April 05, 2011

Meet Captain Matt Pottinger, United States Marine Corps

Matt Pottinger is a sandy-haired, 37-year-old man whose easy manner and charm provide cover for a remarkable biography and a very important set of messages about the wars the United States is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. After a tour in Iraq as an intelligence officer with an infantry battalion in the initial troop surge and two tours in Afghanistan, including as adviser to a senior general with whom he collaborated on a controversial paper critical of intelligence gathering, Pottinger is now on "individual ready reserve." He is this year's Edward R. Murrow Fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations, which is intended to give returning foreign correspondents a chance to reflect on their years abroad. Pottinger qualifies for the fellowship because he joined the Marines in 2005 after a decade as a reporter, which culminated in his work at the Beijing bureau of theWall Street Journal. As a respected reporter, he traveled widely in the Chinese countryside and covered the horrific tsunami in South Asia in 2004.

Pottinger was 32 when he decided to join the Marines, years older than most entrants to Officer Candidate School, and he spent months in Beijing getting his body in shape. Marine OCS is a grueling process intended--explicitly--to force out as many of the young men as possible (women are trained separately) so that those who complete the 10 weeks of boot camp are considered ready for the next stage of training and ultimately deployment to the war zones. Pottinger says that 40 percent of his class at OCS left before it was over. Having made the commitment to serve, Pottinger had to submerge many of the traits that brought him to the Marines in the first place. "I learned to be very, very humble," he said in one of our conversations, accepting the notion that he had to endure the torments of experienced Marine drill instructors to gain the mental and physical toughness that are essential qualities for leadership. The independent thinking that good correspondents develop had to be replaced with unquestioning obedience to rapid-fire commands.

As an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, Pottinger studied Chinese, which was how he landed at Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. While his journalism career was progressing, Pottinger started to develop an idealized role the U.S. military could play in global conflicts. Covering the tsunami, for instance, he encountered the enormous humanitarian contribution being made by Americans, including Marine units returning from Iraq deployments. In China, he came up against police state excesses, especially when he traveled to demonstrations in the countryside. Long hours being interrogated by local authorities reinforced his sense that he should find a way to serve American democratic principles, even as he understood that these were often undermined by realities on the ground in war zones. After his basic and infantry training, Pottinger became an intelligence specialist. While on stand down in Okinawa after his first Afghanistan tour, Pottinger's reports caught the attention of top commanders, and he was recruited to work with Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, then the deputy chief of staff for intelligence under Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

I cannot do justice to the development of Pottinger's ideas in snippets from several interviews, but fortunately, as he closed out his second Afghan tour, he was co-author with Flynn and Paul D. Batchelor of the Defense Intelligence Agency of an extensive analysis called "Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan." The unclassified report was eventually released by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. It attracted both accolades for its candor and criticism from those, especially in the Pentagon, who challenged its judgments. Pottinger's personal appraisal about the inadequacies of intelligence, as I heard him describe them, reflect his background as a journalist. The best of reporting, he says, even in this digital age, comes from experienced print journalists who take the time to embed with military units in the field and, when they can, in local communities. Their stories can provide senior officers with a coherent sense of the situation in contested areas that often goes beyond the collated data that makes its way through the bureaucracy to policymakers.

Recently, Pottinger spoke to students at the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia in which he described in compelling detail why he joined the Marines and what he had learned in his three combat tours. Iraq and Afghanistan are now among America's longest wars. Moreover, with turbulence spreading across the Middle East and North Africa, particularly the Libyan military operation, it is next to impossible to gauge the long-term consequences of America's intervention in the region. But a defining characteristic of these conflicts, as distinct from the Vietnam era, is that even critics of the wars show respect for the young men and women who have volunteered to fight in them.

Pottinger is still absorbing the experience of his years at war. He is a recipient of the Bronze Star and other decorations. As a reserve officer, he can be called up at any time. You may not agree with everything Pottinger says about these conflicts, and my sense is that there are those in the Pentagon who think he has been too outspoken in his papers and public appearances. But he has served his country bravely. He is now reporting back to those of us who remain uneasy about the outcome of these wars without clear endpoints. I salute Capt. Matt Pottinger and hope our leaders and the public can take advantage of his insights. He has earned the right to those views at great risk to himself and out of devotion to American ideals.