The Warlord on Careers in National Security: Seven Forks in the Road

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Editor’s Note: As part of “Remembering the Warlord,” a series honoring the memory of John Collins, we are republishing remarks by Collins delivered at Georgetown University in 2012 and republished on War on the Rocks the following year. Please click here to read the rest of the series.


Not many are aware that Dave Maxwell appointed me as his personal adviser when he became associate director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. Well, actually what he said was, “John, when I want your advice, I’ll ask for it.” I thought he’d never ask, but he’s finally invited me to address choices that will shape the personal lives and professional careers of his students, a topic that I never considered until last week. There must be at least 10,000 sharpies who know more about that subject than I do — but I don’t see any of them here this afternoon, which increases my confidence by several orders of magnitude.

What are my qualifications? Yogi Berra famously said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I’ve come to countless forks in the road during the last 90-plus years, and have made countless choices, good, bad, and indifferent. Lessons learned came too late to help me, but they aren’t too late to help you, so humor me. Pay attention. Take notes. Act like you really believe that what I’m about to say is important.

Choice 1. Basic Objective

When Alice in Wonderland asked the Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” the cat’s response was, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” The first question you should ask yourself consequently is, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Neither education nor employment options fit any career pattern until you make that elemental decision.

My son Sean’s interests in outer space blossomed at age nine on May 25, 1961, when President Kennedy pledged to put a man on the moon and return him safely before that decade ended. U.S. astronauts became Sean’s heroes. He yearned to join that elite band of brothers, but failed because bottom lines on eyesight charts looked blurry. I like to think I helped shape his lifelong career by counseling him as follows while he was a high school student: “These are the tough math, physics, and other courses you must take to make your dreams come true.” He complied, culminated his academic career with a PhD in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from MIT, and now is one of this nation’s premier authorities on ballistic missile defense.

I, in comparison, wasted most of my youth, dropped out of high school twice, dropped out of college once, and passed age 30 before I had the foggiest notion who I wanted to be if I ever grew up. Saint Matthew finally showed me the light with words he wrote 2,000 years ago: “Ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars.” How could anybody even imagine a more stable vocation? I figuratively said, “send me in coach,” lightyears behind my son Sean when he was 30 years old.

Choice 2. Public or Private Service

Public and private service both provide a wide range of employment opportunities for national security newcomers, who must decide which venue best satisfies their aspirations and purse strings. I’ll hit a few high spots for consideration.

Most public-sector employees work for the federal government. Uncle Sam pays all the bills and his representatives determine requirements, whereas individuals who opt for private service depend on nongovernmental organizations for guidance and remuneration. Various surveys claim that the private sector pays best, but generalizations are difficult to defend, unless the duties described are similar. There’s no way, for example, to reasonably compare the responsibilities and pay of managers in Macy’s basement with U.S. political emissaries in Benghazi or military combatants who voluntarily lay their lives on the line whenever required. Governmental employees, on the other hand, enjoy incomparably greater job security. Probable risks versus potential gains accordingly deserve careful consideration before you opt for private versus public sector employment.

James Montgomery Flagg’s famous “Uncle Sam Wants You” poster and an overdose of idealism helped tip my scales toward public service before I enlisted as an Army private 71 years ago, a decision I’ve never rued. The back cover of my memoirs, which a “vanity press” recently published, depicts a slight modification of the oath I took as a second lieutenant in December 1942: “I, John M. Collins, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge whatever national security duties I perform. So help me God.”

Choice 3. Civilian or Military

Budgetary problems already prompt Congress to reduce federal expenditures, perhaps across the board. National security nevertheless will remain a compelling U.S. interest in perpetuity, so well-qualified applicants like those in this room will continue to find opportunities for employment, of which the following selections are merely representative.

Most U.S. citizens are well aware that the Department of Defense and its Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps subsidiaries offer national security aspirants a wide range of command and staff billets in combat, logistical support, and administrative organizations, plus attractive promotion ladders for go-getters. There’s something there for everybody who hankers to strut about in a military uniform.

Few are equally familiar with our Coast Guard, which belongs to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but may pass to Navy control any time the president decrees, or in wartime if Congress so directs. Its responsibilities include search and rescue, maritime law enforcement, aids to navigation, ice breaking, environmental protection, seaport security, and military readiness.

The switch-hitting National Aeronautics and Space Administration, commonly called NASA, performs civil as well as military functions. Armed forces benefit from reconnaissance, surveillance, missile warning, and tracking. Meteorological intelligence, navigation, and communications missions benefit both clients, who lean so heavily on NASA’s space satellites and ground installations that employment opportunities won’t dry up during the foreseeable future.

The State Department’s under secretary for political affairs oversees seven bureaus, plus a zillion embassies and consulates. Entry- and mid-level foreign service officers hop scotch from one assignment to another in assorted cultures that create a smorgasbord of challenges. Results prepare them to work productively with senior U.S. and foreign leaders of all political persuasions. The most valued players sequentially master several languages well enough to conduct business, negotiate agreements, and favorably represent this great nation’s interests every day, often under immense pressure. The Agency for International Development, which technically is part of State but often pursues programs independently, demands similar qualifications.

The U.S. intelligence community, a coalition of 17 agencies and other organizations, recently was honored as one of the 10 best places to work in our federal government. Employment opportunities at CIA range from paper pushing to “spook” work, which some veterans applaud for intermittent adrenaline rushes. Competent intelligence analysts put facts and figures together in context, taking cultural peculiarities into account. Estimators postulate short-, mid-, and long-range trends, like whether Arab Spring is likely to spread or collapse. Intelligence personnel deployed overseas, like State’s foreign service officers, benefit immeasurably from “street smarts” and foreign language proficiency, including local dialects that minimize misunderstandings (Arabic, Chinese, Pashto, Farsi, Korean, Russian, and Japanese are most in demand today).

Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government lists more than 250 “freelance” think tanks at home and abroad. Some, typified by the Brookings Institution, the Center for a New American Security, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Institute for Defense Analyses, are widely respected and influential, whereas many are so narrowly based and/or biased that applicants should carefully investigate respective pedigrees before they apply for admission. I’m particularly bullish about the Congressional Research Service, which has long been an educational beacon on Capitol Hill because, unlike any other organization in the world to my knowledge, its bylaws forbid analysts to support anybody’s policy or publically occupy any position on the opinion spectrum. Members of the Senate and House of Representatives consequently consider CRS reports as the current equivalent of holy scriptures and seek private advice from CRS contacts in chambers.

Choice 4. Doer or Thinker

Ward Just, while drafting his treatise entitled Military Men in 1970, asked Maj. Gen. Samuel Koster, who then was superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, why the U.S. armed services had never sired a strategic thinker comparable to Clausewitz. “We’re more interested in the ‘doer’ than the thinker,” was that two-star educator’s reply, even though doers seldom do as well as they should unless skilled thinkers assist. Mindsets akin to Koster’s still flourish, which is one reason why the current crop of U.S. military leaders and civilian policy-makers generally become grand tacticians and practitioners of operational art who win battles and campaigns but seldom excel at grand strategy, which wins wars.

That sad situation is by no means new. Strategic pioneers who create theories, concepts, and other intellectual tools for use by doers have been scarcer than hen’s teeth throughout human history. Sun Tzu, Mahan, Liddell Hart, Herman Kahn, and Bernard Brodie, the world’s first nuclear strategist, are prominent exceptions. Lenin, Mao, Giap, Billy Mitchell, and a handful of others who practiced what they preach, remain even rarer. Please note that no woman, not even Joan of Arc, has ever occupied either category. Who knows? The first female to terminate that trend may be in this very room. The lopsided imbalance between doers and thinkers meanwhile will persist until educators unlike Gen. Koster encourage creative thinking, which Henry Ford called the hardest work there is, and potentates atop our national security pyramid reward their products.

Choice 5. Open Mind or Party Line  

Your choice between open mind and party line should be easy, because individuals who paste right or left, liberal or conservative, hawk or dove labels in the middle of their forehead abdicate any requirement to think. Reasonably knowledgeable students of national security affairs rarely need to heed anything they say, because most of their opinions are predictable. Professionals as well as neophytes nevertheless should review all sources with open minds, because nobody other than myself is always right and nobody is always wrong.

Party line proponents intellectually rooted in concrete additionally tend to respond sluggishly to radical changes that, in accord with Murphy’s Laws, can occur without notice at the worst possible times and places. Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie’s little gem entitled Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control consequently contains a plea for adaptable concepts and forces, since nobody other than God can consistently predict the onset, scope, tenor, intensity, course, and consequences of any collision on the conflict spectrum from nonviolent competition to military wargasms. Requirements therefore exist for a rucksack full of policies, plans, and programs designed to facilitate smooth transitions in emergencies because, as Wylie succinctly put it, “planning for certitude is the most grievous of all … mistakes.”

Choice 6. Be a Problem-Solver or Complainer 

The president of the United States, secretaries of state and defense, the JCS chairman, service chiefs, and combatant commanders lack institutional ways to generate and sustain chain reactions of creative thought that they could use to solve strategic, operational, tactical, logistical, budgetary, and countless other pressing national security problems. Autocratic restrictions, built-in biases, compartmentalization, enforced compromise, and security classifications make routine reliance on nonresident thinkers imperative. Who knows you in that particular context is even more important than who you know.

The best way to attract favorable attention is by submitting opinion pieces to national security periodicals. Don’t let rejections and lack of recognition discourage you, because Rome wasn’t built in a day (I just thought that one up). My first four professional articles disappeared into black holes. Others expired in editors’ offices, but anonymity disappeared almost immediately after I expanded my National War College syllabus into a primer entitled Strategy for Beginners, which received nine pink slips before Naval Institute Press published it in 1973 as Grand Strategy: Principles and PracticesThe Aug. 8, 1975, issue of Economika, Politika, Ideologiya in Moscow praised that book for “fundamental research carried out in this complex, multifaceted and contradictory field.” Other plaudits followed at home and abroad. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish editions appeared, the first two without regard for copyright. A Russian translation of my Military Geography opus later joined that collection. Many of my CRS reports and issue briefs made headlines around the world after I established the equivalent of “I call, you haul” relationships with a slew of journalistic heavy hitters. You surely can do better, armed with one or more diplomas from this highly respected university.

Sharp Pens Sharpen Swords,” a brief tutorial in the May-June 2006 issue of Military Review, might expedite your acceptance as a noted national security author. It compares pluses and minuses of 15 pertinent outlets that vary considerably with regard to frequency of publication, clientele, and contents, then terminates with writing tips that I’ve assembled during the last several decades.

Choice 7. Specialist or Generalist

Be relaxed. Stay cool. Choice 7 is the grand finale.

Most national security professionals open and close their careers as specialists, who figuratively dig political, military, economic, sociological, psychological, technological, or other “post holes.” Generalists, who figuratively “plow fields,” are a mile wide and a quarter inch deep, but possess speaking familiarity with all or most specialties. Their mission is to help the president of the United States, Congress, subordinate decision-makers, and their advisers put myriad pieces of gargantuan national security jigsaw puzzles together properly by preparing optional solutions to short-, mid-, and long-range problems. The transition from specialist to generalist usually takes years, but it’s not too early now to make that your ultimate aim, provided you persevere.

My personal trek from national security specialist to generalist began when I was a captain in 1950 and lasted much longer than Mao’s Long March, which consumed a mere 366 days. A strategic intelligence stint in the Pentagon as the U.S. Army’s Arab-Israeli desk officer came first in 1950; two years later I shifted to the Far East at theater level; Maj. Collins thereafter sampled operational intelligence with XVIII Airborne Corps, and finally learned a bit about tactical intelligence with the 82d Airborne Division. Lt. Col. Collins unexpectedly became an operational planner at Fort Bragg in 1963 and continued that tack as a colonel in Vietnam. The National War College Commandant finally started me on the generalist track as his director of military strategy studies in 1969, nearly two decades after the starting date.

Did that crazy quilt pattern make me nonmarketable? Not at all. On the contrary, each of those out-of-sequence assignments served as a building block before 51-year-old civilian Collins became senior specialist in national defense at the Congressional Research Service, an assignment that demanded generalist capabilities near the apex of this nation’s national security apparatus. “The Accidental Strategist,” which Joint Force Quarterly published in April 2010, traces my serendipitous trip from top to bottom and back again.


Thus far the words of today’s Holy Gospel. I hope that guardian angels heap good fortune on those of you who opt to become national security professionals. Your names won’t appear on lists of the world’s wealthiest individuals but, as I discovered eons ago, service to the United States of America in any capacity will more than compensate.



John Collins enlisted as an Army private in 1942; retired as a colonel 30 years later; served almost 24 more years as senior specialist in national defense with the Congressional Research Service; conceived, recruited, steered the Warlord Loop, a unique national security debating forum; and meanwhile authored 12 books, of which three concentrated on special operations. He was a contributing editor at War on the Rocks

Image: Department of Defense photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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