The Lessons Ash Carter Taught Me

One of Ash Carter's former speechwriters and special assistants reflects on the lessons the Secretary of Defense leaves behind. Read More

There are few people in living history whose names seem to exist as synonyms for American power and strength. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter was one. Ash died suddenly last week at age 68, a tremendous shock to all that knew him, and his absence leaves a premature and unfillable gap in a space he long occupied in American public life. He was a titan of leadership and clear thought in national security. As a young man, I knew him through his speeches, writing them under his guidance when he was Deputy Secretary and benefiting from the chance to see his mind at work. The lessons of his life – his way of thinking, his way of working, his way of being – will shape generations. They will shape how we think about public service. They will inform the conduct of strategy and how we solve hard problems. And they will help us build stronger American institutions.

Some of the bigger lessons of his life are human-oriented, relational. The strategic lessons were easier to recognize and, in some cases, to absorb. A historian and a physicist, he leaned on history as a foil for reflecting on the present world and for situating data to make decisions. In the first speech we ever did together, a retirement speech for the DoD Inspector General, the retiring official’s biographical story became a means to call out lessons in service. Later, in big policy speeches, we used language that Carter first developed about the “two strategic currents” of history converging at that time period, the first being the drawdown of America’s military forces in the Middle East, and the second being the United States pivot to the future — towards Asia, and towards advanced capabilities in space, cyber, special operations, counterterrorism, and science and technology – to preserve American strength.

Ash Carter’s perceptions of the present always carried with them another convergence: the impact of technology on human history. From his time working on the denuclearization of the former Soviet Union with Senators Dick Lugar and Sam Nunn to his work updating the Pentagon bureaucracy to deliver the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle to digital technology, Ash Carter understood that history and technology interact in a dangerous geopolitical dance that requires constant vigilance. Preventing dangerous technologies from falling into the wrong hands shapes the work of many in the national security community. Shaping the culture of government to take advantage of the benefits of technology is a positive inverse that likewise requires vigilance. Ash was the pre-eminent thinker and actor on both sides of this strategic narrative. There is no one else in this country with his unique combination of leadership experience and deep technological knowledge.

Developing strategy was one of Ash Carter’s superpowers. In one of my favorite speeches from our time together, on the occasion of the renaming of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces to the Eisenhower School, we decided to resurface President Eisenhower’s farewell address and to use Eisenhower’s writing about balance as a literary instrument for reflecting on the new U.S. national defense strategy Carter had worked diligently to help develop and which President Barack Obama had just launched. “Today I would like to recall three principles from President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, in light of our new defense strategy and budget,” Carter said. “These three principles – of strategic balance; of thinking in time; and of managing our defense objectives within our broader national goals – were not Eisenhower’s principles alone, but he built upon them, and he made them a part of our national narrative.” Ash Carter did the same.

He was a man who thought in time, as his Harvard Kennedy School colleague Ernest May would say, who saw our responsibility as defense and national security professionals to balance competing priorities for the best future possible. Practically, to be a good strategist also meant that you had to make choices every day about how you spent your time in high office. As Deputy Secretary, he made a deliberate decision to focus on Asia, cybersecurity, and advanced technology because he knew he could not do everything. In making his decisions he assessed the landscape of geopolitics, his strengths, and the needs of the Department. He engaged the best minds in the Pentagon and outside of it. He carved out time on his calendar to both travel to Asia and, separately, to dive into the details of cybersecurity with the Commander of U.S. Cyber Command. In all his management meetings with the four-stars across the Department, he organized the facts, set strategic choices, and made decisions. He was always focused on understanding and solving the most important problems before the country.

Repairing frayed ties with the technology sector was one such problem. His legacy in this investment will be measured through years of output by a broad community of people that he inspired to work at the intersection of technology and national security, some of whom he met once or twice, some that he never met but who were inspired through his work to think and build and act for a better future. He launched a DoD presence in Silicon Valley, he instantiated the Defense Innovation Board to bring the power of the technology sector to bear on the Department’s hardest problems, and he played an outsize role in shaping the nation’s cyberdefense policy. Venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, students across the country: he inspired a generation. He was not alone in imagining a better future between the national security community and the technology sector but he led the way and set the story.

On the craft of writing, a practice vital to the success of any speech or strategy, he taught that it is good to think first and be deliberate, and to lean on data – real and comprehensive data – to make an argument. He taught also that it helps to write with a standing desk, to think while gazing out a window (if you have one), and to write sometimes with graph paper, especially if you are dealing with the alignment of data and history that was a mark of his work. Graph paper helps make your structure more visual and logical. And he was a deeply logical man.

History will see and benefit from these lessons. The people around him benefitted from human and relational lessons that revealed themselves more quietly. Ash Carter invested in sustaining his relationships. Sometimes that meant small things that were actually big things. He affirmed, for example, that it is good to send people handwritten notes because it makes them feel seen. He wrote a note to a subordinate on her confirmation by the Senate as assistant secretary, and she was floored that he would take the time. There are hundreds if not thousands of such stories. He knew that showing up matters. And he knew that it was his sacred duty to visit the service members that fought for the United States, visiting them in theater, spending every Saturday at Water Reed Memorial Hospital in Maryland with his wife Stephanie, visiting wounded warriors recovering from injuries sustained in battle, and taking part in the solemn ceremony of receiving service members’ remains at Dover Air Force Base, often with their families. In such moments, a man who could at times be tough and intimidating in the office revealed himself to be a man of exceedingly strong emotion and heart.

Ash Carter taught that it feels good when you call someone “brother”, “pal”, “great man”, or “great lady”. From across the E-ring he would often call out “hey brother” to profound uplifting effect on the receiver. Sometimes it made me wonder what task was about to drop when he would call out, but 90 percent of the time he just wanted to say hi.

He made jokes during walks down the hall. He laughed in small meetings with close staff. Once or twice, we laughed so hard we doubled over. His big goofy laugh will echo through the minds of all that knew him. And he gave bear hugs. Big, enveloping bear hugs. It was a remarkable thing; the man would surround you. You knew he was a force of history but he was also just a man with a soul like any other.

Ash Carter’s life is a lesson in what it means to be a public servant and a leader. You study hard. You marshal the facts. You stay focused on what matters. You act as a part of a team to execute change for a future that you hope will be better. You serve the next generation.

He was a great man, and he is gone far too soon.

Jonathan Reiber served as chief speechwriter and special assistant to Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter from 2012-2013, and then as chief strategy officer for cyber policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2013-2015.