Jack Galvin: Cold War General and 21st Century Role Model

October 7, 2015

In the Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan hilariously, tongue-twistingly, and mockingly described the 19th-century “model of a modern Major General.” If they were alive today, they could find a real model in General John (Jack) Galvin, who died late last month. Today, 23 years after he retired from active duty, national security professionals could not have a better role model for these turbulent times than Galvin. He epitomized the character, devotion to duty, respect for education, and vision that we often talk about and seldom find in our leaders. What made Galvin special?

From working class roots, Galvin began his service in 1947 in the Massachusetts Army National Guard. When good-natured Irish sergeants decided that he was a fine man but that “he would never make a sergeant,” he moved on to West Point and had a number of atypical assignments in Puerto Rico, the Colombian version of Ranger School, U.S. airborne infantry units, and then the Armor advanced course. He then took a Master’s in English at Columbia and taught at West Point. Later, he did two tours under harsh combat conditions in Vietnam. He would never talk about his exploits but he won the Silver Star and various other valor decorations in the storied 1st Cavalry Division. He commanded a heavy brigade in Europe and a division in the United States, and later commanded both Southern Command and European Command, ending his uniformed service with seven years as a combatant commander.

Even though he had a remarkably successful career, this is not what made him a role model for today’s national security professionals. It was not what he did, but how he did it. Galvin always took the broad view and the long-term perspective. He was willing to take unfashionable assignments to learn about the world and his profession. He cultivated allies and coalition partners with strong concentrations of contacts in Panama, Colombia, Germany, and Spain. This came in handy as he organized NATO assets to come to the aid of Central Command in the First Gulf War. Later, he managed the end of the Cold War in Europe, reaching out to the Russians to try to build a better peace. His work and that of his successor, General John Shalikashvili, in helping to create new partners for peace and, later, new NATO allies in East Europe, was a more lasting accomplishment.

Galvin was no slave to intellectual fashion. In the 1980s, when the Army was working through Airland Battle doctrine for Europe, he was reminding the attentive public in articles and speeches of the importance of low intensity conflict. He was as comfortable on a tank range in Germany as he was discussing guerrilla warfare. Foreign ministers and first sergeants all had their Galvin stories.

Education and mentoring were a big part of what Jack Galvin did. He collected and schooled bright young officers and often, as he did with David Petraeus, steered them toward higher education. I served with him when he was teaching cadets at West Point. They received Jack’s closest attention, and more than a few home-cooked meals with him and his wife Ginny. He made time to write and think, writing two books while on active duty and two more after he retired. The American Revolution, the 18th-century version of hybrid conflict, was a particular specialty of his. General Galvin ended his public career as the Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, not far from the town where he grew up. He saw no contradiction between a life as a soldier and the leader of a school devoted to the study of both law and international relations.

Galvin had a special humility and an ability to relate to people of all types. He came from a family of skilled laborers and knew adversity first hand. As a boy, his family suffered in the Depression and endured the death of his sibling. His career too had setbacks, the greatest of which was when he was relieved as a brigade operations officer during his first tour in Vietnam. Galvin persisted by strength of character, the love of a strong family, and divine providence.

Galvin left us a great autobiography, completed a few months before his death. He ended that book with a profound thought:

We are inhabitants of a changing world that will continue to surprise us in all kinds of ways. There is one aspect, however, that we can depend on: change itself. … [Our] survival in the long run will depend on our recognition of this simple but powerful understanding: that we need a global perspective.

Decades retired and now deceased, General Jack Galvin is still pointing the way to the future.


Joseph J. Collins is the Director of the Center for Complex Operations, National Defense University. A former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, he served with General Galvin at West Point in the 1990s.