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From Junior Officers To Senior Officials

Let’s take one more stab at interpreting the prospective arrival of Phil Carter and Craig Mullaney to the Pentagon. I mentioned that Carter and Mullaney are, respectively, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. But that really doesn’t capture the total significance of their entry into civilian government service. And that’s this: both men were Army captains. Not generals or colonels, with decades of professional military experience, but junior officers leading companies in difficult and ambiguous wars, implementing decisions made by higher command, and improvising along the way. Captains have a significant amount of ground truth to offer a war effort — which is one of the reasons why the Army is deeply concerned about the stress of prolongued war leading to an exodus of captains.

It means a great deal, in other words, for junior officers to become senior Pentagon officials. Deputy assistant secretaries of defense shape policy. Yes, Carter and Mullaney were active in the Obama campaign. But for the Gates Pentagon and the Obama administration to embrace Carter and Mullaney isn’t just a reward, it’s also vote of confidence in the experiences of the company commanders who have shaped and been shaped by the two post-9/11 wars.

Mullaney recently gave an interview to his friend and fellow former Army captain Andrew Exum about his new book, which reflects on his Afghanistan experience. It provides a bit of a glimpse into how he’ll view the war as DASD for Central Asia:

Serving in Afghanistan is, I think, for anyone a humbling experience. You are continually humbled by the geography, the complexity of the society, and the weight of history. Understanding in your bones how long a drive thirty miles is without a road. Feeling in your stomach eyes watching you from canyon rims. Seeing the mixture of sorrow and hope in a child’s eyes and the disillusioned stare of an adolescent with no options. That stays with you and gives a texture and reality check that is valuable when sifting through dry memoranda and contemplating strategic options…

You have to train to be adaptive. A cadet should understand that the war he or she joins four or five years from now will be a different war altogether. The war in Afghanistan in 2009 is totally different than the war I fought in 2003-2004. A well-rounded education including self-directed outside reading and broad exposure through travel may not give you the specific answers about the culture, terrain, or enemy of tomorrow’s battlefields, but it will at least give you the questions to ask so that you can adapt faster and smarter than your adversary.

Grounding. Perception. Adaptability. I wonder where Mullaney learned all that.

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