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Public Affairs : DSS hosts inaugural War Council

DSS hosts inaugural  "War Council: Syria"

Story and photos by Mike Strasser
Assistant Editor
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Sept. 13, 2013) — The turnout was unexpectedly large though the topic was assuredly on the minds of cadets filling the seats and lining the aisles.

The Department of Military Instruction’s Defense and Strategic Studies Program hosted its first “War Council” on the topic of Syria Sept. 6 in Thayer Hall.

It was a multi-disciplinary panel that took the stage, representing the Department of English and Philosophy and Literature, the Department of Law, Department of Foreign Languages, Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering and the Combating Terrorism Center.

The instructors provided a basic area study of the region, similar to what small units conduct prior to deployments. Panel members presented the social and cultural considerations and an overview of the different extremist groups. Others discussed the legal and moral implications of American intervention in Syria, and options for American direct and indirect force approach options.

Maj. Matt Cavanaugh, DS470: Military Strategy course director and instructor, offered the differing opinions of whether such intervention is wise or unwise, but added the caveat that the panel could only provide insight and raise questions rather than offer definitive answers or suggest policy.

This may have been an inaugural event for the DSS Program, but the forum is nothing new, Cavanaugh said.

“The idea is an old one, where you have a group of officers getting together to talk about current events—typically it’s the war in front of their faces,” Cavanaugh said. “I would say that the topic itself, the subject of conversation, has been on everybody’s breath for weeks now … and so it seemed natural to try this War Council here. In Defense and Strategic Studies, this is what we do—we study the use of force in international politics.”

The event was held during the Dean’s Hour and attendance was largely voluntary. DSS estimated close to 300 cadets attended, with about 50 faculty members also present.

“Cadets are hungry to learn about the world, and the military’s use of force in the world,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s on the front page of every newspaper today and they know that, very soon, they will have a small but important part to play in these events.”

The goal of this War Council was to satiate that hunger for information—to assist cadets in becoming better informed, Cavanaugh said. This could only work by fusing the knowledge from several academic disciplines.

“Almost all academic disciplines have some value in understanding and learning about conflict,” Cavanaugh said. “They’re all necessary but none are sufficient alone. So the idea is to bring together all these academic departments and take a multi-discipline approach.”
Maj. Ian Fishback, who teaches Introduction to Philosophy in the Department of English and Philosophy, spoke about the moral implications surrounding the potential use of force in Syria. The War Council was well-received by cadets and many stayed afterward to continue the discussion with panel members..

With no RSVPs forthcoming, Cavanaugh wasn’t sure what to expect in an audience, but after an exchange of emails regarding the event, it soon went viral.

“I think part of the reason why there were so many cadets here today is that they sensed that need to become better informed,” he said. “They field questions from parents, from friends—‘hey, what do you think about what’s going on in Syria?’ I know when I go home my wife asks me about Syria. On some level they know that the community, their families and friends expect them to be knowledgeable as future members of the profession of arms.”

Many stayed after the council adjourned to delve deeper into the subject with individual panel members. Class of 2016 Cadet John Goetz was among those who gave up a free period to attend and wanted to stay and ask a few more questions. He said he entered the council with an open mind, hoping to leave knowing more about the Syrian conflict then before.

“This gave me a lot that I can think about going forward and use to interpret the way news media presents the information coming out of Syria,” Goetz said. “There are so many aspects of the conflict that people may overlook. So it takes a little patience and education to look at the big picture … and look at the consequences of whatever action we may take.”

Given the substantial reception this event received, Cavanaugh was encouraged that the next War Council, whether it is a follow-up to the current topic or something else relevant, will again bring a large contingent of cadets to take part. “This was very informative and worth the time. If they have another War Council, I’ll definitely want to come back,” Goetz said.

To learn more about the DSS program, visit