The Brain of the Pentagon

Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work hosts a farewell ceremony for Andrew M. Marshall at the Pentagon, Jan. 5, 2015. Marshall, 93, worked his last day as director of the Defense Department's Office of Net Assessment, retiring after 42 years.

DoD / U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz

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Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work hosts a farewell ceremony for Andrew M. Marshall at the Pentagon, Jan. 5, 2015. Marshall, 93, worked his last day as director of the Defense Department's Office of Net Assessment, retiring after 42 years.

Andrew Marshall leaves behind an American tradition of strategic thinking that will live well beyond him.

When the memorial service for the former defense official Andrew W. Marshall, who recently passed away at the age of 97, was held, an eclectic throng attended. Former senior Cabinet officials, generals (the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave one of the eulogies), professors, think tankers, and bureaucrats from several continents showed up. There were historians, anthropologists, economists, journalists, and political scientists. But it was not a gathering of the establishment, for these were the cranky insiders rather than the complacent wielders of authority. And all of us thought of ourselves as members of what is affectionately known as St. Andrew’s Prep.

Andy came to Washington in 1969 from the Rand Corporation to work for Henry Kissinger. His friend James Schlesinger recruited him from there to create and run the Office of Net Assessment in the Pentagon in 1973, and he retired out of that job an astounding 42 years later. In that time, he influenced not only the senior civilian and military leadership of the Pentagon (emphatically, some more than others), but generations of students of national-security affairs.

Put at its most simple, net assessment is about comparing opposing sides in actual or potential conflict. That might sound straightforward, but it is not. Intelligence agencies focus on the other—they are by culture and sometimes by bureaucratic practice allergic to studying their own side. The military engages in planning, of course, but that is not the same thing as assessment, because action is very different from analysis. Think tanks usually conduct their studies with an eye on clearly defined deliverables in well-measured times for particular clients. Universities do all kinds of analytic work, but very rarely with the kind of highly classified information that is needed.

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What Andy Marshall invented (and it was his invention) was something else: a sober, multifaceted, long-range scrutiny of military balances that probed for hidden asymmetries of strategy or organizational behavior, and that took in everything—from geography to technology, order of battle to styles of command, and culture to bureaucratic routine. Many of the products were highly classified. Some were well known (such as his iconic assessment of the standoff in Central Europe during the Cold War) and some went to only one or two consumers. They gave no clear guidelines for immediate action. Indeed, the reason the Office of Net Assessment flourished was because, from a narrow bureaucratic point of view, it threatened no one. Some secretaries of defense neither understood its work nor cared about it; the clever ones, such as Schlesinger and Harold Brown, treasured it.

At any given time, fewer than a dozen bright young officers and civilians at most were at the heart of the ONA, but its intellectual ripples extended far away. Read Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision, and there in the credits you will see Andy Marshall. Look at some of the finer literature on intelligence and on military effectiveness in the interwar period and World War II, and you will see that it was sponsored by Andy Marshall. Read about how the United States sharply revised downward its estimate of the size of the Soviet economy in the mid-1980s, and you will see that it rested on work by émigré Soviet economists who had been disregarded by their more orthodox Western counterparts. Andy had contracted for, and championed, their work.

Andy was an intellectual magpie. He devoured books on early-19th-century military history (“Read Dominic Lieven’s book on how the Russians beat Napoleon; it will change your view of Russian military culture”), Chinese philosophy, and biological anthropology. To be sure, privates often think of their sergeants as apes; Andy wondered what it meant that the generals and politicians had a good deal of the primate in them, too. He wrote very little, in part because he was a perfectionist. As more than one subordinate or contractor ruefully acknowledged, you would give him something you had written, he would mumble at you and say “Do it again,” and after the third or fourth go, it was the best thing you had ever written in your life.

Andy’s was the life of the mind, devoted to the study of conflict and informed by a deep and abiding—if often pessimistic—love of the United States. He would listen to anyone who had something to say, be it a Harvard professor or a graduate student masquerading as a reserve second lieutenant. He liked the oddballs—those dissident Soviet economists, the crackbrained technologists, the impossibly insubordinate armor officers, the eccentric hedge-fund guy who was willing to help the country while trying to figure out which way the financial winds were blowing.

What those memorializing Andy remembered most, however, was his kindness. He could be tough, and on rare occasions—when someone was appallingly stupid or had behaved very badly—he could get angry, but that was rare. For the most part, he gave. He gave opportunities for scholars whose work did not quite fit within disciplinary boundaries. He gave brilliant young officers (like the four-star-general officer who eulogized him) an opportunity to sit for a couple of years getting smart. He did not mind investing in some intellectual drilling that yielded only dry holes, because he knew that that was the price of exploration. And, in a lesson to all self-important people, if he thought you might possibly have something to say, he would sit and listen to you no matter how old you were, where you went to school, or what your status was.

St. Andrew’s Prep may have some reunions (there is a foundation named after Andy), but he was the centripetal force that held it together. That is fine; he knew that nothing lasts forever, and that it was time for others to do his kind of mentoring, exploring, and inquiring about what makes the world of strategy spin. He left behind webs of friendship and connection, and an American tradition of strategic thinking that will live well beyond him.

In recent years, grim-faced or obsequious Russian and Chinese officers came to Washington seeking the mysterious secrets of the impassive brain of the Pentagon. They had pored over every reference to him (not many) in the press, and sought the hidden mysteries in his still scantier writings. They knew that he had anticipated the transformative effects of the information revolution on warfare, and wondered what he saw coming next. They would have loved to have purloined and secretly photographed the folder covered with security stamps labeled “The Really Big Secrets of Net Assessment.”

It does not exist, of course, though they will not believe it. They may never understand that his real secret was that of a roving mind and a patient intellect, married to the spirit of a masterly teacher and generous friend. If they only knew it, they would realize that the real secret to Andy Marshall’s success could begin to be found in the broad smiles and loud laughs as St. Andrew’s Prep celebrated its times with its wise mentor, the kindly, not entirely inscrutable brain of the Pentagon.

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