war on the rocks

Remembering John Collins: Father and ‘Warlord’

February 20, 2019

Henry Ford once said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” John Collins, who passed away recently at the age of 97, agreed. Most people knew him as a notable national security thinker and founder of the Warlord Loop. I knew him as Dad.

When my childhood report cards would come in, I invariably thought he should have been more impressed. He would ask, “Are you memorizing or are you thinking?” His admonition was that memorization of standard rules and methods is not the same thing as understanding and is poor preparation for novel situations. Many times, the answer can’t be found in the back of the book. “So, are you memorizing or are you thinking?”

My father was a balanced thinker who endeavored to distill durable ideas out of the chaos of bias, ideology, and high-decibel intellectual competition. His objective was always to process evidence and cranial energy into supportable arguments. Articles of faith might be useful guideposts on the road to good policy or they might be navigational mental blocks. Such things need to be approached skeptically. John understood how ferociously difficult it is for people to hear others over the roar of certitude in their own heads. His favorite song was “The Impossible Dream” from the musical Man of La Mancha. I get the picture. Still he tried.

My father was a remarkable man. Even his willfully skeptical son could see that. I am still taking in all that he taught me. Above all, he relentlessly framed questions to test his own reasoning and the beliefs of others. Annoying sometimes, always with purpose. Not accidentally, I at least implicitly apply the same approach in my own professional life. “Do I know the needs of my audience?” “Have I thought comprehensively?” “How are my conclusions affected by assumptions and contingencies?” “Do I understand my position?” “Can I explain it to others?” “What makes my reasoning worth waiting for?”

We aren’t always smart enough to know the answers as acutely as we should, but the discipline helps prevent delivery of sterile products, shrug-inducing advice, and insufficiently buttressed courses of action.

John Collins advocated clarity, objectivity, receptivity, and strategic thinking as a lifestyle. My father was a kind and respectful man of many talents and wide ranging interests. Many are better for having known him. What follows is a tribute from those who counted him as friend, mentor, and guide. It is also a window into his lively mind. Through his writings and countless memories, he still speaks to us.

 

Sean Collins is chief scientist for missile defense within Parsons Federal.  He holds a doctorate in Astrodynamics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has devoted the bulk of his career to analysis of defense architectures and investment options, with special attention to space.

Image: Family photo