The War College Diaries: An Unofficial Guide to the Australian Command and Staff Course

This article is a collation and edit of emails sent to Army members selected for attendance on the Australian Command and Staff Course for 2021 by an Army member attending the 2020 course as it happened. It contains the opinions of the author and completely unofficial in its content.

Introduction

Firstly, congratulations on your selection for ACSC. You don’t need to be told how big of an achievement it is. Well done.

Prior to starting, I received myriads of advice and tips from people who had been on the course in recent years. My immediate observation was that the course has evolved significantly in the last two years and will continue to evolve from my course to yours. My aim is to give you generic tips that will stand the test of time and periodic change.

The big point: everyone has their own way of studying that works for them – there is no right answer, it’s what works for you.

Pre-Course

Before coming here, I was very apprehensive. I had not studied before and I did not know what to expect. Previous course members who offered tips/tricks seemed to have had a different experience, so I couldn’t really picture the environment in my mind. My wife would agree that I was a nightmare to be around in the week leading up to the course. I think I was more nervous than my six-year-old daughter who was starting Kinder at the same time. However, at the end of week one, I felt a lot more comfortable and confident about what was coming. I felt like it wasn’t going to be a ‘cruisy’ year, but it was going to be a good one – I was right. I suppose my message is: don’t be nervous, you were selected to come on this course for a reason and you’ll be fine.

You don’t need to buy anything before you come to the War College, but there are a few things to consider to make your life more comfortable. The College has a Bring Your Own Device policy and you will need to bring a computer to work on. Most use laptops, some use tablets like surface pros, and some of the more adventurous write their notes onto a notepad (these people are crazy and should be watched closely), but you will need a computer to submit assessments. Think about how you might like to study. I got a second screen to use for reading documents whilst I wrote my notes onto my other screen – that worked well for me, but others did it differently. I also bought a desk to have my own study space, but that didn’t work for others who liked studying on the sofa or at the family dining table… or even the pub – think about what will work for you.

The dress code for the course is business casual. You might have to top up your wardrobe to avoid a cycle of the same shirts every three days. If you are going to want to buy more clothes, buying the odd item here and there in the year leading up to the course might be better than taking a large financial hit in the Christmas break leading up. I am told this is harder for the ladies who won’t be wearing different variations of blue shirt and beige chinos each day. For most of you, it will be your first posting to Canberra, get some warm clothes for the winter, it’s colder than you think.

The Conduct of the Course

The course is separated into four terms. Term one was introductory in its nature. We received presentations from the key leaders of the Australian Defence Organisation, including the service chiefs, Secretary of Defence, and Chief of the Defence Force. Concurrently we received a communications module which served as a slate cleaning for academic writing for the course. The first study module was the Strategy module, where we looked at the concept of strategy and examples from history. Strategy then led to the Australian Strategic Environment module which focused on strategy within the Indo-Pacific region. We spent this term in our guidance group, which is the group you tend to stay in touch with through the course. The lead Directing Staff for your guidance group is your guidance officer, who will keep track of your performance throughout the course. There is nothing you need to do for this course other than what is directed to you in the joining instructions. People telling you to read Clausewtiz’s On War or anything on Thucydides, before you arrive, are messing with you and they are jerks.

Term two saw a change of syndicate groups and the start of the two Operations modules. Operations One was a detailed look at the First World War, interwar period, and the Second World War. Operations Two then explored limited wars and counter-insurgency campaigns from Korea and ended with the 2003 Iraq conflict. We finished the term with Leadership Theory. After this term, we had some leave to give us a break before the next term. For most of the course material, the speakers are the world-leading experts on these topics and dialling in from around the world – it’s pretty impressive.

Term three started with the Australian Strategic Defence Policy module, which looked at the eras of Australian Defence policy and where it’s heading in the future. The term concluded with the two smaller modules of Capability and Advanced Technology and Operational Artists, before finishing off with the second part of the Leadership Theory module. There is traditionally a capability study tour at this point, but COVID-19 put a stop to that for us, hopefully it’s back on for your course.

Joint Operations Planning dominates the fourth and final term. This module is a more practical and doctrine focused module of how Defence conducts joint planning. There are a number of planning exercises as part of this module. We got back together as guidance groups with our Guidance Officer for this module.

Workload

You are completing a Master’s degree on this course, so expect exams and essays. The assessments vary, depending on the module. It’s all manageable, but will require afternoon/evening study. The course allocates Assignment Preparation and Research periods to you for your study. You are not required to be at the college for these periods and you use them how you wish. I tended to front load my study and work into evenings, but I rarely worked on a weekend, unless I was knocking out an essay early. Some people stuck to normal working hours and did a little over weekends. It depends what works for you and you won’t really know until you test and adjust at the college. But, to me, it didn’t feel overly busy and I was not balancing anywhere near as much as when I was an operations officer at a unit. There is a significant workload, but was sequential and workable. I suppose it depends on your previous experience and your definition of what ‘busy’ means.

There is a significant amount of reading to do. For those that don’t already read a lot, it can be a change of pace and take some getting used to This, too, is manageable and just needs testing and adjusting as you get stuck into the course. One piece of advice I received prior was, “don’t read for free.” Reading for a purpose is good advice, it will help keep you on track with what you need to do. I found I still read for enjoyment in my own time, but I wasn’t reading anything related to the topics I was studying at the time. The essential readings are well managed and given to you as electronic PDFs of the specific sections/pages the lecturer wants you to read.

YouTube is your friend – but don’t reference it. Before starting the readings or lectures for a specific conflict, it can help to search YouTube for a short summary of the conflict. They really help put things into perspective for those who are not military history buffs and a good refresher for those that are.

Get a sounding board for your work. Whether this be people who have done the course previously or a study group with mates on the course, having someone to bounce your ideas off helps. Your Guidance Officer will look at essay plans and give you their thoughts on what you’re writing. Wherever you go, a second opinion really helps as you formulate what you’re going to write.

This year the social aspect has been hard to compare to previous years. But it is a social course. At the risk of sounding like I drowned in the Kool-Aid, one of the best aspects of this course is experiencing the perspectives of your peers in other services and the civilian workforce. Take the advantage of a course designed to invest in you by socialising with the other course members, you will regret it if you don’t.

Family

This year is going to be different from any you have previously had in your career. You are going to spend more time at home, but you will have more work to do at home, that you need to make time for. If you have a family, talk through how you will balance your studies and participating in family life. I found that I was able to help out at home more than I have in the past, but I also had to set time where I was at my desk and having to focus on study. Some people liked to finish for the day at the college, help out at home, then study after the kids were in bed. Others liked to study in a ‘working day’ with a set finish time. I strongly recommend considering and discussing how you will execute this balance.

The War College hosts a spouses’ information night. At first look, you could think this is a strange concept for an employer to ask your partner to go to your workplace without you and be talked at about your job. My experience was that this is actually a very worthwhile activity. My wife did more socialising with the partners of my guidance group than I did with the members of the guidance group. It also let it sink in that I would be at home a lot. My previous roles saw me away often or at home after long days. I was now going to be part of the morning school run routine and around to help out, but I also changed that routine by my presence and the way I did things. We also got a dog, don’t do that… that was stupid.

Course Member Appointments

There is an abundance of course member ‘extra-regimental’ style appointments. The Course Member Advisory Committee is the central hub for this–think of it as a Regimental Trust Fund committee. There are sub-committees for everything from sports teams, through to the yearbook. Don’t shy away from these; the more people hook in, the better. Think of something you can do to chip in and make the course a great experience. Try and volunteer for something you actively want to do. There are also syndicate appointments to volunteer for. Take advantage of the many sports teams available, even for those who have never experienced them before. Our Aussie Rules team had a good number of overseas course members who had never played before.

Scuttlebutt is a fortnightly event held routinely on a morning and allows the College staff to speak to the collective, as well as any other announcements from any committees that wish to update the course body. It’s an event that naval units carry out as part of their routine and works well within the ACSC course structure. I make that point because it’s worth remembering that this is not just an Army course. It was also used for overseas course members to present on their countries in short 10-minute bites, which were all entertaining and informative.

Another routine activity is the Course Back Brief. This event is a lot like any ‘Sheriff’s’ that Army members experience on promotion courses throughout their careers. There is a lead Sheriff and one from each service, including a raffle lead. The Army members have traditionally set the tone for this activity as it’s a new concept to the other services. It’s a marathon not a sprint and the course members might be getting paid more than they did on the captains’ course, but I doubt many of you have the same disposable incomes you had then, fines for everyone that sneezes might not be sustainable.

Observations

The best single piece of advice I received beforehand was to, “Run your own race.” Everyone is approaching their study in their own way and achieving different results from each other.  Don’t worry about how everyone else is going on the course. I would finish my essays as early as possible as I don’t like a task looming over me. Friends of mine would complete essays the weekend before it was due as they preferred to focus on the course content and not concurrently write an essay. It’s different for everyone.

Essays are subjective. Humans are marking your essay and you might have a different marker to your friends. With that in mind, expect marks to vary. You may consider an essay to be your best work and it may receive a pass grade, opposed to something you are less happy with that gets a distinction. Be at peace with this and expect it.

For many of you this will be the first time, in a long time, that you have not had any subordinates and you only have yourself to worry about. Becoming self-involved and focusing solely on your study is a risk. Keep being an active team member and don’t turn into a study hermit.

It’s been a long time since you were at your service’s officer training school together. Many of you have been away and gained very different experiences. For those that you lost touch with over ten years ago, use this time to catch up and learn from the experience they’ve had. You were all selected to attend the course, so the fact that someone was back-classed as a staff cadet is irrelevant now.

Have something outside the college. Course members’ hobbies this year have varied from knitting through to triathlons. Whatever it is, have something where you can switch your brain to something outside of the College workload.

Overseas Course Members

The course has around 40 Overseas Course Members (OCM) from a wide range of nations and services. It doesn’t need to be said, but you’re their host and part of the unofficial welcoming committee. One of the guidance group appointments available is to be an OCM Buddy, which I highly recommend. Aside from providing a ready-made friend, it gives our overseas mates someone to ask questions about things we normally take for granted or treat as assumed knowledge. You’ll be surprised how often I had to ‘translate’ for my American buddy.

Australia Day takes place soon after the course forming up. If you have an event planned invite your OCM mates over. It’s a great experience and serves as a relaxed way of getting them bedded in to Australian culture. If you think they are having it tough trying to settle in, their partners might be having an even harder time, so try and include them too.

ANZAC Day is a sombre and respectful day, but it is also uniquely Australian (settle down Kiwi readers – no one is forgetting you) event. Offering to take them to a Dawn Service and march will let them experience the day for themselves too. Small things like talking through the traditions and how each service marks the day is really appreciated by them. Top tip: be careful they don’t fleece you whilst you play two-up. Visits to places like the Australian War Memorial are also appreciated when there is an Australian tour guide to take them around, even if you aren’t an expert, you’ll be able to offer more information than you think.

Reflections

I type this having submitted my last essay whilst working on Joint Operations Planning with my guidance group. I’m feeling wise and reflective, like an RM-Williams-wearing Yoda. Now the majority of the course is complete I can look back and consider what this course is really all about. This course isn’t there to get you ready for your next appointment, or even the one after that. What it does is give you a year out of your respective career models to think about broader things – which sounds loose, I know. The Chief of the Defence Force told us he wanted our minds to ‘sparkle’ by graduation. We were surprised that a four-star general gave us that as our goal, but, however cheesy it may sound, now that we’re coming to the end – I get it. We’ve had a year to think, whether that be on strategy, operations, or leadership. I believe it’s more of an investment in you as an asset for the future, rather than a proficiency course that will qualify you for your next role within the organisation. As someone who was nervous about the course, I can safely say it’s been a great year and an experience I’m glad to have had.

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