On national service

We interrupt the regularly scheduled broadcast… to bring you this worthwhile (but not exactly related to the mainstay of this blog’s focus) video of Matt Pottinger, formerly a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in China, formerly a U.S. Marine Corps officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, now the Edwin R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations delivering an address to his high school last Veteran’s Day.

Pottinger graduated from the Milton Academy in 1991 and was invited back to speak nearly 20 years later.  It’s funny and a little bit interesting to see the emphasis he puts on how he was less than totally dedicated to his studies while a student there, particularly in light of his subsequent professional success both as a reporter for one of the world’s premier newspapers and as a military officer.

It’s an interesting speech to me on a number of levels – first, it’s clear that his story is not typical.  Rarely in the modern day do you see people leave behind rewarding positions like the one Matt had with the WSJ in Beijing to do selfless things like join the Marine Corps to fight, though Matt’s story is not the only one like this – even more well-known was pro-footballer turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman; and there are many more who are relatively more obscure, like the investment banker from San Francisco I personally know who, like Matt, joined the Corps for a single tour in wartime, but in his case it was as a “conscience-clearing” to justify in his own mind the ridiculous amounts of money he was making (he has since returned to investment banking after four years of honorable service that included a tour in Iraq).  We need more people like Matt and my investment banker friend who are willing to step up and serve their countries.

It is also interesting because of the outsize success that Matt enjoyed during his time in the Corps.  He served only 5 years, but accomplished more during that time than many officers can claim in a whole career.  For instance, he innovated the first Marine Corps female engagement teams (FET) in Afghanistan that took advantage of local perceptions about women that allowed female Marines greater access and trust in the local society than the male Marines they served with.  Unlike the male Marines, the female Marines were seen as OK to enter local households without necessitating revenge in the Pashtun honor society system.  Since the FETs were able to get inside the homes of locals, they could better collect information and also tell the locals about what the coalition forces were trying to accomplish, an information operations (IO) bonanza of the first order. (For more on FETs and IO, this recent piece in The Nation discusses the difficulties the Marines and now the Army are having in sourcing personnel for the FETs and more importantly discusses some of the limitations and problems in their use.  This master’s thesis (PDF) from a student at Marine Corps University discusses the need for improved intelligence support to information operations in the types of fighting and nation-building that the US is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Probably largely on the strength of innovating the FETs he was named the 2009 Marine Corps Intelligence Officer of the Year.  He followed that up by deploying to Afghanistan for a second time, and this time around he co-authored (with two high-level intelligence officials also serving in Afghanistan at the time) an influential critique of American intelligence efforts there.  Entitled Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan (recommended reading here at Facing China about a year ago) that advocated, among other things, establishing positions for officers whose jobs would be not unlike that of a newspaper reporter – traveling widely around Afghanistan to speak face-to-face with people on the ground, then taking the information they gleaned at the tactical level back to the headquarters to fuse it together to provide the “real” picture that was getting lost in all the layers of bureaucracy and in the overdependence on technical intelligence collection (no doubt his background as a reporter in China informed this recommendation).

I think Matt makes a good argument for the importance and value of performing national service of some nature – it by no means has to be in the military.  I wonder if through his appearance at his alma mater Matt was able to convince any young Americans of the significance and virtue of seeking service to the point that they resolve to take action.  Only time will tell.

As he says in the speech, Matt has now completed his service and is back at his first love – writing.  I know I am looking forward to what I am sure will be relevant and insightful contributions from him at CFR.

The video is about 40 minutes long, so if that’s too long, you can at least read the “Cliffs Notes” version of it here, in a news release from the Milton Academy.

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3 Responses to “On national service”

  1. Tron Says:

    GEN (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal recently penned a piece in Newsweek on national service that’s worth a read – check it out here: http://www.newsweek.com/2011/01/23/step-up-for-your-country.print.html.

  2. Kevin T Says:

    Thanks for writing this post.
    I’ve always had the impression that Marine officers came either from the enlisted ranks or recent college graduates. Thus it has been incredibly frustrating for me that my parents have refused to give me certain documents in order to complete the application process for the PLC program in OCS. But reading this post has led me to realize that there are officers who had success in civilian/corporate world prior to joining the military. Perhaps walking on this path would allow me to mature much more as an individual and make me a better officer. Again, thank you for writing this post since it really alleviated this self-guilt I had for unable to apply to OCS.

  3. Tron Says:

    Kevin, I appreciate your comment. You’re correct in asserting that most Marine officers are recent college graduates, smaller numbers come from the enlisted ranks, and, like Matt Pottinger, some are sourced from professionals of varied stripes who feel called to serve. One excellent Marine officer I knew was a successful investment banker for several years before seeking a commission. (He has since returned to his previous profession after honorably serving in Iraq.) It sounds like you are disappointed that you were unable to complete the PLC application process (FYI, I also was commissioned via the PLC program). I encourage you to explore your opportunities as a civilian knowing full well that you could find your place as an officer of Marines a little later on and with the benefit of more experience (just be sure to keep in mind the age limits for commissioning – your OSO would have the best information for you about that). My best wishes to you in your future plans.

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