Retired four-star Adm. Eric Olson said he didn’t have a military bone in his body when he entered the U.S. Naval Academy 40-some years ago.
His first meeting with someone in uniform, he told an IPFW classroom half-filled with ROTC students in camouflage fatigues, was meeting his roommate for the first time. And, he said, he only went into the academy because the other college to which he’d applied didn’t accept him.
But Olson, in Fort Wayne on Wednesday to deliver the first of this academic year’s Omnibus lectures at IPFW, would become consummately military.
Chosen as a Navy SEAL, Olson would be the first of that elite group to achieve three- and four-star status. He also would be the first SEAL named to head the U.S. Special Operations Command during a time when "special ops," as they’re often called, took on expanded roles in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
That includes deep into Pakistan, where it was special-op forces that carried out the dramatic raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011 – while Olson held top command. He retired in August 2011.
However, Olson said Wednesday during a meeting with members of the media, the skills and roles needed in the military today aren’t just the ones familiar from action movies.
Technology and advanced weaponry are important, he said, but so are "soft" skills involving well-developed intelligence and deep cultural understanding and sensitivity.
That’s because the potential threats to the United States have changed, he said.
He developed the insight, he says, after seeing a photo of the Earth at night taken from space. Much of the Earth’s land appears ablaze with light, while other parts are conspicuously dark.
Conventional thinking, Olson said, "was that the strategically important places on Earth were where the lights are on at night." But, "on 9/11," he added "we were struck from where the lights aren’t on at night, and we were less prepared to operate on or with people who live where the lights aren’t on at night."
Working with such people in less-developed societies involves "a different kind of person," different education, different training and even a different mission for the military, one that would address root causes of unrest and have a humanitarian focus, he said.
"I think we’ve struggled with understanding that."
Speaking to the ROTC students, Olson said he learned the importance of nontraditional military skills partly from women in a pilot program for special ops that was created under his watch.
Military women helped their male counterparts learn, for example, that a place those bent on destruction might hide a rigged cellphone was in a baby’s diaper, he said. And, women with children in conflict areas would follow a female in uniform to a safe place, but wouldn’t always follow a man.
Once followed, a woman was likely to learn information – "who the bad guys were," he said with a smile – that would help other troops "immeasurably."
Asked by a reporter about his take on the U.S. airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, Olson said it showed the complexity of the wars in which U.S. forces are now engaged. The action killed 22 and was declared a mistake by President Barack Obama, who apologized Wednesday to the organization.
"So war is an ugly thing," Olson said. "Mistakes happen in war despite your best efforts to prevent them. There is no policy, there is no permission, no authority to bomb a hospital. So when something like that happens, it’s clearly a mistake. Some communication wasn’t made, some knowledge wasn’t known."
Olson said he would welcome "multiple investigations" of what happened, and if mistakes were made, those involved should be held accountable. But far be it from him to quarrel with the commander-in-chief.
"If the president feels it was an egregious enough mistake to apologize for it, that’s his decision," Olson said.