The General John Allen that I know

Eric Shierman_thb

by Eric Shierman

Even the most meritless investigations of the Department of Defense’s inspector general take at the least many months to complete, but it was only a matter of weeks before it cleared General John Allen of wrongdoing for having a bona fide friendship with Tampa Bay, Florida socialite Jill Kelley. Those of us who have known him are not surprised Gen Allen has been exonerated. What should surprise all of us however is how quickly the Office of the Secretary of Defense jumped at the chance to charge after such spurious insinuations.


Here is a picture of the John Allen that I had the privilege of knowing, taken in the hangar bay of the USS Wasp nearly two decades ago:

John Allen

As a Lieutenant Colonel, he was my battalion commander, leading the 2nd Battalion 6th Marines in our multiple deployments in the Caribbean in 1994 dealing with humanitarian crisis in Haiti and Cuba. Something that did not get much media coverage at the time, 40,000 Cuban migrants were housed in temporary refugee camps on Guantanamo Bay and in September of that year they violently rioted. There were only around 500 of us to put the riot down. I will never forget the day my rifle company quickly assembled with our batons and shields just as we had been drilling for.

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Golf Company was rushed to a blocking position between a sheer cliff to our left that hung above the rocky shore below and a sandstone bluff to our right. As thousands of angry Cuban males tried to force their way through the less than a hundred Marines who guarded this pass we stood our ground. They pelted us with rocks; they beat us with tent poles, but they could not break our ranks. Then I heard one of our staff NCOs shout “Ready step” and by the instinct that comes from many hours of prior practice we all shouted “ahr” as we stepped forward with our left foot in unison. It was an amazing sight to see as we pushed back a mob many times our size one coordinated step at a time.

Here is a picture of Golf 2/6 taken a few hours later as the crowd was nursing its wounds:

cuban riot 1994

It is easy to see how this deployment directly helped develop the skill set Allen would need to pacify the Sunni Iraqi insurgency in Anbar province and turn these former opponents against Al Qaeda. While there was plenty of head bashing in Cuba at first, for the most part, those frustrated migrants were convinced to return to their camps peacefully.

Allen understood how to maneuver in the social terrain of his humanitarian battlefield. Indeed he spelled out his lessons learned in the Marines’ professional journal a few months later. In a very lucidly written article for the February 1995 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette titled Humanity on Humanitarian Operations: How much Violence is enough? Allen argued that:

Security is first and foremost a state of mind. It is not a function of barriers, security forces, guard towers, or weapons status, though surely they are a part of the security equation. If the Cuban migrant is secure in his own mind, he will be compliant and quiescent, and his life from day to day in the camps will be endurable, even tolerable, as the Governments of the United States and Cuba resolve their political status. If however, he feels insecure, if he feels his basic wants and necessities are not being fulfilled, if he and his family are being victimized by elements of the Cuban population, or if his well-being is threatened, he will react in ways that will present challenges for U.S. forces. To define security in any other way ignores that most powerful force-human factors. Human factors will motivate migrants to breach six strands of concertina wire, to jump from a 60-foot cliff into unseen waters at night to swim to Cuba, and to pit themselves against hardened Marines when the milk has run out for the children. Security is in the mind of the migrant.

Thirteen years later as a brigadier general serving as the deputy commander of the 2nd Marine Division, Allen once again understood that the success of the “surge” in Iraq from 2007-2008 would have less to do with the build-up of more boots on the ground than it did the effective employment of those forces in a way that built confidence in the Sunni insurgents’ eyes that America was there to protect their families and their rights as a minority in a pluralistic new Iraqi society led by a Shia majority government.

Allen was also in command of 2/6 for our deployment as the landing force for the 6th fleet a year later as the Bosnian civil war was brought to a close in the fall of 1995 by the Dayton Accords and NATO enforced the new peace in Operation Joint Endeavor. Battalion Landing Team 2/6 was NATO’s rapid reaction force as a flood of western peacekeeping forces moved into the former Yugoslavian war zone.

In Bosnia, Allen was able to observe how the end to years of bitter ethnic fighting was so well executed as to not have much need for the assistance of his reaction force, because effective diplomacy by Richard Holbrooke skillfully used American force to give each side the opportunity to end a fight that had exhausted them both. Like Holbrooke in Yugoslavia, Allen immersed himself in the detail of Iraqi tribal history, enabling him to negotiate an end to the conflict in Anbar between the new Iraqi government and the Sunni tribes. Allen met exiled insurgent leaders in Jordan and risked his life in dangerous remote areas of Iraq to give a face to face opportunity for exhausted insurgents with American blood on their hands to turn their weapons on the foreign terrorists that had infiltrated Iraq to sow chaos.

In their very excellent history of the Iraq war titled End Game: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor describe the man at the center of the war’s gravity this way:

The Marine command jettisoned its reservations about Abd al-Sattar and played its own part in helping to bring together the three groups that were jockeying for a role in the rapidly changing political landscape of Anbar: the Awakening council in Ramadi, the more senior sheikhs who remained in exile, and the provincial government, which consisted of Governor Mamun in his Marine-guarded compound in downtown Ramadi and a Baghdad-based provincial council that was too frightened to set foot in the province it was supposed to be governing. This work fell not to Gaskin but to his more capable deputy, Brigadier General John Allen, who would later become the top American commander in Afghanistan under President Obama. An Arab enthusiast who had taught Middle Eastern politics at Annapolis, Allen liked to say that he would have preferred the life of British Iraq specialist Gertrude Bell. Flying to Jordan and various Gulf states on Marine C-130s, Allen and his staff convinced more tribal leaders to return to Anbar, helping the spread of the Awakening in the Fallujah area.

More important, Allen made it his goal to coax the Anbar provincial council back from their exile in Baghdad so that they and Governor Mamun could actually play a role in the province.

Regarding Allen’s role in Afghanistan, the book on that is yet to be written, but probably the best account of his unique strategy to implement the President’s planned withdrawal has so far been written by Bing West which you can read here, but let me share even more about this incredible man that some of my peers did not get to see. Though a mere junior NCO, I got a rare opportunity to see more of my battalion commander than the average enlisted man. I volunteered for the battalion color guard and would frequently need access to his office to get the battalion battle standard. I would frequently have to participate in battalion ceremonies and photo ops such as the one below at a combined arms exercise at Twenty Nine Palms, California with LtCol Allen’s staff and company commanders:

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I also frequently attended the base chapel’s protestant service and would get the opportunity to chat with him and his wife over donuts and coffee after the sermon. I walked to the chapel each Sunday morning and LtCol Allen was kind enough to give me a ride back to the barracks in his Ford Taurus station wagon.

When I was growing up, all I ever wanted was a career in the Marine Corps. I idealized in my mind what a Marine infantry officer would be like. In reality, few lived up to my expectations, but LtCol Allen was a glaring exception. Indeed in all my life I have rarely encountered a more commanding presence, brilliant mind, and yet fundamentally kind person.

It soon became obvious to me that I did not fit in to the Marine Corps’ somewhat anti-intellectual environment and I ended up pursuing a career in finance instead (only to learn that the corporate world is no better). Thus for me Allen remains a personal inspiration for how one can both be a book worm and still garner respect. At the time a favorite book of his was T. R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War a classic history of the Korean War. Citing a passage from a chapter that contrasts the Marine Corps’ and Army’s different performances in the Battle of the Chosun Reservoir, Allen perfectly delivered a quote during his introductory speech at his change of command ceremony:

In 1950 a Marine Corps officer was still an officer, and a sergeant behaved the way good sergeants behaved since the time of Caesar, expecting no nonsense, allowing none. And Marine leaders had never lost sight of their primary – their only – mission, which was to fight. The Marine Corps was not made pleasant for men who served in it. It remained the hard, dirty, brutal way of life it had always been.

The way Allen delivered that quote gave shivers to every young man in that formation that day, even those that would never think of cracking open a history book.

The reality however is that they don’t quite make them like John Allen anymore. Most flag officers are neither creative nor well read and even fewer have the kind of charismatic leadership skills that can turn a losing war into final victory. Generals and admirals today are bureaucratic drones more akin to the Postmaster General. The institutional culture of the Pentagon and our political system rewards mediocrity not talent.

It would be an absolute shame for anyone of any ability to be treated the way Leon Panetta’s Office of the Secretary of Defense has treated General Allen, but to pursue a formal investigation by the IG at the drop of a hat on such flimsy grounds on a four star general of Allen’s caliber in the very moment he is in command of an entire theater of operations speaks of gross mismanagement at the highest levels of the Pentagon. It was officially declared by the OSD that Allen had sent some 40,000 emails to Ms. Kelly when in fact over the course of several years he has only sent a couple hundred, many of which were simply a polite one sentence reply to an emailed news article about him that he was merely carbon copied which Ms. Kelly had actually sent to Gen Allen’s wife for goodness sake! How this became an accusation for an affair because Allen would occasionally use a southern use of the term “sweetheart” to a platonic friend calls for an investigation of the Pentagon staff itself. At the very least the Obama administration owes this man, the finest officer of his generation, an official apology.

Eric Shierman lives in southwest Portland and is the author of A Brief History of Political Cultural Change. He also writes for the Oregonian’s My Oregon blog.