Learning lessons from the past help us move forward

July 13, 2011|By SPENCE PERRY

It is a workday morning in the mid-80s in an auditorium on the campus of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. Students gather for an exercise.

 The seats are full, the class consists of rising colonels, captains, foreign service officers and federal senior executives eager for the day.

 The presiding faculty member announces the morning’s topic: “Today we are going to have a story and then discussion.”

 The lights dim, a screen descends from the ceiling, a movie appears. Black and white — the title appears: “A Trip to Abilene.”

 Fade in: a farm family sitting on their porch on a summer Sunday afternoon: Checkers, knitting, reading, quiet talk, children playing, all content.

 Someone in the family group, it is not clear who, suggests that it is a good day for a trip to Abilene for dinner. There is soon pile-on agreement that this is a great idea. The family gathers their purses, sunglasses and other necessaries and pile into the family sedan, one of the bulbous, but roomy 1950 four-door cars — you can almost feel the scratchy wool plush seats.

 Off they go down two-lane blacktop, talking excitedly, miles of rolling Kansas prairie flash by — suddenly there is a loud bang, the car begins to lurch — a blow out! Everyone out of the car and onto the shoulder while the men (in dress-up coat and tie) change the tire. Back in the car and under way as before.

 It is getting hot, the afternoon is escaping, and then steam from under the hood — radiator boils over, stop, out of the car, haul up water from a stock pond. Back in the car, gently limping into Abilene to a filling station (miraculously open on a summer Sunday afternoon).

 Continue to the restaurant: Closed. No one had called ahead.

 The only course is to head back to the farm in resentful silence.

 Once home, sitting on the porch, anger, frustration and unhappiness are unleashed. “Why did we go to Abilene?” “Whose idea was it anyway?” “Look at the time and money wasted.” “We would have been better off staying here.”

 We are left with the family looking out into the distance, quiet, a little sullen, night falling rapidly.

 The lights come up and the early-middle-aged folks who would soon have a powerful hand in leading the nation began to reflect.

 “Well, of course, the mission was not clearly thought out, and no alternatives were considered.”

 “The intelligence was poor, no one checked on the restaurant. That might have aborted the whole effort.”

 “They had equipment failures they could have aborted, but they did show real initiative coping with the “situation.”

 “There was no after action “hot wash” or analysis, this may cause them to do the same thing again.”

 After an hour of analysis and comment it was time for lunch and the students emerged into the brilliant sunlight of an early full morning, headed for the Officer’s Club buffet.

 How much of the exercise did they retain? Judging by our recent diplomatic and military history and our ongoing economic melodrama, perhaps not much. Or, perhaps they were not listened to by their political leaders who usually have had no exposure to this kind of education.

 Perhaps most of them did not pay attention. They may have doodled or played with their watches, slept. Given this vast increase in electronic entertainment possibilities, I suspect present students are twittering or texting this lesson away.

 Here we have people being given the opportunity to learn a key lesson about their trade and yet, it seems to pass them by. It thus becomes necessary to “get” the lesson at a later time in great pain and cost further down the road, when lives, really big money and national honor are at stake.

 A new policy or a new program is like a trip — you need to be sure why you want to go there, what the hazards are and what are the potential costs of failure. Once the trip is over, win or lose, we must look at where we have been, where we have come to and what the lessons are.

 It is not too late to rewind the movie and watch again. We will always face the prospects of new journeys and it is clear we need to become better travelers.

Spencer Perry is a resident of Fulton County, Pa., who remains active in Washington County affairs. He studied and taught at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in the 1980s.

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