I was saddened to read of the death of William E. Odom, one of America’s leading soldier-scholars. In recent years he has become known as an outspoken critic of Bush foreign policy and advocate of withdrawal from Iraq. I disagreed with him, and we even debated at least once on the radio. But I never lost my respect or affection for him, formulated initially when, as a graduate student at Yale in 1991-92, I took a class with him on the Russian military. He was a refreshing outpost of pro-military, anti-communist thinking on a campus where neither viewpoint was much encouraged.
Bill Odom spent much of his career as a military intelligence officer specializing in the Soviet Union including serving as a military attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He went to Columbia to receive an MA and Ph.D. in political science. While there he worked closely with a professor named Zbigniew Brzezinski. When Brzezinski became Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, Odom became his military assistant. He then went on to become a three-star general and director of the National Security Agency in the Reagan administration. He finally retired in 1988 to pursue a career in the twin worlds of academia and think-tankery, which is how I came to know him.
During the Cold War, Odom had a reputation as a hawk and hardliner. (So, for that matter, did Brzezinski.) In the years since then, both seemed to drift to the left, though, in fairness to Odom, I am sure he would have denied it. He often said that he had opposed the Vietnam War from the start because he thought that containing North Vietnam was in the interests of China, not the United States. He opposed the Iraq War because he thought it was equally ill-advised. Unlike so many leading analysts and politicians, he did not turn into a dove only when it became clear the war was not going well: he was against the war from the beginning, which took some guts considering that he was employed by a conservative think tank, the Hudson Institute.
Where I truly disagreed with him was not in his opposition to the war in the first place-the decision to invade Iraq was a close call and there were good arguments on both sides. I thought he went too far when he said, during the course of the war, that victory was not an option and therefore we should pull out all of our troops, notwithstanding the dire likely consequences. He even puckishly authored an article in 2005 entitled “What’s Wrong with Cutting and Running?”
Notwithstanding his dovish views on Iraq (and related subjects, such as Iran), he remained committed to a fairly expansive view of the American role in the world, as he made clear in his book, co-authored with Robert Dujarric, America’s Inadvertent Empire. He approved of the “empire” in question, even if he never had much patience with those on either the Left or the Right who would place our ideals at the center of our foreign policy.
Agree with him or not, Odom deserves to be remembered for a long and illustrious career of service-a legacy carried on by his son, Mark, an army lieutenant-colonel who was wounded in Iraq. He was particularly notable for managing to combine scholarly achievement with a successful military career-a combination that both academia and the military too often frown upon.