“I still feel strange being called a writer”

When Colin Powell passed, one of the things I wondered about was where all of his writings might be.

He’s written books – memoir. But I’ve not seen a single article written by him during his time in the Army.

You would think that there would be something out there – some article in a military journal – but so far I’ve turned up nothing.

Not everyone in the military writes, after all. In fact, it is the exception to write, not the rule.

After all, what’s the incentive?

Certainly you’ve heard of the “Powell Doctrine” and the “Pottery Barn Rule?” Well those are not things that he wrote, or even something he necessarily put forth. These were ideas ascribed to him, and in fairness, they do come from him.

Colin Powell did have a talent for boiling big ideas down into things that are actually understandable.

When Army ROTC returned to New York City, he faced down critics with a simple phrase: “Military service is honorable.

Interestingly, I came across this interview where he says the following:

I still feel strange being called a writer. I’m mostly a speaker.

What an insightful notion. Too often we think that to be a thought leader in some field you have to write. And that can certainly be true.

But crafting speeches – even if someone is crafting them for your, and then you edit – that is a form of writing. More importantly, it’s a form of creating.

I would love to see the collected speeches of Colin Powell. There are ideas in there that we don’t see, because there isn’t an article trail. Speeches – even when recorded – can be ephemeral.

It makes me think – will future leaders, even military leaders – have alternative intellectual legacy trails? Blog posts? Tweets? YouTube videos?

Probably.

For Colin Powell, why write when he could speak?

For today’s leaders, where is the most relevant place to make an impact? Is it in a military journal that is rarely read? Or is it somewhere else?


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Colin Powell

colin powell rotc cadet
A young Colin Powell as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York (1957)

Most people know Colin Powell as one of the TV generals during the Persian Gulf War. Or an ever-present military official in the highest circles of power. Or the Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, who gave a speech at the United Nations that would bookend his legacy.

I knew that guy too. A soldier who loved the operational Army but kept finding himself back in the White House. Duty called, and he was good at it.

But what many people don’t know is how dedicated Colin Powell was to his alma mater, the City College of New York (CCNY) – the “Harvard on the Hudson.”

One of the main reasons I chose to go to City College was Colin Powell. He helped establish a new center there that fostered leadership training and provided scholarships for students. I was fresh out of the Army and wanted to be a part of it.

The first time I met General Powell was at an event at CCNY. He was on campus to announce a donation to the college that would pay for the ‘unmet needs’ of student veterans. It was also an opportunity for Powell to get in the media and discuss his thoughts on the burgeoning “Post-9/11 GI Bill.” There was a debate in Washington at the time over how a new GI Bill might affect retention. My role was to give a short speech on ‘what it’s like’ being a student veteran. Colin Powell would introduce me.

Before the event, a quick meeting was arranged between the speakers in a backroom. As I walked in, I saw General Powell, reading over news articles online discussing the debate. He was on. He was working. Somebody mentioned the retention issue. Powell dismissed it, loudly, as nonsense.

He knew he had an important role to play. He understood that he had the power to move the debate, to move the dial. Well placed words and we’re that much closer.

He greeted me by speaking my name loudly like we had known each other forever. This is the first time we met. He seemed to know me. We talked about the Army. We talked about the 82nd Airborne Division. We talked about Iraq.

Minutes later, we were in the hall giving speeches.

He talked about City College. He talked about education. He thanked the donor.

And then he made a sharp statement about the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Nothing crazy, just expressing how he believed the retention issue would not be an issue at all.

Camera flashes and scribbled notes in pads.

Those words became the headlines the next day. He moved the dial.

Then I got up to give my short speech.

The thing I remember most about that speech is how General Powell watched. He was interested in what I had to say. And when I made a dry joke about not being able to put words together with more than two syllables (due to being an infantryman), he laughed loudly.

He was still a soldier.

But what I saw in action was something akin to magic. An innate sense of the local, the foreign, and the temperature in Washington – all at once. He knew exactly what to say and when to say it. This was an ability that came through hard work and experience. From City College to the Army to Vietnam to Washington.

A temperance forged over time.

I saw it again, years later, at the ceremony that welcomed ROTC back to City College after being booted from campus over forty years prior.

Then Gen. Powell, the guest of honor, was called to the stage.

He thanked the Color Guard. He spoke briefly on how important and how formative ROTC was to him. And then he began to wrap up his remarks.

He took a deep pause.

“Military service is honorable,” Powell said. “We may disagree with the politics or the policies of it all, but military service is honorable.”

As I wrote at the time:

Over the years, I imagine that Gen. Powell has thought long and hard about military service – with all its trappings – and how that service can be reconciled with our democracy. His war was Vietnam, and his school was City College. His formative years were spent at City College at what was once one of the largest ROTC programs in the country. His alma mater would later boot the program off campus. No longer welcome. He must have felt betrayed.

Somehow, he had to reconcile this all in his mind. Military service is honorable. That is where that reconciliation ended.

But he wasn’t done. Had he just delivered the line he needed, the one that puts everyone at ease, he would have done his duty.

He went on:

More poignantly, and in a barely quivering tone, Gen. Powell said that as proud as he was at this achievement, seeing ROTC return to City College, he only wishes his City College ROTC buddies who never made it back from Vietnam were there to see it.

It was interesting to see a man whose influence stretched much further than the rice paddies of Vietnam, go back there for a moment. I could tell that he meant what he said. And I was reminded that Gen. Powell is still a soldier.

He could “walk with kings – nor lose the common touch.”

And he had an incredible ability to boil down a thing to its most basic and recognizable concept – one that appealed to everyone. And then deliver a sentence or a line or an idea that makes headlines the next day.

It’s an incredible ability and one that could easily be taken advantage of.

It’s nearly impossible to make it through a career as storied as Powell’s and come out unscarred.

He almost did it.

And unlike so many these days, he wasn’t “unapologetic” about it in some odd pantomime of toughness. He took actions, he reflected and thought critically about them, and when convinced, changed his mind.

He was constantly growing. He was willing to grow.

His death is a true loss. But his life and example is one that will inspire men and women inside and out of the military for generations.

“It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.”

General Colin Powell

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Checking in on Army ROTC at CUNY

ccny rotc coin

It has been two years since Army ROTC returned to CUNY, its headquarters at City College.

When I was a student veteran at the school and spoke with officials about the possibility of Army ROTC returning, many said that no one would join. I was often told I would have to show that there is a real demand from students to create real momentum for its return. I argued that it was “if you build it they will come” kind of thing. Former Secretary of State and retired General Powell famously says that he learned about ROTC at City College simply by walking past the office.

When ROTC returned in 2013, I think many people thought it would fall flat on its face. With a downsizing military, Army ROTC at CUNY wouldn’t attract the right numbers to justify its existence.

Last April I had the privilege of attending the second CUNY Army ROTC end-of-semester ball. The program is just starting to commission its first batch of new Second Lieutenants, and most of them were choosing to serve in the Army Reserves locally in New York. Speaking with some of the officers and NCOs who run the program, they energetically championed the urban program as one that is attracting a unique type of leader, with different experiences than your typical ROTC/USMA cadet.

The program is still “boutique” in its offerings. It doesn’t produce the massive numbers of officers that it did in the early 20th century when it was one of the largest in the country, but it also isn’t designed for that today. The program is set to expand to offer at CUNY’s community colleges this year, which will likely expand the overall number of CUNY cadets.

On social media, I see CUNY ROTC participating in events and adding a touch of military professionalism where there really was none.

Besides the benefits to the Army that we get from attracting CUNY students to the military, the presence of an ROTC contingent at CUNY schools helps to normalize (not militarize) the relationship between the military and the citizenry. Understanding the military, and especially understanding that the military is made up of real human beings, is much easier achieved if you have had some contact with the military, even if it’s just an ROTC student you share a class with two days a week.

That, to me, is much better than the alternative.


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Leave Update: We’re only on the third day of a seven day binge

battling the dancing calcobrena in final fantasy iv kain cecil rosa yang
hqdefault

Yeesh.

I’m fully aware that I’ve neglected updates for the past three weeks. I fully intended to keep things going, but post-deployment leave has a way of keeping you looking at the bottom of the glass. It’s important to get that space and distance though, and as “normal” life resumes, so will the blog.

I have managed to keep the Facebook page updated, though. And if you’ve missed the ISOF GOLD posts, I’ve mostly been commenting on my favorite special operations forces over there.

I managed to keep somewhat productive, though. Last week I was invited by the Center for the Advancement of Leadership and Organizational Learning (CALDOL) to participate in West Point’s Mission Command Conference. Essentially, myself and a few other junior lieutenants stood up in front of hundreds of cadets and told real-life stories from our recent deployments. The cadets then used the story as a tool to discuss leadership with officers and NCO mentors who were also attending the conference. It was great to visit West Point and explore the campus, and seeing first-hand that West Point life only added fuel to my argument on why we need West Point.

It was also great just to see the CALDOL team at work. They are the folks behind the Company Command and Platoon Leader forums, which I’ve written about before. Seeing it in person confirmed to me that like many great Army programs, they are hidden away and under-utilized. I’m working on a future post highlighting some of the things they do, as I think the more exposure they have the better, but for now you’ll have to take my word for it.

Additionally, I also had the opportunity to speak at the CUNY ROTC’s Second Annual Military Ball at City College. It was amazing to see CUNY ROTC Cadets running the show, when it was only a few years ago when the idea of bringing ROTC back to CUNY was a pipe dream.

By the way, when I hear the acronym “CALDOL” I can’t help but think of the dancing Calcobrena from Final Fantasy IV. Sorry.


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Why We Need West Point: Painfully written by an OCS guy

president eisenhower statue in the snow west point
West Point Snow

Recently, there’s been a string of nasty essays written about why we should dismantle the United States Military Academies. The argument usually revolves around cost and the fact that we don’t actually need them. That is, we can produce the requisite number of officers through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and Officer Candidate Schools (OCS). As much as I love watching my West Point peers get worked up about it, and despite my undying loyalty to my own alma mater (OCS), I’m of the mind that the military academies are precious and valuable institutions that produce superior officers, and dismantling them would undermine the quality of officership in the military.

For the purpose of this post, I’ll refer mostly to the United States Military Academy at West Point, simply because it is the institution I have the most experience with by virtue of my daily interactions with its chief product (officers) over the past fourteen years.

While I refuse to come out and say that West Point graduates make better officers, I will say that on the whole, they are a different breed of officer. And while almost universally derided by subordinates and peers alike, they are invaluable to the work and mission of the United States Army.

Before getting into why West Point officers are different and uniquely valuable, it is important to briefly discuss some of the stereotypes that officers from the different commissioning sources face. Stereotypes, that while unfair, are often rooted in some reality.

The OCS officer is usually expected to be one of two extremes – either really good or a total dud. They are thought to be prior-service enlisted (although this is not always the case; most OCS officers are simply civilians with a college degree), and they are expected to be wiser through life experience and more in tune with the reality of doing the Army’s actual work. Similarly, the older ones might be accused of “burnout” by virtue of being older in a young man’s game, or getting too involved in “NCO business” and having a hard time staying in their lane as officers.

The ROTC officer usually comes in many more shades in terms of expected performance, being anywhere along the spectrum from “ok” to “great.” They are generally thought to have partied pretty hard in college, using ROTC as a kind of safety net that accidentally landed them in the military, and their stories of their college experience are invariably better and more interesting than their USMA and OCS peers.

The greatest (and most damning) stereotypes are reserved for West Point officers. When soldiers learn their next platoon leader or commanding officer is from West Point, it’s almost always followed by a deep breath and a mental bracing for impact, and usually an audible “Oh god…” West Point officers are generally thought to be a little more uptight and focused on mission accomplishment at all costs than other officers. The expectation is that the officer will be of the “Captain Sobel” of Band of Brothers fame variety. That is, strict, intense, and deeply committed to mission success, even if that success comes at the expense of his subordinates’ well-being.

Of course, all of these are stereotypes that unfairly color officers before they ever step in front of troops. These stereotypes exist though, and soldiers (and especially officers) are always interested to learn of one’s commissioning source as a snippet of information to either confirm or deny deeply held biases.

In my personal experience, some of the best officers I have ever worked with were graduates of West Point. I’ve met the quintessential, hard-charging, I’ve-read-every-platoon-leader-memoir-in-existence West Pointer who could have been a stand-in for Captain “your weekend pass is revoked” Sobel. I’ve also met “total bros” who would seem a better fit at Animal House than anything remotely military. And although I’ve met West Point officers whom I personally didn’t like, I’ve never met one that was wholly incompetent. Even the “bad” ones accomplish the mission, no matter how awkward or strange their behavior might seem.

The first time I had a real conversation about West Point as an institution was when I was working closely with a new Captain who was a graduate. I was a young and angry Sergeant at the time, and on our LESs, we had the same number of years of service. He made the argument that being a student at West Point is more of a military experience than a college experience, and he essentially served four more years than I did, despite what it said on his LES. I didn’t agree with him at the time, and thought this was just typical West Point ring knocking.

Over time, however, the more that I’ve learned about West Point and its traditions, the more I’ve come to agree with him.

If the logic holds true, that attending West Point is more of a military experience than a college one (and I think it does), then it should also hold true that those officers are receiving four (er, sometimes five) additional years of military experience that their ROTC and OCS counterparts just don’t get. From a younger age they are immersed in a military environment, and over time, everything that is supposed to be expected from an officer is ingrained. You just can’t do the same thing with a college student sporadically attending ROTC courses, or an OCS candidate who has just 12 weeks until pinning on a gold bar.

It’s also true that ROTC and OCS officers bring something different and unique to the service by virtue of their not being completely immersed in a military environment, which is why ROTC and OCS are also important to preserve.

I have a growing respect and admiration for my peers who graduated from our military academies. I am in awe of the work and dedication it takes to apply, get selected, and thrive there – in many ways because I was completely not prepared to do so myself at that age. I’m proud to serve alongside USMA graduates and wanted to write this gentle love letter, because I can imagine how frustrating it must be to have your alma mater drug through the mud every couple of months, and thought that as a non-USMA guy, I could offer a perspective not tarnished by years of doing The Rocket.


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Gen. Powell: “Military Service is honorable.”

city college great hall rotc
Amazing photo of the JROTC Color Guard on the stage in the Great Hall. Photo by New York Times photographer Damon Winters.
Amazing photo of the JROTC Color Guard on the stage in the Great Hall. Photo by New York Times photographer Damon Winters.

Returning to City College for the ceremony welcoming back ROTC was beautiful and surreal. It was strange to walk in the Great Hall and see so many military men and women criss-crossing the floor in sharp uniforms, and I had to remind myself at times that I was one of them. I felt uncomfortable like one would when inviting two friends to dinner that you know don’t get along, but are forced to be cordial. I studied the faces of faculty members whom I knew were at best, skeptical of this endeavor.

The ceremony began with the posting of the colors. The Francis Lewis High School JROTC Color Guard did the honors and looked superb.

The President of City College, Lisa Staino-Coico began speaking, then CUNY’s Chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, followed by the ROTC Cadet Commander, Major General Smith, all discussing how great it is that ROTC is returning and thanking those who had a role in bringing it back.

Then Gen. Powell, the guest of honor, was called to the stage.

He thanked the Color Guard. He spoke briefly on how important and how formative ROTC was to him. And then he began to wrap up his remarks.

He took a deep pause.

“Military service is honorable,” Powell said. “We may disagree with the politics or the policies of it all, but military service is honorable.” (Jeff Mays, DNAinfo)

That, I believe was Gen. Powell’s way of addressing the lingering apprehension among those who believe ROTC does not belong on campus.

Military service, is honorable.

Over the years, I imagine that Gen. Powell has thought long and hard about military service – with all its trappings – and how that service can be reconciled with our democracy. His war was Vietnam, and his school was City College. His formative years were spent at City College at what was once one of the largest ROTC programs in the country. His alma mater would later boot the program off-campus. No longer welcome. He must have felt betrayed.

Somehow, he had to reconcile this all in his mind. Military service is honorable. That is where that reconciliation ended.

And I agree.

More poignantly, and in a barely quivering tone, Gen. Powell said that as proud as he was at this achievement, seeing ROTC return to City College, he only wishes his City College ROTC buddies who never made it back from Vietnam were there to see it. It was interesting to see a man whose influence stretched much further than the rice paddies of Vietnam, go back there for a moment. I could tell that he meant what he said. And I was reminded that Gen. Powell is still a soldier.

The ceremony concluded with us singing the Army Song in the Great Hall.

Media:
After Decades, Boots Are Back on Campus (New York Times)
R.O.T.C. Returns to New York’s City College More Than Four Decades After Removal (New York Times, At War Blog)
ROTC Returns to CUNY (CUNY Press Release)
CUNY brings back long-lost ROTC program (New York Post)
Colin Powell Helps City College Re-Launch ROTC Program (DNAinfo)
Army ROTC returns to City College of New York (Army Press Release)


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At War: R.O.T.C. Returns to New York’s City College More Than Four Decades After Removal

soldier crawling rotc ccny 1968
ROTC high crawl

I wrote a short article for the New York Times At War Blog about today’s ceremony welcoming back ROTC to City College. This has been long in the making, and I’m personally looking forward to learning how it all went down.

The team at the New York Times did a great job digging up some photos from the late 1960s showing students mocking ROTC drills on the campus. Perfect find for the piece.

I’m really proud of this article and especially proud that ROTC is returning to City College today.


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Ghosts on campus: student-veterans of the Vietnam era at City College

I’ve been doing some research on the ROTC at the City College of New York and came across this piece in The Campus newspaper. It’s called “College: a vets’ eye view” and the author interviews some of the student-veterans on campus about their views on the war in Vietnam. I am completely sucked into these pieces because all of this happened at my alma mater. The same things I experienced at City between 2007 and 2010, student veterans faced forty years ago, and probably sixty years ago too after World War II.

But I never really knew. None of us did. All of this information is lost. Ghosts of the past walk the campus, experiencing the same things over and over and over again. All this gnashing of teeth and tormented thoughts. The answers all there, buried in texts from the past. This has all been done before.

Most of the veterans, although they agreed that anti-war protest is important and necessary, felt that they were somewhere to the political right of most students, if not in their attitudes, certainly in their actions. It’s possible that is because most of them are married and working at least part-time, and feel that they have a greater investment in the “system” than other students have.

For the same reason, most of them felt that their attitude toward their education was somewhat more pragmatic than most other students’. Several said that their only interest in the school was to get a degree as fast as possible.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


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College: a vets' eyes view
Returned veterans speak out

ROTC Wants Rule by Force

ROTC Wants Rule by Force

The City College of New York recently announced that they had digitally archived all editions of the undergraduate student newspaper of record from 1907 to 1981. I’ve been poking around for a few minutes and I can waste a lot of time there.

When I was at City College I founded the veterans club, or rather, resurrected the veterans club. While looking for a name, I discovered through old issues of The Campus newspaper that a group that called itself the “City College Veterans Association” had existed for many years on campus. So I just started a club with that name. CCNY historically hosted a vibrant military/veteran community on campus that faded away with the elimination of ROTC during the Vietnam War. That culture I’m happy to say is being revived, slowly.

Anyway, here’s a little snippet from the front page of the April 1, 1947 issue of The Campus, proving that satirical news is an old, old idea.

This particular article reminds me of a flyer a veteran friend of mine made with me. It was a flyer announcing the veteran club on campus, and we wanted to add a line at the bottom assuaging people’s fears so we wrote:

CCVA is not a political organization. CCVA does not take a position on the wars and is only here to help improve the lives of veterans on campus.

As a joke, we made a flyer with an alternate disclaimer that read:

CCVA is a political organization. We take a militant position on the wars and we are here to militarize the campus. (or something to that effect)

Reading back on the real disclaimer, I’m struck by how apologetic in tone it seems. I remember at the time feeling that it was necessary to have it in there given the political climate on campus, even though that was probably an imagined climate. Most students were completely uninterested in the wars or what activities were happening on campus. It’s also interesting that we used the term “the wars” as if they were truly perpetual. Not the Iraq War and Afghanistan War. Just ‘the wars.’

Anyway, you can access the entire archive here.


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ccva general flyer

ROTC back at CUNY after more than 40 years

colin powell rotc cadet
A young Colin Powell as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York (1957)
A young Colin Powell as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York (1957)

While doing some research for an earlier post, I learned that Army ROTC is headed back to the City University of New York (CUNY) and specifically the City College of New York (CCNY), my alma mater. I had heard through the grapevine that this was in the works, but nothing was officially official. It won’t start until the fall, but it looks like the cat’s out of the bag.

I know a lot of people were involved in making this happen, and maybe when ROTC officially opens at CCNY I’ll write a longer piece on how it all went down. For now, I’m just happy to know that it is actually happening. CUNY, CCNY, and the Army will all be better for it.


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