War College, located at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D.C. A quarter of the seats were reserved for civilians, mostly from State and CIA. The idea was to include everyone who might have a voice in interagency discussions about national security, so other agencies, like Treasury or the FBI, also sent a sprinkling of students. Some of my civilian classmates went on to notable careers. One or two became ambassadors. But the emphasis was military. Each of the three service departments got about 35 places each, all given to colonels (or Navy captains), or lieutenant colonels certain soon to be colonels. In the Class of 1974 were three other future Air Force four-stars. Monroe Hatch would end up our vice chief of staff, John Shaud would become chief of staff at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), and Jim McCarthy would finish his active service as deputy commander in chief, US European Command.

The POWs came home from Hanoi in early 1973, and by fall many had recovered sufficiently to attend school. Four came from the Air Force: Fred Cherry, Fred Crow, Dick Dutton, and Sam Johnson. Sam was an ex-Thunderbird slot man, bagged taking an F-105 across Hanoi. He went on to become a long-term US congressman from Texas.

Also in the class was a good friend and future major general, Tom Swalm. Tom had led the Thunderbirds early in the F-4 era. I saw him do several shows, a particularly memorable one at Washington’s Dulles Airport, where we lost the right wingman, Joe Howard, because of flight-control failure. Swalm grew up in southern California, helping invent or perfect a number of only mildly hazardous beach games. He’d gone on to be a track star and Olympic-level volleyball player at the University of Oregon. At a minimum, he was a competitor, a Jedi knight, a wonderful airplane driver, certainly one of the best formation leaders ever. If anything, his performance on the ground was even better. He possessed, for a fighter pilot, unusually well-developed social skills. Supposedly, tigers and lions are close enough genetically to mate and produce offspring. But tigers are solitary; lions, social animals. Tom was a lion.

Fort McNair was also the site of another senior military institution, the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF), a school for logisticians (our name: “shoe clerks”). In 1973–74, NWC played ICAF in eight sports, splitting four and four. Tom captained the volleyball team, trying unsuccessfully to show me how to leave the floor to spike the ball. I redeemed myself by helping win the first-ever racquetball competition between the schools.

Over the years, I lost track of most of the civilians and members of other services in the Class of ’74. I do remember another ex-POW, this one from the Navy, a young, skinny, physically beat-up John McCain, the junior man of the class. Only a lieutenant commander (equivalent to major) when he showed up, John pinned on commander rank during the school year.

Fort McNair was an island of calm staked out on the Anacostia River, in one of the capital’s grimmest neighborhoods. It featured a parade ground, put to peacetime use as a par-three golf course; a row of stately Georgian homes along the riverbank; and the college itself, a splendid red-brick dating from 1918. For many years, it served as the Army War College, but that institution was removed to Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, when, after World War II, the need arose for a joint school. Class pictures dating back to 1947 adorned the halls, the old boys (and now, girls) including many distinguished personages.

The National War College concerned itself with national strategy—how to formulate it, how to embed it in policy, how to execute it. We pursued these themes in readings, lectures, and seminar sessions. The key questions: What is the national interest? How is it best served? These are abstract topics, mushier than they would seem at first, and we got a daily dose of prominent speakers, military and civilian, to help us with inquiries. But, reduced to essentials, the message was that a great power works its will in many ways: economic, diplomatic, social, political, cultural, even moral or ethical. It was not a hard sell. Military professionals are the first to understand that we needn’t settle every international dispute by the bayonet.

In fact, it was too simple an issue and, in addition, not germane. Very few of those attending NWC would ever make a meaningful contribution to the Washington dialogue about national security. The roles, missions, and functions of the services—who does what on the battlefield and how these activities might be more efficiently directed, integrated and supported—would be an interesting study topic, and potentially more fruitful, in the sense that graduates might expect, in later years, to have some influence on the matter. Of course, “roles and missions” would be controversial, likely to divide and separate a student body meant to be joined and unified. But if students worked together on answers then, over many years, a sort of senior-level consensus might emerge that could make it possible to rationalize the way we organize to provide security to our country at reasonable cost. At a minimum, some of our future generals and admirals might begin to understand why having, for instance, three armies and five air forces is a costly and damaging way to organize, a kind of subversion of the very national interest we are supposed to serve.

We might have started with the story of Lt. Gen. Leslie J. McNair, the man whose name was on the installation we came to every day. One of the Army’s most promising officers, McNair was the senior officer killed by friendly fire in World War II. Eighth Air Force did it, dropping the bomb that exploded in his foxhole near Saint-Lô, in Normandy.