A Navy man who hit the ground running

The story is perhaps apocryphal but often told. Adm. Mike Mullen was attending a tony affair dressed in civvies when a woman approached to ask what he did for a living. He replied, "Madam, I'm chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff." The woman answered unknowingly: "Well, what's that?" To which he replied, in his usual, understated manner: "Well, the chairman's job is the highest position in the military." The woman recoiled in confusion and apologized profusely, "Oh, I'm sorry I didn't recognize you, General Petraeus."

Mike Mullen retired today. As with any lightning-rod position in wartime, his leaving will be accompanied by the usual hyperbole from all corners of the political spectrum. Those on the left will fume over his support for troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those on the right will never forgive him for being an advocate for full acceptance of gays in the military. Many inside the Beltway question his advice to the president on every subject, from criticizing the Pakistani military to supporting deep cuts in defense spending.

Over the years, I've come to know Admiral Mullen in a different context, one that is uniquely human, humble and visionary and — given his penchant for passing credit to others — an image not familiar to many outside his inner circle. He is a sailor who took the job knowing that his legacy would be determined by how well he superintended two ground wars. As a first order of business, he worked very hard to understand soldiers. He listened, questioned — and actually took notes. I recall reporting to him after a trip to Afghanistan and watching as he scribbled in his green notebook about issues related to tactics and close ground combat.

Admiral Mullen was one of the few chairmen of the Joint Chiefs who understood the importance of strategy and the need to think beyond problems of the moment. In private, he spoke about the need to reconnect the military to the nation (and the nation to the military). He was concerned that after 10 years of war, a cultural and perceptual rift may have developed between citizens and those pledged to defend them. He wanted to move citizen and soldier closer together by informing Americans of the unique sacrifices the services have made and to educate them about the complexities of military service.

But he also cautioned the military not to turn inward. He believed that respect for the military was derived in part from a collective guilt among the people for those very few in uniform who do the fighting and dying. He warned that societal goodwill was likely fragile and transitory and might be lost should the post-war military retire into its bases with resentment toward those who did not serve.

Admiral Mullen was aware that service in Iraq and Afghanistan had produced the most combat-experienced military in our history. But history has shown that repetitive exposure to war can induce a hubristic belief that skill at fighting today's war is sufficient preparation for fighting the next. Admiral Mullen cautioned the services to look over the next figurative hill to understand the increased complexity of tomorrow's battlefields. He understood that such reflective thought demanded an officer corps capable of dealing intellectually with these complexities. He knew that war is a thinking man's game and that rebuilding the mind is just as important as building new weapons.

Mike Mullen retires just as the military looks fitfully toward an epoch of reduction and retrenchment. I believe the work he did and the thoughts he leaves behind will help the military to negotiate through these troublesome times. He taught the people never to forget the soldiers and for soldiers never to forget the people who they are pledged to protect. Good words and great thoughts from a sailor who through diligence and quiet study learned how to fight on an unfamiliar battlefield — all without turning the spotlight on himself.

Farewell, shipmate. Smooth sailing, and well done.

Robert Scales, a Howard County resident, is a retired U.S. Army major general and former commandant of the U.S. Army War College. He writes and speaks frequently on military matters. His email is roberthscales@colgen.net.

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