By Rachael Tolliver-U.S. Army Cadet Command April 25, 2014
Almost 30 years ago, a biology major at the College of William and Mary made an important decision. He joined the school's Army ROTC program.
That decision has taken Col. John Bessler down a career path that he, originally, did not anticipate as a Cadet. He started his career as many Cadets do after graduation; as a platoon leader. What he could not see in his future was later serving as the director of future operations at the Army's Training and Doctrine Command and in his current position as the Chief of Staff for the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training.
The changes in the Army, how it trains and where it is going were not just part of Bessler's journey--as a member of TRADOC's leadership, he helped shape some of those changes.
"Back when I was a Cadet the terrain was different--we were training for Soviet threats," he explained. "But, at our peril we ignored the civil population, the civil aspect of the terrain. Over the years, especially since 2003, we have realized that the true terrain is the people in the country into which we impose ourselves. Those are things we now try to teach."
Bessler is in his fourth year as a roundtable presenter for the George C. Marshall Seminar. He has spent the last half of his career developing and studying cultural relations within the assignments he has been given which have helped lead him to where he is today. And it started with a deployment to the Sinai.
"I was at Fort Drum as my battalion's S3, and later the executive officer, when we deployed to the Sinai for peace-keeping operations," he said. "That is where I started studying about culture, while watching the relations between the Israelis and the Egyptians. It was very interesting the way things would develop."
Culture is important to tomorrow's officers, Bessler explained, because they need to better understand viewpoints outside of their own, particularly when they are in someone else's backyard.
He added that understanding the local traditions and customs that make up a national culture, combined with the current situation, is a very important piece in knowing what the local populace wants. A lieutenant needs to know how this puzzle fits together just as a general needs to know.
And these are the lessons on which he hopes the Cadets who attend his Cross Cultural Challenges roundtable at GCM will understand and be able to apply as officers.
"For example, a single Soldier burning a Koran can create a strategic incident," he said. "A lieutenant needs to know how important culture is regardless of where they are stationed--Central America or the Middle East."
Another point Bessler made during his roundtable discussions was that a single Soldier is just as much an enabler as a disabler to a successful mission, depending on how they act or don't act.
Everything from helping a little old lady across the street, to the Koran they don't burn, and how those acts can be communicated strategically.
Bessler emphasized to Cadets that how THEY are perceived by the host country and the people they work with is of paramount importance.
"On the first day I was in Afghanistan the number one guy I was supposed to mentor and advise said 'You are an American and you put a man on the moon. You can do anything,'" Bessler recounted. "Well I didn't put a man on the moon, but that is the way our flag is perceived. So to understand how I was perceived enabled me to figure out ways to help enable him."
Cadet Cody Wendelin, a natural resources conservation major at Virginia Tech, attended one of Bessler's roundtables. He said what he learned from the discussion was how important it is not just to understand what we think a local populace needs, but what the locals think their needs are.
"We may go in somewhere and see a bridge we think needs to be fixed, but they may want their Mosque fixed," he explained. "And Col. Bessler used concrete examples, which I understand and appreciate. He said that everyone looks at things from their own foxholes so we have to see what everyone's perspective is so we can better understand."
Another part of the class Wendelin enjoyed was the way Bessler used the topic of forming foreign coalitions to explain what the Cadets can expect in forming relations with their first platoons.
A platoon is a diverse microcosm of society with different types of people who all have different backgrounds. Wendelin said just like in forming coalitions, he knows he has to figure out how best to work with each member of his platoon.
"Since I am about to commission, that sort of information is important to me too," he explained.
Bessler said he chose to weave the lessons together because as he was preparing his lectures four years ago, he thought "what do I know a lot about." Having spent time in different cultural environments, and coming from a coalition command, he said he felt the cultural lessons he learned would be valuable to a brand new platoon leader.
"You can extract the same sort of dynamics from a platoon (as with a coalition) because you have 30-40 Soldiers each with different backgrounds, cultures, agendas, ethics and you have to move them from a dispersant group into accomplishing your mission--it translates into an overall lesson," he said.