Mentors and Contact

4 Min. Read

It has been a long time since my last note. Like many, I’ve been feeling isolated and have been missing contact with friends, family, and colleagues around the world. The pandemic has reminded me, and perhaps you too, of the importance of contact and the value we gain from personal human interaction.

I am blessed to have had an amazing mentor in my life, and lately I’ve especially been missing the moments from long ago when we would sit in his office and I would just listen as he chomped a cigar and freely imparted wisdom, advice, and opinions. For about fifteen years, General William Odom helped guide me on my journey. Recently, I’ve been reminded of those interactions and become more aware of how the pandemic has made it difficult to forge mentor relationships. In reviewing my past personal diaries, I came across powerful lessons I had noted from my interactions with General Odom. Here are a few highlights that I hope will inspire you too:

  1. Read for Bias: Especially in today’s media environment, it is important to remember that there is very little in front of us that doesn’t bear the mark of the author. Read the perspectives of those you agree with but also of those you don’t. All facts are dependent on the source and the motivations of their teller. 
  2. Question Conformity: General Odom was a scholar of Soviet military policy. He often brought discussions about all ranges of current events back to the mindset of the pre-Soviet peasant. He stressed the power of questioning authority and pointing out the risks of groupthink. Never stop questioning, and be wary of moments when everyone is moving in one direction too easily. 
  3. Don’t Settle: General Odom emphasized the idea that complacency was not welcome. While it is okay to enjoy our victories, be wary of feeling self-satisfied.
  4. Find the Post: We often have big ideas and lots to share. Most stories are bigger than listeners can digest all at once. General Odom pointed out the importance of distinguishing between the fence and just one single fence post. Keep your audience’s attention by finding a way to make just one single fence post interesting. Pick your post, dig down into it, and tell its story. Once you’ve done justice to your selected post, you can move on to the next. When we try to tell the story of the entire fence, we risk losing our audience. When you’re sharing your ideas, focus on one important part at a time.

Even if personal human interactions remain limited for a while, I encourage each of us to find a safe way to connect with others, to seek out mentors for conversations (even if you can’t meet in person, and even if they don’t chomp cigars), and to take notes on what you learn from others throughout your day.

Background: General William E. Odom retired from the US Army as a three-star Lieutenant General. After serving as the Director of the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan, he entered academia. To my good fortune, I found him teaching at Yale just as I was enrolling. He was a professor, an advisor, and the truest definition of a mentor that I have ever known. Below is his obituary by the Washington Post that I cut and pasted in my diary upon his death in June 2008.

William E. Odom, 75; Military Adviser to 2 Administrations

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008; C08

William E. Odom, 75, a retired Army lieutenant general who was a senior military and intelligence official in the Carter and Reagan administrations and who, in recent years, became a forceful critic of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, died May 30 at his vacation home in Lincoln, Vt. An autopsy will be performed, but his wife said he had an apparent heart attack.

Gen. Odom was a career Army officer who was also a serious scholar of international relations and a leading authority on the Soviet Union. He was the military assistant to Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser and director of the National Security Agency during President Ronald Reagan’s second term.

He had a reputation as a military hard-liner who opposed any compromise with the Soviet Union, which made his vocal opposition to the current involvement in Iraq all the more cogent and surprising.

“Among senior military people, he was probably the first to consider the war in Iraq a misbegotten adventure,” Brzezinski said yesterday. “He believed that we’re just stoking hostility to the United States in that region and developing an opposition that cannot be defeated by military means. He was very outspoken.”

Well before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Gen. Odom warned that military action in Iraq would be foolhardy and futile. He outlined his positions in The Washington Post’s Outlook section Feb. 11, 2007, in the essay “Victory Is Not an Option.”

“The president’s policy is based on illusions, not realities,” he wrote. “There never has been any right way to invade and transform Iraq.”

Gen. Odom became a fixture on news programs and never altered his critical stance toward the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq and Iran. On Tuesday, he and Brzezinski wrote an op-ed article for The Post in which they stated that the White House’s “heavy-handed” approach toward Iran would backfire and “almost certainly result in an Iran with nuclear weapons.”

Earlier in his career, as an Army officer in Vietnam, Gen. Odom had privately come to oppose U.S. involvement in foreign wars that brought, in his view, little benefit to the United States. He drew parallels between Vietnam and Iraq and believed that the only sensible path for the United States was a complete and immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

He was neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but in 2007 he delivered a stinging radio address on behalf of the Democratic Party.

“Most Americans suspect that something is fundamentally wrong with the president’s management of the conflict in Iraq, and they are right,” he said. “The challenge we face today is not how to win in Iraq, it is how to recover from a strategic mistake: invading Iraq in the first place.”

Gen. Odom was born June 23, 1932, in Cookeville, Tenn., and was a 1954 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. His interest in Russia began when he studied the 18th-century reign of Peter the Great.

After serving as an infantry and armor officer, he took a more strategic path. He learned Russian, received a master’s degree in 1962 from Columbia University and was posted to East Germany in the mid-1960s.

After teaching government at West Point, he returned to Columbia for a PhD in comparative politics in 1970. Gen. Odom was a military attache at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1972 to 1974, where he studied Soviet life. He also spent more time on the West Point faculty in the 1970s and at Brzezinski’s Research Institute on Communist Affairs at Columbia.

When Brzezinski became Carter’s national security adviser in 1977, he named Gen. Odom his military assistant.

“He was both a fighter and an intellectual,” Brzezinski said.

Because of his fierce anti-Soviet stance, Gen. Odom was known as “Zbig’s superhawk” and his “crisis coordinator,” who helped plan responses to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the capture of hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

Gen. Odom spent four years in Army intelligence before being named director of the National Security Agency, the government’s largest spy operation, in 1985. He threatened to prosecute journalists at The Post and other media outlets in 1986 for compromising national security after exposing a U.S. eavesdropping operation by submarines in Soviet harbors.

In 1988, Gen. Odom retired from the Army and NSA and began a career in academia. He was a resident of Washington but had taught at Yale University since 1989. He wrote seven books in the past 16 years, including the authoritative “The Collapse of the Soviet Military,” which portrayed the Soviet military hierarchy as bloated and hopelessly corrupt.

“He was a genuine scholar who loved scholarship and wrote some important books and was a very effective teacher,” said Brzezinski, who added that he and Gen. Odom often played tennis. “He was better than me,” Brzezinski said.

Survivors include his wife of 45 years, Anne Odom, a former chief curator of the Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, of Washington and Lincoln, Vt.; a son, Army Lt. Col. Mark Odom, of Fort Lewis, Wash., who was wounded in action in Iraq; a brother; a sister; and a granddaughter.

Photo: Official photo of William Odom, Director of the National Security Agency, Public Domain