I was most interested for my husband was a Yeoman aboard ship anchored at Noumea during that time.
Horfischer described the problems with the Guadalcanal campaign. The Marines were dropped off, with the Navy then caught up in its own problems. Though the US had superiority daytimes, the Japanese took over at night. The non use of newly developed radar compounded the issue. Changes in command lead to Halsey’s appointment as the in-charge guy - respected by subordinates and a gambler by nature, he took chances and won out. Comment: Midway belonged to the air fleet while Guadalcanal was a naval foray.
Speakers were on the local radio and met with students in classes. A military school. Norwich has combined civilian-cadet students. One of the graduating cadets I talked with, is an education major hoping to teach in elementary school upon graduation. No plan to enter the military. All types, including former service(wo)men.
The Symposium featured the three authors with James Hornfischer moderating. It was the third year that the Afghanistan conflict had been featured: The Endless War?
The newsman, remembering when the Russians came into Afghanistan, felt it was time to make an end to our involvement, commenting that there were similarities to the Russian experience as well as US efforts in Vietnam. Concerns about neighboring Pakistan seem to justify the US involvement with Afghanistan. But, we need allies there and our allies seem to be bailing.
The former Army officer thought the US had been successful in the original mission in 2002 but then confused AlQueda and the Taliban, the latter being the local Afghan hill billies, no particular threat to the US. He was very critical of US efforts at nation building and the COIN philosophy, which does assume a stable government. He felt religion was a key factor in the insurgency. He thought Pakistan was more important in the Cold War context than now.
The Marine noted that while Kabul was the political capital of the country, Kandalhar was the spiritual center. Also, a deadline for the Western military support means you have given up any supremacy. Another problem is the dis inclination to relieve poorly performing officers from command - at one time, an officer could be transferred to another assignment, where he might be more successful. Any such move is now seen as a “demerit”. He also suggested the US and its allies, should be thinking in terms of Pakistan-Afghanistan rather than Afghanistan-Pakistan.
Concluding, the Marine paraphrased a ET Lawrence quote: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands; better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It’s their war and you are there to help them, not to win it for them,” as applying to the Afghanistan problem. And then commented that concerns with Afghanistan may diminish as the West becomes more involved with Israel and Iran.
The Reception and Dinner was the final evening, a mix of authors, guests, donors, alumni, and cadets. The menu was mixed, inspired by the books featured during the Symposium. There were several presentation, including the 2012 Colby Award winner, Michael Franzak’s A Nighmare’s Prayer, a Afghanistan memoir by a Marine Harrier pilot. It was at the Dinner’s conclusion that the Symposium’s Director, Dr Andrew Knauf, gave an outline of Terrorism, from pre Christian times to the now -well researched and presented.
And so the next morning, I packed up and headed back to San Francisco.
I stayed in a nearby B/B - the operators were off in the UK but had left a key for me. I had breakfast at the college cafeteria. So it was $310 for three nights at The Elizabethan, $200 round trip shuttle to/from Burlington airport, and $150 for the Symposium. Round trip airfare was $472, with United going out of its way to change flights so I could return home several hours earlier.
I probably will return another year, depending on program and speakers.