Lieutenant Colonel Zach Alessi-Friedlander is a master’s student in history. He is a graduate of Columbia University and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, where he participated in the Art of War Scholars Program. He is an active-duty Army officer and most recently served as a strategic advisor to the Commander of the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. He is currently an Army strategist, after having served for 10 years as a military intelligence officer following his commission and early service as a field artillery officer. He has deployed on four occasions in support of the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What made you choose UNC-Chapel Hill when deciding on a program/place to study?
I grew up in New England, but North Carolina is my adopted home. My 8-year-old daughter, Molly, considers herself a Carolina kid! I also earned my field-grade stripes at the 82ndAirborne Division at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, jumping out of perfectly good airplanes (badly). There, I learned to do contingency planning with some of the finest officers and Soldiers on the planet. Academically, UNC uniquely combines expertise in military history with depth in complementary fields like global and American history. I have a deep respect for the faculty and UNC’s tradition as a research institution. Finally, I also appreciate being within striking distance of some of the best archives for my research.
Tell us about your research.
My research is focused on the U.S. Army’s post-Vietnam reforms. I’m particularly interested in how the Army’s inward-looking efforts (doctrinal revisions, materiel modernization, and training improvements) collided with its outward-looking need to re-engage a postwar society with which it needed to refurbish its reputation and from which it now needed to draw volunteers (following the end of the draft in 1973). I believe the institutional Army inappropriately controls the post-1976 narrative on these reforms. This narrative could benefit from a non-institutional, academic perspective. I’d like to revisit what I think is a more complex story than the traditional narrative implies.
What is an important lesson that you learned in the military that has helped you in graduate school?
Resiliency – don’t quit. As a much younger officer, I remember a young Navy SEAL telling me that the way he got through his selection process was writing his dad’s name on his boot tip. Every time he wanted to give up, he looked down at his boot and decided that telling his father – and his teammates – that he had quit was a worse fate than ringing the bell. In the military, our culture emphasizes teamwork, servant leadership, and commitment to a purposeful mission. I genuinely believe that serious academic research performs a complementary societal role – and scholars must be similarly resilient, gritty, and collegial to push through the myriad obstacles that lie in their paths. In expanding our knowledge and complicating our perspectives with rigor and creativity, we are in a better position to grow. The point here: Embrace the grind and be a great teammate. You’re less important than the project to which you’ve committed yourself. What a privilege it is to study, while my teammates continue to sacrifice. That sacrifice weighs heavily on me, even as I struggle to adapt to a heavy reading load, develop a note-taking system, and form academic arguments in papers.
What are you hoping to accomplish with your Carolina degree?
Deepen and expand my perspective, extend my network and contribute to something far greater than myself. Studying at Carolina is an extraordinary opportunity to learn and complicate my thinking. The military can be insular. My engagements with classmates from diverse backgrounds are so important. The faculty and my colleagues here are broadening my horizons and compelling me to consider ideas that I want to take back to the military. More specifically, when I return to the Army, I’d like to tackle “grand strategic” challenges and inform national-security policy. History employs the tools of time, space, and scale – and respects context. While we will never be able to predict the future, I believe the rigorous study of the past can help us to discern patterns that can inform our future efforts.