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The Home Stretch: Veterans Day and a visit to Arlington National Cemetery

The air is chilly this week as we head into our final two weeks together.  We have experienced so much together this semester and the final two weeks are shaping up to be particularly special.

One of the semester’s most memorable visits came a week before the Thanksgiving Break, on Veteran’s Day.  The day was sunny and crisp, with the autumn leaves rustling the trees and security tight in anticipation of the Vice President’s visit. We emerged from the Arlington Cemetery Metro station to the cacophany of Westboro Baptist Church protestors (we had seen them earlier in the semester in conjunction with their Supreme Court case, heard just a block from our residence).  The shocking signs and angry counter-protests proved a stunning contrast to the quiet, reflective interior of the Cemetery.  At the appointed hour, we met Brigadier General John “Mick” Nicholson and walked with him to Section 60. General Nicholson, the Director of the Join Chiefs of Staff’s Afghanistan Pakistan Coordination Cell, is one of the leading figures at the Pentagon.  Most of the American soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are buried in Section 60 (General Nicholson pointed out that the plane that hit the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 flew right over Section 60).

General Nicholson took us to three grave sites in Section 60.  Each one held the remains of a soldier killed while under his command in Afghanistan.  He spoke eloquently about each soldier, and then talked about the ethical choices that he faced as a commander
in wartime.

With tears in his eyes at times, he stopped by several white headstones and told us about the soldiers who lay buried underneath.  (At one grave, we met the fallen soldier’s mother, who had come to pay tribute.)  He told us about the high-stakes ethical questions he faces each day, and how and why he is able to live with the consequences of his answers.  He also shared his thoughts about the Afghanistan war and noted that he would not be able to send women and men to fight without a firm conviction that the United States would win. As he spoke we heard gun salutes from a ceremony in the distance.  Later in the day, several students ran into Vice President Joe Biden, who had come to Section 60 to pay his respects.

The week after Break, we revisited the Social Venture capstone project.  We met with Tom Adkins, a veteran local social entrepreneur and community organizer, who gave a practical
workshop on how to build support for a new venture.  This coming week we are tackling an exciting final case study on executive power and foreign policy “grand strategy.”  On Friday afternoon, students will role play members of the executive branch and work through a crisis memorable simulation.  Their success or failure will depend on their ability to communicate, to set an advantageous “grand strategy,” and to act in accordance with that strategy.  No word yet on who will play the role of President!

Dec 4, 2010

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