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The Thinker at the Pentagon

Yale SOM’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld remembers Ashton Carter, the scholar and diplomat who served as secretary of defense in the Obama administration.

Ashton Carter, then secretary of defense, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2015.

Ashton Carter, then secretary of defense, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2015.

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
  • Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld
    Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management

This article originally appeared in Fortune.

Ashton Carter’s death last week was a huge loss to the world, our nation, his family, his colleagues, and his friends. A great educator at Harvard, in government he successfully championed the renewal of investment in our military investing in new technologies and talent development. As a personal friend of his for over 50 years, I’ve been flooded by hundreds of messages from grieving parties ranging from CEOs and diplomats to soldiers and classmates. But who was Ash Carter as a person? The eulogies captured his sterling CV, but this man was far more than his résumé.

He focused on the “force of the future” as a core mission, looking at the physical fitness, intellectual preparedness, and diversity of our military. Celebrated for his advocacy of gender-neutral equal opportunity, his human side went far deeper than personnel matters.

Carter commented at one of our Yale forums, “In future wars, winning will mean having a victory that is widely accepted, including by the defeated. So you won’t win by mowing down millions of people. You’ll win by having people at the front edge who have human skills.”

So—what do we know about this man’s own “human skills?”

The glowing obituaries saluted him as the 25th secretary of defense; he was really the 84th person to hold that position. The United States has had secretaries of health and welfare, housing, and education to advance the positive mission of government, as opposed to, say, secretaries of illness, homelessness, or illiteracy. Thus, it is not surprising that the Secretary of War was renamed the Secretary of Defense under the National Security Act of 1947, since the national mission was defense, not war. There were 56 U.S. Secretaries of War before the position was renamed. Carter served in the role for just over two years (the average tenure) but his service was far longer. Carter was not just a fleeting appointee on a a long roster of office holders or a bureaucrat afraid to take a stand on principle.

The brilliant Carter was a dual major, Phi Beta Kappa in both physics and medieval French History at Yale College. Carter enhanced his public policy interests while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, moving past the traditional diplomats’ degree of politics, philosophy, and economics to also obtain a PhD in physics.

After taking a top research position at MIT and Rockefeller University, he courageously ran the congressional watchdog agency overseeing Pentagon technology called the Office of Technological Assessment. In this position, he authored a private research paper which debunked President Ronald Reagan’s boast that his SDI “Star Wars” missile program would protect all U.S. cities and render nuclear war obsolete. Carter revealed how this was impossible when asked to testify. While this catapulted him into prominence in the defense world, it also catapulted him into controversy.

This was so devastating that Reagan defense secretary Casper Weinberger, at the urging of syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, explored charging Carter with sedition for merely doing his job. A bipartisan team of defense policy officials ranging from GOP national security advisor General Brent Scowcroft to several presidents to Democrat former defense secretary Harold Brown (also a nuclear physicist) raced to Carter’s defense, scolding Weinberger for such intimidation tactics, which would “discourage future bright young stars from entering public service.”

This early career jeopardy helped fortify his courage to always do the right thing, independently of partisan politics. He boldly held his ground clashing with fellow Obama Administration diplomacy officials, believing them to be too naively trusting of Russia’s President Putin. He increased U.S. military support to former Soviet bloc nations, asserting common interests.

“The United States will defend our interests and our allies, the principled international order and the positive future it affords us all,” he said. He similarly took forceful stands against China’s creeping assertions over the South China Sea, insisting that the U.S. would “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.”

He was the nation’s strongest sponsor of the Joint Strategic Operations Command (JSOC), the ultra-secret group that shortcut stodgy Pentagon bureaucracy for rapid battlefield responses. Of course, some old guard officeholders were not delighted by this efficiency—but generals in the field such as Stan McChrystal celebrated this responsiveness to support those on the front lines with needed supplies and fast decisions. Under Carter’s leadership, JSOC guided most military counterterrorism strikes, wiping out 60,000 ISIS killers in Iraq and Syria.

Many have said that Carter was the best prepared secretary of defense in U.S. history, having held four of the top jobs in the Pentagon.

Such moves were not reckless experiments on the field of battle, but carefully developed wisdom gleaned from unsurpassed experience. Many have said that Carter was the best prepared secretary of defense in U.S. history, having held four of the top jobs in the Pentagon, ranging from an assistant secretary under Bill Clinton to undersecretary and deputy secretary, until President Obama nominated him as secretary of defense in 2014.

When I visited him at the Pentagon as deputy secretary of defense in 2012, Carter introduced me to then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta as “my boss.” To which Panetta replied, “No. I just work here, having run a small agency before. Ash runs this place and truly knows what our 3 million employees actually do!” Predecessor bosses William Perry and Robert Gates echoed this view in similar comments to me.

In these various roles, Carter drew on his scholarly, administrative, and military strategy experience in each post where he guided nuclear policy, logistics, and weapons development. With backing from Presidents Clinton and Obama, Ash reformed inefficiencies and corruption in purchasing, called for fortification of competition in our consolidating domestic defense industry, and angered legislators across parties with needed base closures and the elimination of redundant operations. He obtained rare near-unanimous Senate confirmation votes, showing unusual bipartisan support.

Carter also forged a vital bridge across sectors. He was a revered member of the boards of Delta Airlines and General Electric. He attended an unsurpassed record of our Yale CEO forums—joining 56 of them in various cities, where he talked candidly about partnership challenges and triumphs. At one of our Yale Washington CEO forums in September 2014, one renowned tech titan cautiously sounded an alarm regarding the damaging Chinese cybersecurity assaults and IP theft they were suffering. Other tech and telecom executives anxiously joined in expressing fear of reprisals for any specific public laments. Carter then promptly asked me to adjourn our meeting and then reconvened these anxious CEOs in the Pentagon’s Situation Room for the first cross-sector private discussion of U.S. cybersecurity attacks from China.

With his expertise in theoretical physics back here at Yale College, he brought top tech leaders from industry into partnership with government beyond cybersecurity matters by also collaborating on artificial intelligence, software, advanced manufacturing, and even virology. He made more visits to Silicon Valley firms in two years then all his predecessors combined the prior two decades.

With the participation of Senator John McCain and General Mark Milley, Carter pioneered the far-ranging huge Futures Command Function with the Defense Department. In his last book, The Five Sided Box, he explained, “Because of my background as a scientist, focusing strongly on modernizing and enhancing the technological tools used by DOD came easily to me. It’s an area in which we’ve let our long-held advantage be whittled away by determined and increasingly sophisticated foreign powers. During my years in the department, we did a good job of renewing our efforts to make sure that the U.S. military is second to none when it comes to using advanced technology to deter and defeat our adversaries.”

Picking up on the post-Sputnik national defense initiative of his and my youth, he wanted to reinvigorate the role of the defense sector in sponsoring technological advances as they did with scholarships and research in the 1960s. He commented in 2015, “When I began my career, most technology of consequence originated in America, and much of that was sponsored by the government, especially the Defense Department. Today, much more technology is commercial.”

As with the Defense Department’s creation of the internet decades earlier, Carter pioneered important new commercial spinouts. At our June 2021 CEO Summit, Carter revealed “As under secretary for acquisition, we had a DARPA program that we started to try to make vaccines. We were vaccinating lots of troops rotating into Iraq and Afghanistan, where there are lots of diseases, particularly Afghanistan, and we wanted to find a way to make that easier. So, we began to fund mRNA at DARPA, and a company called Mo-Der-Na. And years later, when COVID hit, guess what, that technology, that company, which was birthed in association with the DOD, came to the nation’s aid. It is such a great example of how technology with defense applications can spin off towards a wider technological base.”

As an academician, he continued to advise successors in the Defense Department and beyond. He remained one of Vladimir Putin’s worst nightmares, with his bold defense strategic insight and technical knowledge of weaponry but also a profound recognition of Putin’s evil ambitions.

Just this past week, Ash guided Senator Dick Blumenthal, Congressman Ro Khanna, and me through our analysis of some alarmingly sensitive weapons systems being transferred to Saudi Arabia as they collude with Russia. His last email to me gave me his inspiring final order: “Go Sonny. I see nothing wrong here in your alarming Saudi weapons system research—and much that has never been stated clearly before. You are striking one blow after another for the free world. Wish there were more of you. Ash.”

This dedication to global policy issues was never at the expense of his sensitivity to the concerns of frontline combat soldiers. In his various Defense Department roles, he and his wife Stephanie regularly spent holidays such as Thanksgiving with the troops. It was on such visits that he learned of the importance of providing Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPS), which protected the lives and limbs of soldiers but were often a deferred Pentagon priority. Carter made that a top initiative and one of his proudest accomplishments.

All the above demonstrates that Carter was a great nonpartisan patriot, a brilliant scientist, a strategic wizard, talented administrator, and high-integrity public official. Despite the revolving door of appointments between government and the defense industry, Carter avoided all such conflicts of interest. Scrupulously. But he was also Stephanie’s loving and devoted husband, as well as Will and Ava’s proud loving dad. He is buried on the week of his 15th wedding anniversary—and just three months away from the delivery of his first grandchild.

To his friends, he was a loyal pal, a great listener who was generous with his time. Like me, his fellow high schools pals and teachers recall his impish wit, planting tacks on the seat of his physics lab partner and stirring up mischief on sports fields—but thanks to his skill and charm, he was Teflon with our coaches. While a nimble, strategic attackman in spring lacrosse, straight running in fall cross-country was less interesting to him—so he suggested that his frustrated coach clock him not with a stopwatch, but a calendar.

His weekends haunts vacillated between working at a Gulf gas station with an angry mix of car mechanics Saturday mornings, after he was fired from a car wash for goofing off too much, then counseling distressed peers on a teen suicide hotline on Saturday evenings, and sneaking into a nearby college library to recreationally study frontiers in science and classics on Sunday afternoons, with no remote links to his already challenging course load.

Perhaps nothing showed his range of messaging so much as when he welcomed late night comic Seth Meyer to his Pentagon office in 2015, where he deadpanned the proud display of fake historic seized objects from fallen tyrants, pointed to hallway portraits of including a hoax overly muscled shirtless one of himself, then pretending to place phony emergency calls to his boss President Obama threatening seizure of other land—but closed with a serious interview on why he did this spoof: to appeal to a younger demography, before revealing a studio audience of young cheering young soldiers as a salute to the sacrifice, nobility, and gratification of military service: making our nation and our world safer.

Charles De Gaulle proclaimed that “the cemeteries are filled with indispensable men.” Maybe he was more right than he intended. Some individuals do leave us indispensable gifts through their lives with us, however brief.

Ashton Carter’s legacy is a better-protected America and a better-prepared world. If we are all of dust and ashes as the book of Job tells us, this Ash is a part of us all in perpetuity.