By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 9, 2010
I’m in awe of everything General Sam Wilson has done. His is a name that everyone should know. He’s accomplished more in his lifetime than many of us dare to dream about. He served as a reconnaissance officer with Merrill’s Marauders in Burma, during WWII; as a CIA spy-ring operator in Berlin, uncovering Soviet secrets; as a director of instruction at the U.S. Army Special Warfare School; as a civilian working with USAID in Vietnam and then in the personal rank of minister at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon; and then back in the military, as a Special Forces Group Commander, followed by an assignment as the Assistant Commandant at the U.S. Army’s JFK Institute for Military Assistance (now the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School); then Assistant Division Commander for Operations in the 82nd Airborne Division; as chief defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow; as a director of the Defense Intelligence Agency; as Deputy to the Director Central Intelligence for the Intelligence Community; as one of the founders of the U.S. Special Operations forces and one of the creators of the Army’s Delta Force; and as a teacher and ultimately president of Hampden-Sydney College.
SP: One of the questions that I’ve been asked as a writer, and which I’ve asked others is: Where do your ideas come from? Often, people say that their ideas come via experiences leading them to a certain point, or a Muse or other source. When I read about your career—that you joined the military at 16, and that you were teaching counter-insurgency by 19, I wondered about where your ideas came from. A hallmark of your career, indeed your life, is outside-the-box thinking. How did a 16 year-old, three years later, find himself creating and teaching strategies with which today’s senior leaders still struggle?
SW: The most important influence on my thinking processes came from my parents during my growing up period. I was born and raised on a 150 acre farm—tobacco, corn, wheat—in Southside Virginia (hard by the Saylers Creek Battleground, where the Army of Northern fought its last fight.) My parents were readers, and they imbued us Wilson children with a deep love of books. My mother had been a public school teacher, and she saw to it that I—along with my older sister and three brothers—took the business of learning seriously, including what we learned in Sunday school and church, where she was my first Sunday school teacher. She taught us Wilson children discipline, self-control and how to think logically.
My father, on the other hand, fired our imaginations with his stories, songs and poetry, and helped us see things in life and in our environment in general that we otherwise would surely have missed. From an early age, we worked with him in the fields and woods, and around the farmyard, and he kept our morale up and our spirits high with his jingles and stories, many of them made up on the spot right out of the thin air. In a draft for my memoirs, titled Galahad II: A Country Boy Goes to War, I wrote:
“His mastery of ad-lib storytelling was legendary around the community. Boys from the neighborhood would frequently drop in for free haircuts—he was an expert barber. As often as not, they would be accompanied by buddies who had come along for the tale telling that came with the shearing. The whole group would sit there open-mouthed, mesmerized by the colorful nature tales of foxes, ‘possums, coon dogs, stories of hunting and fishing, of goblins and ‘hants, watermelon heists, red-tailed hawks, and river owls calling at night along the Appomattox. He gave distinct personalities to birds and animals and made them come alive. He could create more tension and drama than anyone I have ever listened to out of such subjects as a creaking door in an abandoned old farm house or strange footprints on a river sandbar in the pre-dawn mist. We would sit entranced for hours on the front porch on moonlit summer nights or by a glowing fireside during the cold of winter, listening as he spun yarn after yarn, making up his stories as he went along…”
There is no question but that my own ability, such as it is, to see things that are not there and then picture them for others to see is greatly aided by the heritage of my father.
SP: I watched the introduction you did for the film Merrill’s Marauders. At one point, in the trailer, you say:
“This was a job they said we couldn’t do. They called it impossible.”
Later, there’s a scene in the trailer, where “Stock” says:
“My man can’t make it. It’s not that they don’t want to fight, it’s that they can’t fight. They just can’t physically fight anymore.”
What inspired you and kept you motivated through your almost 40 years in the Army—much of which required accomplishing the impossible, and stretching your physical and mental limits?
SW: On motivation:
In addition to their providing a sound moral and philosophical foundation on the things that count—including love of country, I also had some appreciation from my parents—and from my own reading—for what was going on in the world of the 1930’s, and had some glimmer as to what the stakes were for the United States in the arena of U.S. foreign policy and national security. By the time I was 16, I was fired up and ready to go slay dragons. In my 1994 commencement speech at Hampden-Sydney College, I said:
“And so, let an old soldier of 3 1/2 wars, and over fifty years of public service, who has seen many men die—some, unfortunately, at his own hand, who has roamed the five continents and the seven seas, strolled in the market places from Marrakech to Baghdad to Samarkand and Ulan Bator, browsed in the book stalls of Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Peking and Tokyo, watched the sun rise out of the South China Sea and set in the Indian Ocean, the moon come up over the snows of the Himalayas and the lightning play in the peaks of the Andes, who has missed setting foot in or at least seeing only two places—Albania and the South Pole—tell you this:
“It is now your world, it is not mine anymore. And it’s a beautiful, blue jewel . . . a shining sphere. Love it, cherish it, protect it and keep it.”
And from my 1997 commencement speech at Hampden-Sydney College:
“I reach for language these old oaks have heard before and know very well. Let an old soldier who has run with the wolves and flown with the eagles tell you this: ‘Love your country. Don’t ever, ever stop loving your country. In the whole wide world we’ve got the best system there is for a man to work out his own destiny. But the system is not on automatic pilot. We have to work to make it work. Don’t forget that . . . We count on you as young men of awesome promise to do what is necessary and what is right to keep us strong and keep us free.”
On hanging in there when the going gets tough:
I felt that I could never falter or let up in front of the troops. I would sooner perish.
All my life (until now) I have always been the youngest and the least formally educated in whatever outfit I belonged to. Result: I was almost always running scared (even when I may have lapped the field—without really knowing it.) For me failure was never an option. In the draft of my memoirs, I also wrote:
“What calls forward this little vignette I have no idea. I haven’t thought of it in years. For some reason I was musing at breakfast this morning, almost in my subconscious mind, about the midnight ride to Merrill. That led to memories of Pride-and-Joy, which led in turn to recollections of Big Red.
“I recall that Big Red was almost as fast as Pride-and-Joy. When we raced the horses in the corral back in India, in the fall of 1943, to pick out the fastest one, Big Red came in second. (Lt Col Still never knew his horse placed third; Sergeant Knapp never told him, thank goodness, or Still would have taken Pride-and-Joy away from me.)
“Pride-and-Joy had a smooth, fluid motion when he ran; the sensation was one of floating along, even in full stride. But Big Red seemed to exert himself mightily, thundering along with great wheezing gasps, almost jarring the ground with the impact of his hooves. The ride was so rough that at times it was hard to stay in the saddle, especially since Big Red would go kind of crazy when you let him run full out. It would become almost impossible to rein him in.
“We were about midway of the march from Assam into North Burma over the Ledo Road. It was a mid-morning in January 1944, pushing on towards noon. The column had fallen out for a rest break, and as usual I was taking advantage of the chance to unlimber the horses a bit. This time it was Big Red’s turn, and as he began to gallop down the road along the column of resting soldiers, I decided to let him have his head.
“And he ran away with me.
“I guess nobody but me knew that I was in trouble, barely hanging on and about to be tossed at any second. We came careening around a bend in the road, and right in front of me was the command group with General Merrill, standing there with his clipboard. I can still see the pleased grin on his face as he took off his helmet and waved it as I came thundering by. Little did he know that I was running scared, not knowing how the thing was going to turn out.
“Running scared. That’s an ironic and typical commentary on the life of one SVW, hanging grimly on with a silly grin disguising his terror and wondering how he got himself into such mess.
“Running scared…Big Red becomes a metaphor for my entire life.”
In almost all my varied assignments (the majority of which I volunteered for), I was blessed with a mission, a goal that I could believe in deeply. And more often than not I had this funny feeling that I had something to offer. That made it easier, sometimes even fun, to hang on and work very hard for a successful outcome.
SP: I read the following quote from you and was reminded of the many of us who think they need to be James Bond to accomplish something special:
“Ninety percent of intelligence comes from open sources. The other ten percent, the clandestine work, is just the more dramatic. The real intelligence hero is Sherlock Holmes not James Bond.”
And in an interview with Dr. J.W. Partin, when speaking about your time training with Major General Wingate in India, you said:
” . . . we began to pick up some things from the British and their way of doing things. They were much leaner, more conservative in what they carried and in what kinds of external support they expected. In fact, we were sort of, by nature, a little spoiled. They tried to do more with less, so that was a good lesson for us.”
As you rose within the military and then became a leader helping those coming up in the ranks, how did you drive home the notion that more can be done with less—Sherlock Holmes v. James Bond—whether related to clandestine work or freshman studies in college? What did you do yourself, and what did you encourage other to do, to live the importance of being able to do more with less?
SW: Growing up on a Southside Virginia farm where we lived on things that came out of the soil, directly or indirectly, I learned early on that one not only can survive but actually thrive on very little. This lesson was confirmed emphatically in the North Burma campaign of 1944, when I came to realize that I could get by if three simple needs or conditions could be met: if I had enough to eat to keep going, if I could have a place and a chance to rest and recoup my energy, and if I could gain respite from enemy guns, especially artillery fire. I figured that if I had these three things, I could make it the rest of the way on my own. Later, I had occasion to check these observations with some of Wingate’s Chindits, and I found them in full agreement.
From another angle, as a soldier starting out in a rifle company in 1940, I was almost amazed at how little in the way of trappings and paraphernalia I really had to have in order to do my job effectively, how relatively easy it was to simplify things and get down to basics. When we would break camp in the early mornings while on maneuvers, and I would sling my pack and march away, all I owned or needed was on my back, and there was nothing left behind to show where I had slept the night before. A wonderful liberating feeling.
That conviction, arrived at early on, has been with me ever since. You can do more with less, and you really don’t need most of the things you think you do. Seeing how the British-Indian Army put this principle into practice was a revelation… And you get these points across to the troops by personal example.
The primary lesson in the Holmes-Bond analogy is not so much “doing more with less” as it is knowing in depth what your intelligence priorities are and then knowing what (and how) to look for the answers. Sometimes the critical key to unlock the whole conundrum is right there under your nose. Remember Poe’s The Purloined Letter? You have to know what to look for and how to recognize it when you see it.
SP: Two weeks ago, I did an interview with General Hal Moore. I asked him the following, and wanted to ask the same of you:
As a writer, I’ve found myself doing the same, but on an individual basis. For me, it might be that an idea comes along, and I don’t think about it or analyze it. I just act. I often attribute this to the Muse, who inspires writers. But in the military, lives are at stake. While a writer might battle over a main character’s actions, you battle in real time, pulling everything together while you are in the moment. From where do you pull this strength? And how would you advise today’s service members in particular about acting in the moment, and not overthinking and analyzing—just doing?
SW: If you have studied and trained and know your job and its requirements thoroughly, then in a fast-moving crisis when you don’t have time to think, your instincts take over and you act practically without conscious thought.
You are going along a jungle trail in North Burma when suddenly a voice in your head says, “Duck Sam, Duck Sam, Duck!” And a Jap Nambu light machine gun cuts the empty air where you had been standing. Premonition? Hardly. The almost unnoticed odor of fish heads and rice and the slight discoloration in the leaves of the branches camouflaging the enemy machine gun telegraphed danger to you without your being fully conscious of it. Trust your instincts.
SP: I asked Joe Galloway the following questions last week:
You’ve been a leader within the journalism and military community, and you’ve known legendary leaders in the military community as they’ve risen—such as General Norman Schwarzkopf, whom you met in Vietnam, and then went on to cover, and embed with during Desert Storm. Most recently, General McChrystal has been in the news, with people questioning his leadership skills. What’s your advice to our next generation of leaders, both civilian and military? What is it that has worked for you and for others?
You have a tradition of outstanding leadership yourself, and you’ve worked with, and have helped nurture future leaders. What’s your advice for military leaders in particular today?
SW: It is not easy for me to answer this question. I have been giving lectures on leadership and teaching leadership courses off and on ever since the fall of 1945, when I was involved in establishing a post-war course on the subject at Fort Benning’s infantry school. In this light, I have great difficulty responding to you in a couple of short paragraphs. Among the suggestions I might offer would be included the following:
Always strive to develop and communicate a clear-cut statement of the mission.
Stress the sharing of information, especially down the chain of command, as well as laterally.
Once you are satisfied that your subordinates know their jobs, give them their marching orders and get out of the way, while supporting them in every way you can.
Remember, take care of the troops and the troops will take care of you.
Don’t let your superiors get caught by surprise.
Study the lives of successful leaders, but at the same time don’t neglect to learn from the mistakes of those who failed.
There is so much more to be said, but this gets us started.
SP: We’ve all seen our ideas adapted by others for their own use. And during that process, our definitions are dropped/altered by those handling them. You coined the term “counter-insurgency.” I read a column that Joe Galloway wrote about you in 2004, in which he recalled:
“Samuel Vaughan Wilson stares intently at the television news from Iraq. American infantrymen are kicking in a Sunni Muslim family’s front door, yelling and screaming and manhandling the father. Wilson grimaces. “This isn’t counter-insurgency,” he says. “This is not the right way to do this.”
And in the summary of Rand’s 1962 Counterinsurgency Symposium, there is a point where it states:
“Col. Wilson emphasized the distinction—thus far inadequately stressed in our service schools—between two entirely different situations in which the Communists initiate guerilla war. In the first they will seize on existing resentment (people’s hatred of an oppressor, or their desire to recover lost privileges or property) and capture an independent movement already under way. The second is the culmination of years of communist planning an organization, as in the case of Central Vietnam . . .”
You wrote the Army’s first manual on how to do counterinsurgency. How have you felt about how something you worked on for so many years has evolved, and has been changed by others? Do you think counterinsurgency is being done right today? Or is what we’re seeing today something different, which should be titled with a different term?
SW: While serving as the director of instruction of the U.S. Army Special Warfare School (Fort Bragg), during 1959-61, and with the capable assistance of several bright, forward-looking officers, I worked to develop a program of instruction (not a manual) on counter-insurgency operations. As the subject was relatively new, this in a sense was a foundational effort, which attracted unusual attention at the time from policy levels in Washington. While trying to figure out what to call our undertaking, we settled on counter-insurgency (coin, for short), as noted above. Three years later, in the summer of 1964, I was assigned to South Vietnam where I had the opportunity to try putting into practice some of the principles we had identified at Fort Bragg. In a word, they worked. Others have been applying lessons learned since then to update, modify and improve basic coin doctrine. In this sense, General Petraeus and his warrior intellectuals have taken COIN to new levels, and I have no doubt that someone else will carry it further along in the future. To your question as to my feelings on how a subject into which I poured so much time and energy continues to evolve, I have no sense of proprietorship; this process simply reflects the dynamic nature of doctrinal development in the military world.