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Gen. David Petraeus
Commanding general, multinational force - Iraq

In the early 1980s, I was a captain with nearly eight years [of service] in the army, all in the infantry, and was weighing various options. My boss at the time, then-Maj. Gen. Jack Galvin, said "I think you ought to look for an out-of-your intellectual comfort zone experience." So that's what I did. After attending the command and general staff college at Fort Leavenworth, I went to the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, where I got a Ph.D. in international relations.

I found the truth in those years about what Gen. Galvin occasionally described as "the grindstone cloister" existence of military officers, that we keep tend to keep our noses to the grindstone and don't look up as often as we might. At the time at Leavenworth, one of the debates in the strategic studies elective, for example, was about the number of MX missiles the U.S. needed; one officer would argue that we needed 200, another might say 100, and that was seen as a big disagreement.

At Princeton, there were people who argued that we didn't need any ground-based, multiple warhead missiles at all. And others would contend, with at least arguable logic, that there should be no ground-based missiles of any type, a declaratory policy of "no first use," or even no nukes at all. The bottom line is that seriously bright folks thought very differently about important issues, and the debates on various topics were wonderful. All in all, in fact, the experience was invaluable. It may sound trite, but experiencing that not everyone saw the world at all remotely the same was good preparation for many of the experiences I've had since then.

I have also found since then that a basic knowledge of political philosophy and economics is a useful grounding for working in developing countries. That background provided knowledge that helped here in Iraq in the beginning and also when I was in Haiti and Bosnia That kind of academic knowledge at least forces one to think about the very basic organizing concepts like majority rule, minority rights, basic freedoms, limits to avoid infringing on the rights of others, the virtues of market-based economics, incentive structures, and so on. Presumably, any citizen will have given such topics some thought; however, studying them in grad school required a reasonable understanding of how and why such concepts evolved and have been applied in various places.

Finally, grad school also gives most folks a healthy dose of intellectual humility. That was certainly the case for me, and that's not a bad thing either.

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Last updated April 30 2008: 4:31 PM ET