Fort Leavenworth and the Eclipse of Nationhood

At Fort Leavenworth, where the Army trains its top brass, captains and colonels study high-tech warfare, read the classics, and ponder what will be left to defend in a transnational world.

FIFTEEN miles beyond Kansas City the swiftly moving Missouri River -- the untamed emblem of the New World -- makes a wide arc before turning north. On July 2, 1804, the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped nearby, en route to the Pacific. In April of 1827, during the presidency of John Quincy Adams, Colonel Henry Leavenworth sailed upriver from St. Louis and here began constructing what would become the advance post of European settlement over the western half of the North American continent. His orders were to build a fort on the east bank of the river. However, because that bank was a flood plain, he built on the bluffs of the west bank, in what was officially "Indian territory" -- outside the Union. By the time the Washington bureaucrats found out, the fort was already a reality.

Fort Leavenworth is the supreme symbol of what the former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin calls "the Fertile Verge" of American history. "A verge is a place of encounter between something and something else," Boorstin has written. "The long Atlantic Coast, where early colonial settlement flourished, was . . . a verge between land and sea. Every movement inward into the continent was a verge between the advanced European civilization and the stone-age culture of the American Indians, between people and wilderness." America, Boorstin went on, flourishes on the verge -- of settlement, geography, culture, technology, or history.


leaven picture Fort Leavenworth has guarded the frontier since 1827. As the most important fort in the West, which sent forth the first group of white people to settle in Indian country under government auspices, Leavenworth became the projection platform for Manifest Destiny. It was the main base for exploration of the Great Salt Lake, in Utah, and the Columbia River, in Oregon; near the starting point of both the Oregon and the Santa Fe Trail; a base camp for the transcontinental railroad. Here a young Illinois man, James ("Wild Bill") Hickok, first entered the West and saw a line of wagon trains as far as the eye could see. From here George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry trekked to the Little Big Horn, and troops marched off to the Mexican War. When the frontier closed, in 1890, Leavenworth began training officers for fighting overseas -- another verge, which arrived in 1898 with the Spanish-American War, when American troops fought in Cuba and the Philippines. Since 1881, when General William Tecumseh Sherman established an officers' school at Fort Leavenworth, this has been the place where the Army prepares its commanders to "fight the next war." "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Colin Powell, to name but a few generals, were indelibly marked by Leavenworth. A Canadian major told me, "If the British Empire was won on the playing fields of Eton, then Desert Storm was won in the corridors of Fort Leavenworth."

With very few exceptions, the Army's top brass have spent at least several months of their lives -- if not much longer -- here. More than 90 percent of Army captains take a nine-week course at the college, and more than 50 percent of majors spend a year at Leavenworth before they are eligible for promotion to lieutenant colonel; among those majors who eventually make it to general, the percentage is much higher. Leavenworth is where military doctrine is written. Its Foreign Military Studies Office conducts in-depth analyses of foreign adversaries. When the United States intervenes overseas, the phones and computers at Leavenworth work overtime.

Leavenworth's Battle Command Training Program runs simulated war games. One such is Prairie Warrior, an annual $7 million exercise in which computers link Leavenworth with other U.S. military installations around the world in a virtual-war situation, with isolated command headquarters, battlefield observers, and so forth. This year Prairie Warrior includes a scenario of a hypothetical island continent with great historical and cultural similarities to Europe troubled by a failing nation-state in the "north-central" sector. The nation-state is both threatened by its neighbors and tearing itself apart through civil unrest and guerrilla insurgencies in a densely populated urban area. Because this scenario is set fifteen years in the future (when today's captains and majors will be generals), the weaponry for the war game includes "intelligent mines" that distinguish among trucks, tanks, and people as well as identify the enemy, and Comanche helicopters (now under development) that fly over an extended distance without refueling and carry fiber-optic-guided missiles.

While other military institutions look "strategically" -- and thus more abstractly -- at the future, Leavenworth, because it concentrates on training captains and majors (the middle ranks), "is where the rubber meets the road," Major Chris Devens told me when I visited recently. For instance, forget Republican rhetoric about a unilateral foreign policy. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Adams told me that in just about every circumstance that planners here have looked at -- nuclear meltdowns in Eastern Europe, collapse of a central authority in sub-Saharan Africa, military offensives against drug and crime syndicates, and so on -- the "intervention scenario is international"; the United States will "rarely go it alone anymore." Prairie Warrior assumes "coalition brigades" of French, British, German, and other foreign troops fighting in a "multinational environment," according to Colonel Rolly Dessert, who organizes Prairie Warrior. Of the 1,300 officers participating in Prairie Warrior this year, ninety are from seventy friendly foreign countries.

Colonel Gregory Fontenot, who was a tank commander in Operation Desert Storm, recently ran his students at Leavenworth's School of Advanced Military Studies through two scenarios: a messy and long-term peacekeeping operation in the Caucasus, in which U.S. forces cooperate with the Russian army, and the Turks refuse to let U.S. ships through the Bosphorus Straits; and a humanitarian emergency in Memphis and St. Louis, following a major earthquake along the Mississippi Valley's New Madrid fault line. A series of major quakes occurred here in 1811 and 1812. Another is expected, and buildings in Memphis were not built to withstand major earthquakes. This exercise tested the Army's ability to work with NGOs ("nongovernmental organizations," or private relief agencies), exactly as it has had to do in Rwanda and other places in the Third World.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

Life as an Obama Impersonator

"When you think you're the president, you just act like you are above everybody else."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

VIdeo

Life as an Obama Impersonator

"When you think you're the president, you just act like you are above everybody else."

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In