The Cable

Andy Marshall: I Had No Idea Who Yoda Was

The legendary military strategist reveals a bit of ignorance about his infamous nickname.

andrew-marshall

Andy Marshall is a legendary figure in Washington defense circles. For 42 years until his retirement this January, he ran the Office of Net Assessment at the Pentagon, a sort of internal think tank for the Department of Defense. He has been variously described as the best strategic thinker in the U.S. government and the military’s “futurist-in-chief.” Now 93, his best-known nickname only becomes more fitting with the years: Yoda.

On Wednesday, Marshall made a rare public appearance at the a conference hosted by the think tank the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where he picked up the George P. Shultz Award for Distinguished Service. But in an interview with Samantha Ravich, a former Bush administration official, the man who has been all but sainted for his contributions to American defense thinking made a surprising admission: “I had no idea who Yoda was.”

Asked what he thought of the comparison, Marshall said he was “puzzled by it” and that he had only seen one or two of the Star Wars films. Ravich helpfully filled him in on the basis of that comparison: “Through the force, things you will see, other places, the future, the past.”

Indeed, the goal of Marshall’s think tank was to provide long-term studies of foreign military capabilities and how they might behave in a coming conflict. Marshall has been credited with spotting in the 1970s just how much the Soviet Union was spending on defense, which allegedly laid the groundwork for President Ronald Reagan’s bid to outspend the Evil Empire into the ground. Marshall also early on identified the implications of the rise of China, and dove deeply into the ways that technology has changed the nature of warfare, especially the so-called “revolution in military affairs.”

But since his retirement, the gloss has started to come off Marshall’s legacy. It is unclear whether his attacks on CIA analyses of the Soviet economy were in fact correct, and many of his ideas remain shrouded in obscurity and/or remain classified. Marshall’s focus on arms races has been criticized for contributing to perceived geopolitical conflicts. According to a biography of him published earlier this year, The Last Warrior, it was for decades unclear exactly what his office was tasked with doing. Marshall had presented a detailed definition in a 1972 paper but didn’t circulate it widely. It wasn’t until 2002 that that paper was discovered in a binder in Marshall’s office.

The myth that surrounds Marshall can be partly explained by his talent at mentoring young defense intellectuals in Washington. Those who have worked for him, describe him as an extremely kind man –a demanding boss, to be sure, but one who elevated the work of those around him and expected rigorous thinking from his underlings.

Marshall’s cryptic public persona — perhaps another reason why he has become known as Yoda — was on full display Wednesday. Though he has spent most of his professional career studying Russia’s strategic position in the world, he didn’t have much to say when asked how he expects the conflict in eastern Ukraine to play out. Nor did he have much to say about a possible nuclear deal with Iran and what that country might do if it attains nuclear weapons.

True to form for the former head of an office that often went years between published reports, Marshall said that the behavior of states that have attained nuclear weapons is a topic that needs more study.

 

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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