Matt Pottinger is a sandy-haired, 37-year-old man whose easy manner and charm provide cover for a remarkable biography and a very important set of messages about the wars the United States is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. After a tour in Iraq as an intelligence officer with an infantry battalion in the initial troop surge and two tours in Afghanistan, including as adviser to a senior general with whom he collaborated on a controversial paper critical of intelligence gathering, Pottinger is now on "individual ready reserve." He is this year's Edward R. Murrow Fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations, which is intended to give returning foreign correspondents a chance to reflect on their years abroad. Pottinger qualifies for the fellowship because he joined the Marines in 2005 after a decade as a reporter, which culminated in his work at the Beijing bureau of the Wall Street Journal. As a respected reporter, he traveled widely in the Chinese countryside and covered the horrific tsunami in South Asia in 2004.
Pottinger was 32 when he decided to join the Marines, years older than most entrants to Officer Candidate School, and he spent months in Beijing getting his body in shape. Marine OCS is a grueling process intended--explicitly--to force out as many of the young men as possible (women are trained separately) so that those who complete the 10 weeks of boot camp are considered ready for the next stage of training and ultimately deployment to the war zones. Pottinger says that 40 percent of his class at OCS left before it was over. Having made the commitment to serve, Pottinger had to submerge many of the traits that brought him to the Marines in the first place. "I learned to be very, very humble," he said in one of our conversations, accepting the notion that he had to endure the torments of experienced Marine drill instructors to gain the mental and physical toughness that are essential qualities for leadership. The independent thinking that good correspondents develop had to be replaced with unquestioning obedience to rapid-fire commands.