Education at Their Command

By Brotherton, Phaedra | Black Issues in Higher Education, November 7, 2002 | Go to article overview

Education at Their Command

Brotherton, Phaedra, Black Issues in Higher Education


Much has been written about Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice -- two African American key players in the Bush administration's "war on terror." But there are other African American officials, perhaps not as high profile, who also are making an impact on this country's national security strategy.

Boasting long and distinguished military careers, Maj. Gen. Reginal Clemmons of the U.S. Army and Brig. Gen. Roosevelt Mercer Jr. of the U.S. Air Force head up National Defense University's National War College and Joint Forces Staff College respectively. They are also the first African Americans to serve as commandants of the two colleges, which were established in 1946.

As commandants, (the equivalent of a college dean) a nominative position that rotates among the Army, Navy and Air Force, Clemmons and Mercer oversee their respective college's education and training of the military's and related governmental agencies' cream of the crop. The student body, two-thirds military and one-third civilian, is typically made up of individuals between 40 to 45 years old. They are not admitted to National Defense University (NDU), rather they come highly recommended for their leadership potential to attend what is considered to be the nation's premier center for joint professional military education.

Being selected to attend NDU is a "gem of an assignment," says Capt. Charles D. "Duke" Smith, who retired from the Navy in 1997 after 25 years of service.

"In my opinion, NDU has a strong reputation for providing situations where senior officers and civilians can learn how to deal with political military situations that will face our nation and its allies," says Smith, whose last assignment was as director of marketing and communications at the Navy Recruiting Command in Arlington, Va. He adds, "NDU also provides officers an opportunity to broaden their thinking and avail themselves to some of the leading defense educators and policy thinkers available."

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government's attention has been focused on fighting terrorism both at home and abroad, and NDU has had to shift their focus accordingly. But they never lost sight of their primary mission, which is educating "military and civilian leaders through teaching, research and outreach in areas of national security strategy, national military strategy and national resource strategy," says David Thomas, assistant vice president of university relations.

NDU also focuses on educating leaders dealing with specific war-related operations and commands. With the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks and the potential conflict with Iraq, national security strategy now includes defending against new kinds of threats, such as terrorist attacks, as well as taking action to prevent future ones.

"In the past, the U.S. military was principally designed to battle Soviet Union military in a land war," Thomas says. Today, the faculty is involved in teaching students to develop new approaches to adapt to new and unforeseen dangers, he adds.

Each agency and branch of the military is able to send a certain number of students each year to NDU, which is funded through Congress. Once a student completes a program at NDU, he or she returns to their agency or service equipped to go as far as they want to go, Thomas says, adding, "We stress that there is not a school solution to all the problems they might encounter."


Students attending the National War College, headed by Maj. Gen. Clemmons, complete an intense 10-month program that includes a great deal of "rigor," according to Clemmons.

The mission of the National War College is to prepare future leaders of the Armed Forces, the State Department and other civilian agencies for high-level policy, command and staff responsibilities. Seventy-five percent of the student body is composed of equal representation from the land, air and sea (including Marine and Coast Guard) services. …

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