Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

A Teacher among Bureaucrats-The Legacy of Alvin H. Bernstein. (Commentary)

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

A Teacher among Bureaucrats-The Legacy of Alvin H. Bernstein. (Commentary)

Article excerpt

On March 23 a glittering but somber crowd of active and retired officers from all services, present and former government officials, distinguished academics, and civilians from all walks of life gathered at the National Defense University (NDU) to memorialize Alvin H. Bernstein. A well-known figure in defense circles, he served as the chairman of the Strategy Department at the Naval War College, director of the policy planning staff at the Pentagon, director of the Institute of National Strategic Studies at NDU (where he was the first editor-in-chief of Joint Force Quarterly), and founding director of the George C. Marshall Center in Germany (an institute that teaches civil-military relations to officers from former Warsaw Pact countries). His was a seemingly conventional in-and-out, academic-turned-government career, marked by its ups and downs and a dash of controversy. It also illuminated the gap between life in the academy and the bureaucracy as few careers have.

Al Bernstein began as an ancient historian, teaching classics at Cornell, then strategy at the Naval War College and later at The Johns Hopkins University. He could keep several hundred officers alternately mesmerized and roaring with laughter while he lectured, without a note, on the strategy of the Pelopponesian War, or used analogies from the screenplay of The Godfather to illuminate how the Romans maintained intricate policies of alliances, patronage, and nicely timed brutality to build an empire. By introducing his students to Alcibiades and Scipio Africanus, Al taught them how to think about strategy. Understanding the relationship between Sparta's oligarchy and its military tactics, for example, offered a way of thinking about how the United States might defeat the Soviet Union. Still, at life's end, Al had concluded that those things that had made him a superb teacher had also rendered him radically discontented with government life.

His disenchantment may seem odd because one of the cliches about a Washington career is supposedly the easy shift from the world of government to that of the classroom and back. There is, to be sure, a whiff of disdain in the bureaucratic view of the academic world. Nary a cocktail party attended by a professor goes by without the labored production of Henry Kissinger's little witticism about the disputes in academe being so great because the stakes are so small. Of course, after watching a Washington fray about whether soldiers will wear baseball caps versus black berets, one may wonder about a supposed academic monopoly on intensity about trivial matters. One surely knows some senior political apointees who devote just as much loving care to bullet placement on briefing slides as professors do to obscure historical data. Nor do all professors find it difficult to manage anything bigger than their in-baskets. Academic leaders like Al have to hire and fire (and inspire) subordinates, juggle budgets, and in general do everything that non-academic managers do. In this respect, the two worlds differ less than many think.

Moreover, many a bureaucrat would like to teach. For some, it offers continuity with earlier intellectual interests reluctantly set aside for government service, or simply the exhilaration of time spent guiding thoughtful and inquisitive minds. For others, a prestigious academic institution is admittedly a comfortable place to await a change of administrations, and respectful young people serve as a fine audience before whom one may reflect upon one's own achievements. The academy, for reasons of its own, may abide these less worthy motives, not caring much about what ensues in the classroom. Students may know better, but out of awe or indifference hold their tongues, no matter what the size of their tuition bills.

The truth is that the teaching vocation calls for skills different from many of those needed in government life. At its best, in fact, teaching requires a different type of personality than that found in the higher reaches of officialdom. …

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