Professor Paul Bracken walked into his class yesterday and — like any good student — sat down in the front row.
When the highest-ranking military officer in the United States Armed Forces guest-teaches a course on “Strategy, Technology, and War,” listeners should take notes — chances are that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen knows a little about strategy, technology and war.
Mullen, the 17th chairman of the JCS, held the floor of the Osborne Memorial Laboratory auditorium for a little over an hour Wednesday afternoon as nearly 200 undergraduates, graduate students and other members of the Yale community listened to the admiral lay out a sweeping analysis of U.S. military power and global geopolitical issues.
“We don’t look north and south very well,” he said. “We have a tendency to look east and west. One of the things that I see strategically is that we’re going to need to start looking more north and south.”
The United States will have to stay involved in global affairs “for about as far as we can see,” Mullen said. As the United States juggles issues of sovereignty and human rights, Mullen also said he hopes the country will continue to be a force capable of intervening in humanitarian crises “where we’re welcome.”
“This is a course about strategy, and I’d be interested to hear your views on what you’re learning about strategy and technology and war,” Mullen said in his opening remarks. “I’m actually very much into all three of those right now in my current life and have been for a while.”
Mullen began by summarizing his unexpected rise to the top of the American military — pausing to offer the young audience advice about personal relationships and opportunity. He then launched into a discussion of geopolitics that touched on global hotspots and America’s role in sustaining global security.
First up on Wednesday’s syllabus were his own experiences of September 11th, 2001, which he said “flipped the world upside down” and reshaped his view of world security.
Mullen discussed several instances of instability overseas that he said had the potential to “affect the U.S. directly,” including the Israeli-Palestinan conflict, the problems of reconciliation in Iraq and an increasingly bellicose Iran. But Mullen said he also considers events in the Western Hemisphere — for instance, the alignment of anti-American Cuban, Venezuelan and Bolivian governments — to be of serious concern.
During the second 30 minutes of his lecture, Mullen fielded questions from the audience about the Navy’s base at Guantanamo Bay, the armed forces’ consideration of climate change and the stability of the Pakistani government, among other topics.
Students interviewed said they generally enjoyed the lecture, although some thought Mullen’s responses to questions were generalized or sounded practiced.
“He said things like, ‘Right now the U.S. forces are essentially a mess,’ and that was pretty direct,” Alexander Civetta ’09 said. “But it sounded like sometimes he was saying buzzwords and leaving very specific questions to our own minds to answer.”
For some students, like Aniket Shah ’09, Mullen’s emphasis on the importance of knowing one’s peers within a community was novel and valuable.
“The thing I took away was the value of personal relationships,” Shah said. “Again and again he said, ‘I went and I visited my counterparts here, and here’s how that relationship helped out in the future,’ and that was really an interesting takeaway — you don’t think about that when you think about the military.”
Mullen, the son of a Hollywood publicist, grew up in Los Angeles and had only left California once before he enrolled at the Naval Academy in 1964. One year after his graduation from Annapolis, Mullen’s first combat tour shipped out to Vietnam — “a pretty tough war back then,” as the admiral put it.
Before becoming chief of naval operations in July 2005, Mullen served at separate times as the commander of three ships, the George Washington Battle Group and the U.S. Second Fleet. Still, Mullen said the step up to the chairmanship came as a surprise.
“This was the last thing I expected,” Mullen said of his June nomination for the post vacated by General Peter Pace of the Marine Corps. “The freight train ran right over me, and I didn’t see it coming.”
Mullen and Bracken were friends before the new chairman was sworn in on Oct. 1, Bracken said in an interview with the News after Mullen’s lecture.
The two met through Bracken’s service on the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel, he said.
Following Mullen’s appointment to the chairmanship, Bracken said he called Mullen’s office in September to extend a speaking invitation for his course. Mullen “immediately accepted,” Bracken said.
“When I get asked to do something like this for someone who has done so much for us, it’s pretty easy to say yes,” Mullen said, referencing Bracken’s civilian academic contributions to the Navy through the advisory panel.
At the end of the lecture, Bracken presented Mullen with a Yale sweatshirt, in imitation of a similar gift Kansas State University President Jon Wefald made to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Monday at the conclusion of an address Gates delivered at the school.