On the morning of November 21st, students, staff, faculty, local civilians and military personnel all gathered at the Sanford School of Public Policy for the inaugural event of the newly formed National Security Student Group (NSSG). Attendees sipped coffee and savored pastries in Sanford’s Rhodes Conference Room, a proper setting to host an event ambitiously titled “Special Operations and the Future of American Grand Strategy.”
The event featured a conversation with Major General Michael S. Repass, a former commanding general of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command. Topics covered included the role of U.S. special operations forces, civil-military relations, and the current situation in Europe and the Middle East.
In opening remarks, Matt Dreher, Master of Public Policy (MPP) candidate and former aide-de-camp to the General, expressed pleasure in being able to introduce his mentor at an event hosted by a club whose existence acknowledged the growing interest in National Security amongst Sanford’s graduate student body. This interest is likely due to the fact that Sanford partners with the Yellow Ribbon Veterans Program and nearly 10% of current MPP students have a military background.
Silver-haired and muscularly-built, the retired General cuts an imposing figure—one capable of commanding a battalion of soldiers. Notwithstanding his physical stature and battle-tested wisdom, Repass spoke with humorous candor of the woes of retirement. One particular anecdote illustrated the ubiquitous frustration experienced when speaking to a Verizon store clerk.
All joking aside, the General provided a comprehensive overview of European and Middle Eastern countries’ interconnected objectives. Repass hailed the United States’ ability as a superpower to employ economic, diplomatic, and militaristic means to achieve desirable outcomes: “We can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.” That being said, he acknowledged that America’s “can do” culture leads to it unnecessarily place itself at the center of turmoil. In regards to the ISIS conflict, the General implied that the fight is not primarily an American one, but rather a battle between the Shia and Sunni denominations of Islam.
The General encouraged provocative questions, and moderator Robin Millican steered the conversation to the issue of Russian aggression. Repass insisted Vladimir Putin only staged the Crimea annexation to split opinions in the NATO alliance. Russia’s true objective, warned the General, is the acquisition of the Baltic States. “We are literally playing Russian Roulette,” he quipped to convey the severity of the situation.
The General’s mix of gritty, tactical prowess and humanized, philosophical reflection proved an appropriate metaphor for his assessment of America’s role in the world which is at once both grim and hopeful. NSSG president Maureen Hartney agreed with many aspects of Gen. Repass’ speech. “I was particularly impressed with his willingness to speak about his own unfettered opinions, which may currently be unpopular to many neo-isolationists but still carry the important weight of someone continuously exposed to the ‘wicked problems’ that my generation now faces.”
Gen. Repass’ military career began in 1980 upon graduation from the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY. He spent over 30 years as a Special Forces officer and has commanded at every level from captain to major general. He retired well-decorated, with assignments that spanned the globe. Repass is currently the Chief Executive Officer for Able Global Solutions LLC, which he founded after retiring from the Army.
In response to an inquiry of how students can develop a frame of reference to deal with the complex problems facing the world, the General implored students to “get out of this beautiful city!” He prescribed the experience of living internationally in order to affirm one’s values and define their role in society. “Some of you have seen the capacity of evil, and if you haven’t already, you will. You have an obligation to do something about that.”
The NSSG has set the bar high by commencing with a visit from a two-star general. When asked her opinion of the talk, undergraduate Emma Campbell-Mohn replied, “Events like these that connect students to professionals are what make Duke a unique experience.”