war on the rocks

John Collins as a Mentor and Friend at the Congressional Research Service

March 13, 2019

Col. John M. Collins retired from the Army in late June 1972 on a Friday. The following Monday, he began his new job as a senior specialist in national defense in the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan research and analysis agency for the U.S. Congress. He was 51. The day after Labor Day 1972, I began my new job as an analyst in national defense at the Congressional Research Service. I was a GS-7, three weeks before my 22nd birthday. I could say many good things about John’s analytical output and skill, his effect on U.S. defense policy during the 24 years he worked at the Congressional Research Service, and his immense national and international stature as an expert on defense issues. But when I think of John, I think of how he related to other people, particularly a wet-behind-the-ears young man who had never spent a day in uniform, despite wishing to do so.

Never did he lord it over me, or, as far as I know, anyone else. All he wanted to know was whether or not you could contribute to the national security of the United States. Most of us were a generation, and later two or three generations, younger than he. We deservedly held him in awe for the vast range of his knowledge and insights derived from 30 years in uniform during very tumultuous times. But he spoke to all of us youngsters as equals. And to his enormous credit, he never substituted nostalgia for analysis. A few times he’d lament to me the passing of some attitudes or traditions or methods from his younger days, but whenever I asked if he’d go back to those times, he always said, “God, no,” or “Hell, no.”

Pictures of him on his books often cast him as solemn and profoundly serious. But I can assure you, he was never solemn. He embodied the phrase attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Take your job seriously, never yourself.” A superb raconteur, he was never at a loss for insightful, and often hilarious, anecdotes about the Army he loved so much. Sometimes I’d go into his office in the late afternoon and request that he “be witty,” or “entertain me.” And he did: “When I was working for William Childs Westmoreland,” or, perhaps, “Hamilton Hawkins Howze” — for people he had mixed feelings about, he always rolled the entire name sonorously off his lips. And off he’d go, in that gargling-with-gravel voice of his, with tales of the sage sergeants, magnificent majors, crapulous colonels, generals good and bad, and some just incredibly intense, he’d encountered during, and in between, three wars.

Sometimes he was serious indeed, such as discussing the planning he did for a possible U.S. invasion of southern Laos to block the Ho Chi Minh trail. Another sticks out in my mind as being particularly vivid: In March 1968, John, then a colonel, was walking through Hue shortly after it was retaken from the North Vietnamese with some senior officers. One enemy soldier hadn’t gotten the memo. He stepped out of a ruined building, a few steps ahead of the assembled American generals and colonels, and swung his AK-47 around, pointing it at John. He told me that he thought, “This is it, I’ve had it,” but he managed to jerk his .45 caliber pistol out of its holster and shoot the enemy soldier dead.

Other times it was a story, say, about the social fallout that took place in the XVIII Airborne Corps when he was stationed at Ft. Bragg in the late 1950s, when a colonel divorced his wife and married the teenage ex-wife of a private.

He got away with saying things that nobody else in the office could. He didn’t care about age, gender, or background, as long as you knew your stuff. Sometime in the early 1990s we were talking about the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the issue of openly gay people serving in the armed forces. And he told me how a “fancy pants hairdresser” in his home town came back from World War II with a Distinguished Service Cross and three Purple Hearts, and that put paid to any stereotypes he grew up with. As we concluded our discussion, he sighed, and said, “You know, it shouldn’t make a goddamn bit of difference, but I’m afraid for some people it does.” Not bad for a man born in 1921.

The Warlord Loop has enriched its members immensely over the almost two decades since John founded it. But we enriched Warlord Collins as well. In contributing to the intellectual development of hundreds of people pursuing careers in national security, both in and out of uniform, he stayed in the fight. It energized him and gave him a sense of purpose. We should be proud of what we did for him, just as he was proud to be associated with generations of national security professionals much, much younger than he was.

He cared about people. His rumbling, deep voice and his gallows-humor which has characterized soldiers for thousands of years concealed that, in his own words, “I’m a pussycat.” His kindness was visible to all. In the three months preceding my father’s death in 1995, every morning he’d come into my office and ask, “How is your daddy?”

The sarcophagus of the British architect Sir Christopher Wren in Westminster Abbey says, in Latin, “If you seek his monument, look around you.” We are all John Collins’s monuments, enriched not just by his professional knowledge, but also by his larger-than-life personality, his decency and honor, and his deep patriotism. I never discussed the phrase “the Greatest Generation” with him. I suspect that he would have taken it with a grain of salt. But of all the 15 million men who wore the uniform between Pearl Harbor and VJ-Day that I’ve known, he was one of the two or three best — not just as a soldier, but as a human being as well.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

 

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Bob Goldich joined the Congressional Research Service in 1972 and retired in 2005. He was a plank-owner of the Warlord Loop when it was first established almost 20 years ago.

Image: USMC photo by Sergeant W. R. Jackson