Best Defense

How Odierno will do as Army chief

I asked Lady Emma Sky (that’s her on the left in the poster) how she thought her old boss, General Odierno, would do as Army chief. As you can see, Emma, a British expert on the Middle East, has come a long way since her old anti-American, anti-Army days. Now she’s just anti-American. By Emma ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

I asked Lady Emma Sky (that’s her on the left in the poster) how she thought her old boss, General Odierno, would do as Army chief. As you can see, Emma, a British expert on the Middle East, has come a long way since her old anti-American, anti-Army days. Now she’s just anti-American.

By Emma Sky
Best Defense roving Middle East correspondent

I had hoped that General Odierno would one day become Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. Given his love of the Army as an institution, it seemed the job he was most suited for. He always refers to the Army as his second family and loves being with soldiers. I remember accompanying him out to the front lines in Iraq during the darkest days in 2007. He would stop and shake hands with every soldier he passed. He would listen intently to his commanders as they briefed him. And when he came to speak, I observed how he lifted up everyone’s morale as he explained the bigger picture, described how important their efforts were, and elaborated on how their actions at the tactical level contributed to strategic success. His sheer determination, force of personality and bulking physique made us all believe that we could achieve the Mission. And I remember how on the helicopter rides back he would express his amazement at the young men and women who volunteer to serve in America’s armed forces and who go out day after day in full body armor in soaring temperatures in order to achieve the mission. He is always invigorated by being around soldiers and thrives on their energy. He has always been a soldier’s soldier and loves the camaraderie of the military. For him there is no greater privilege than leading soldiers. And I know that across the Army soldiers will be delighted with his appointment.

It is funny how these things come about. A few weeks ago, the rumor was that General Odierno would become the next Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (VCJCS). But then the top candidate to be the next Chairman fell by the wayside due to an ‘unfortunate incident’, and General Dempsey was picked, opening up the post of CSA and ensuring that the VCJCS could not be from the army. Back in 2008, General Odierno was supposed to become Vice Chief of Staff of the Army. But the then CENTCOM Commander Admiral Fallon had an ‘unfortunate incident’ which resulted in him stepping down, General Petraeus moving to CENTCOM, and General Odierno being sent back to assume command of all forces in Iraq only six months after he had left. How unpredictable the lives of America’s senior commanders can be!

In many ways, General Odierno personifies the transformation and evolution of the Army — particularly in the post-2003 period. From his first tour in Iraq, he learned the limits of military might, the importance of understanding other cultures, and the need to seek advice and support from outside the military. He came to appreciate the need to work collaboratively with others. He realized that if he could not achieve unity of command, he could gain unity of effort by developing with other branches of U.S. government, the United Nations, embassies of allied countries, and NGOs a common understanding of the environment and what was required to bring stability. He instructed commanders to understand the drivers of instability in their areas, challenging them to understand the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’. Although at times in the past misunderstood, he has proven himself to be a flexible and versatile commander who continues to learn. Whatever job given to him, he has done it well, whether it be breaking down doors, countering insurgents, stability operations, or closing down an organization. He has the tenacity to see a job through to the end. But he also has the intellect and strength of character to let go — not easy for a Type-A personality. He has led soldiers through some of the most difficult transitions, through surges to draw-downs, from leading to advising.

As soon as his nomination was announced, I received a number of messages from Iraqis delighted that “our General” had achieved the recognition they believe he deserves. A State Department colleague sent me a note saying “the personal example of General Odierno’s leadership and stewardship of the national interest meant so much to many of us on the civilian side.” An ambassador wrote: “He is a very good man — a very decent man too.” British General Lamb, who served with General Odierno in Iraq, wrote to me: “General Ray set the bar high. We would attempt to reach it and generally failed. If he saw us struggling he would reach down and offer us a big hand up. Put simply: fit for Purpose. Always has been — always will be — a great American.” All of us who have had the privilege to serve with and alongside General Odierno are delighted and proud that he has been selected to be the next chief of staff of the Army. He will serve the Army — and the country — well. No finer leader — no better man.

Baroness Sky, a British expert on the Middle East, served more time in Iraq than just about anyone except Iraqis, most recently as the political advisor to General Odierno during the surge.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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