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U.S. Army training aims at strategy, persuasion

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army is preparing a small set of officers, pegged as its future leadership, to think not just about war but more broadly about security and the impact of U.S. policy on Washington’s image in the world.

The largest branch of the U.S. armed forces has restructured a development program for mid-level officers, adding a policy component and training on nontraditional security problems, to create what it calls “strategic thinkers” armed with intangible tools like persuasion and communication.

Those abilities are seen by young officers as crucial to their ability to lead troops on the ground, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, where service members are not just fighting insurgents but trying to police and rebuild communities.

“If we remain completely wedded to conventional military thought, we will have blinders on that make us irrelevant, to some extent, in environments such as Iraq,” said Maj. Todd Schmidt, one of the roughly 20 officers in the program.

The Army’s focus on strategic thinking and communications skills for its next crop of leaders comes as the United States faces criticism globally for its management of the Iraq war. Some military officials also say Washington’s inability to craft a convincing message about U.S. goals has hurt troops’ ability to accomplish the mission.

Through a three-year “internship” program that includes a master’s degree in policy management from Georgetown University and then jobs within the offices of the defense secretary and joint staff, the Army hopes to mold a core group of officers who can understand the context of combat, said Lt. Col. Jodi Horton, program supervisor.

The training is also based on the belief that strategy is not the realm of political and military leadership alone, but something to be carried by commanders down to the lowest-level soldier on patrol.

“I don’t think there’s a purely tactical level,” said Brian Fishman, a senior associate at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. “The strategic level goes down to the platoon leader.”

Maj. Kevin Williams, an officer in the Army program, said the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal showed how actions by troops, even just a handful, could have enormous strategic implications in war.

GRAPPLING WITH IMAGE

This month, officers in the group met in New York with academics, consultants, private industry and local law enforcement to discuss policing, energy security and financial crime, among other issues.

They also met with one of the world’s biggest advertising agencies to talk about persuasion.

The soldiers shifted the agency’s presentation into an intense discussion about how to craft a more persuasive message about U.S. goals in the Middle East, and how to improve America’s image as a government and society.

The executives, who did not want to be identified for this story, were asked for advice, but they had few answers.

One executive said any message from Washington would lack credibility and should be conveyed instead by U.S. industry through a tourism campaign.

A good idea, but not much hope for soldiers today, one officer said.

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