Lieutenant Colonel Colin Jackson graduated from the University’s ROTC program in 1992 with a degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He went on to serve four years of active duty, received his M.B.A in Finance from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, his M.A in International Economics and Strategic Studies from John Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, and a P.h.D in Political Science from MIT. He taught at the U.S. Naval War College, MIT, and Columbia. He is currently the Chairman of the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College. His son, Karl Jackson, is a member of the Princeton class of 2022. He is an ROTC cadet pursuing a concentration in Chemistry and the History and the Practice of Diplomacy certificate.
The Daily Princetonian: Dr. Jackson, tell me a bit about your childhood. Was there something that made you interested in military matters or military service from a young age?
Colin Jackson: The two are not as tightly connected as you would think. I grew up in Berkeley, California, as the son of a professor in the Political Science department at UC Berkeley, so I’m an outlier in the sense of not having a family background in the military. I’m the first in my family to do that. I was certainly interested in two things: one was the idea of military service and the other one was paying for college. In the old days, that was a heck of a lot harder in terms of finding sources than it is today in the sort of contemporary Princeton environment. You guys have an embarrassment of riches that weren’t necessarily there before.
DP: Karl, tell me a bit about yours. What was it like having a father involved with the Armed Forces? Did that inspire your interest in military service?
Karl Jackson: He [Colin] was always doing reserve stuff most of my childhood and then he got deployed in 2011. So that was always a context. Then when I was 15 or 16 I realized, “Yeah I want to do this. I want to serve.” And it helps with college too.
DP: Dr. Jackson, you arrived on campus in the fall of 1988 as an ROTC cadet. What was your day-to-day life was like, and how did ROTC affect your Princeton experience?
CJ: It was a great deal of fun. It’s what the military could be if everybody were Princeton students. So you have all the traditions and structure of the military, but with all of these fabulously intelligent, capable people. It’s an outlier unit in that sense. You’re surrounded by a bunch of folks who’re great fun.
We also lucked out with Doug Lovejoy, who was the colonel here — who’s still connected to Princeton — he retired from the army. He was a development guy for many years and a tremendous role model as the colonel running the program.
DP: Karl, you arrived on campus in the fall of 2018 as an ROTC cadet. What is your day-to-day life like, and how does ROTC affect your Princeton experience?
KJ: A regular day would be getting up, going to PT, eating breakfast with a bunch of ROTC guys, going to class as usual and that’s just about it. It’s the same thing where you’re with a bunch of guys who’re all working towards the same purpose. Ultimately, we all want to serve in the army, and we’re all super capable, hopefully intelligent individuals. It’s a great feeling being with people who want that.
DP: What do you think is different about your two ROTC experiences? What do you think is similar?
CJ: I think the program has changed less than the world. I entered at the tail end of the Cold War. I think most of us joining at that point thought we’d be part of this large project of maintaining the Cold War, which didn’t seem like it would end.
But then our generation instead served either in Iraq or Afghanistan or both, which was unforeseeable for us at that time. Whereas these guys are now entering at a period where they know full well that we’re engaged [in] two different security threats. One is sort of this war against militancy that doesn’t appear to want to end, and the other is this sort of prospect of great power revisionism in Europe and Asia. I think it’s a very different period in the world and that’s more significant than the changes in the program.
I would add one other thing that’s really interesting: the demographics of the ROTC class have changed. The sizes of the classes are actually remarkably similar. I had about 15 kids in my graduating class —
KJ: — I have about 16.
CJ: But there weren’t a lot of military families sending their kids to Princeton when I came in. Now generals and officers often send one kid to West Point and one kid to Princeton for this idea that they’re going to get a high-end civilian education and they’re going to be commissioned with the military. That’s a real change. It’s very different than the period that we all lived through. There was very little overlap between the professional military class and Princeton.
DP: Dr. Jackson, you earned a degree from the Woodrow Wilson School — how did your studies inform your experience as a cadet and officer?
CJ: I don’t think that there was an enormous overlap between the military cadet experience and the Woodrow Wilson School. I mean, similar motivations took me into both realms, but there really wasn’t an immediate spillover benefit. I just finished up two years as a Senior Defense Official, and I’ll say that serving in government at the highest levels hugely overlaps with what the Wilson School has traditionally taught. The curriculum is brilliant.
It essentially forces people to work in groups on a policy problem. The act of working with problem-solving, the aspect of deliberating, and then coming to some consensus or dissent situation is exactly what the bread and butter of the government is. The model is terrific for preparing people for the types of situations that foreign service officers or civilians in defense or people in the National Security Council will deal in.
DP: Karl, how do your studies inform your experience as a cadet?
KJ: I’m getting the History and the Practice of Diplomacy certificate, but I’m a chemistry concentrator. I went a very different route — he has trouble with math, so it makes sense.
CJ: Oh, easy!
DP: Dr. Jackson, can you tell me about your service and career since graduation?
COLIN: I went four years active and went to Germany for three years after my initial training. I was in tank units in Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, right before Bosnia. Then I got out and came back into the reserves in graduate school because I spoke French, and I got into a linguist unit which is sort of the least “army” of army units.
I never thought that would amount to anything, but after September 11th occurred, the company I worked for actually went bankrupt. I went back on active duty after 9/11 doing translation support on captured enemy documents — things we were pulling out of caves in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.
I was both doing some French language stuff on North African militant groups and supervising a lot of the Arabic and Pashto Dari documents that we were doing. I went to Afghanistan in 2009 as a civilian advisor helping frame strategy stuff for them. Then in 2011, I went back in uniform for a year as the U.S. policy person looking backward to Washington.
Again, I was in uniform but it was one of those twin skillsets — you’re in uniform in a war zone but you’re also doing public policy stuff. I did that for a year. The last two years, I was in the Pentagon in a civilian capacity as the Senior Civilian overseeing the war in Afghanistan and then also Pakistan and Central Asia.
The joke in the army is that you PCS — which is a permanent change of station when they send you somewhere — to the other side of the problem. I was in Kabul for the first time in uniform, then I was the Senior Civilian looking back to the uniform side. And the two-star [general] I worked for in 2011 was the four-star [general] in command when I was the Senior Civilian.
My path has been not at all typical, but maybe it’s typical with the Princeton ROTC side. We’re a quirky group that’s not representative of the larger military.
DP: Dr. Jackson, why did you choose to do active duty in the first place?
CJ: I wanted to see what the real experience was. I was curious about it and it seemed like the thing to do as a young person coming out. I was gloating throughout the summer of 1992 in the middle of the recession. All of my friends were freaking out about why they couldn’t get jobs on Wall Street and I knew I was going to Fort Knox, Kentucky, so I was fine.
I chose to do it, but thought I wouldn’t do it as a career and would probably get out after four years. But when I got out and went back to business school, I realized the impact the military had had on me in those four years. Basic, ethical things that I didn’t find in every businessperson I interacted with: a sense of team play, freeform problem solving, and all these kinds of things that I took for granted as a member of the military. When I left and started encountering certain business types, my second nature wasn’t necessarily second nature to them. They were great with excel and data modeling. Leadership was something that wasn’t as easy for them.
DP: Karl, how does your dad’s experience in the military shape what you want to do after graduation?
KARL: I think I want to definitely go active if I can. You have to apply. But hopefully I’ll do that and then I’d like to branch infantry or armory. I’d do that for four years and then see what I want to do from there.
I think my dad is a good example of how you can balance the military stuff and civilian stuff. I don’t know if I want to do the career army or do four years and then go into the civilian world. But clearly, you can kind of do this endless dance between the two.
CJ: I didn’t understand until I left the military for the first time how invaluable an imprint it had on me in a positive way. And I tell people that the best finishing school after a place like Princeton is the military. Because you develop all of these critical deep thought questions like “why,” and you’re so academically trained. But your head does inflate a little bit while you’re here.
Then you enter an organization which is deflation central. No one cares whether you’re the smartest guy in the room. You’re in this organization that’s dedicated to learning to lead, learning to make mistakes, learning to recover from making mistakes, and being surrounded by people who are very different from you in upbringing and origin. It’s an enormously valuable experience. I always tell people that if your kid is going to go to some top-flight school, the best thing they can do is finish in the military. Not because they’ll necessarily stay in it for a career. They’ll probably leave, but always bear the marks of this in a positive way.
DP: Karl, what is the single greatest thing your military experience has taught you?
KJ: I think it’s satisfying to be with a group of individuals who you know are highly competent and capable of doing a lot both for themselves and for the country. We’re all doing what we can to hopefully make the army a better place and maybe make the world a better place.
DP: Dr. Jackson, what is the single greatest thing your military experience has taught you?
CJ: I’d say two things. One is that as an adult, you get very few opportunities that you guys are just swimming in right now, where you get to make these deep and lasting bonds and friendships. It’s not a normal part of adulthood. But in the military, you show up and there’s some guy you don’t know on the bottom bunk. The friendships that form over that are so strong compared to normal ones. Friendship and companionship is a rare and tremendously gratifying thing.
KJ: Yes, most of my best friends are ROTC guys. You spend most of your time together, you learn together, and it’s just an iron-clad bond.
COLIN: And here’s the other thing. I deployed in 2001 to Afghanistan. This was in the middle of that period of this conversation about millennials. You know, “oh, kids these days! They’re narcissistic, they’re ‘snowflakes.’” Then you watch a bunch of people who are 18 to 25 years old, placed in a war zone with no material possessions and in significant danger — and they’re just as inspiring as any other generation of young Americans. It really was one of the most gratifying things to be surrounded by much younger people whose situations have brought out the best in them. And obviously this isn’t a great time to be upbeat about facets of American society, but you get these little windows into the next greatest generation.
DP: How do you think that Princeton ROTC and general military service fits into the University’s motto of “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity?”
CJ: It’s certainly one of the higher expressions of “in the nation’s service.” In many instances, and I’m not a great exemplar of this, these are guys who have risked their lives not once, but twice or multiple times. And quietly. It’s the ultimate expression, I think, for folks who dive deep into this, but I wouldn’t say I’m in that category. They’re the exemplars of “in the nation’s service.”
KJ: I think the combination of Princeton and the army uniquely qualifies you to serve the nation and humanity to a greater extent than at another place. You get the benefits of the army, the comradery and teamwork, coupled with what, I think, is the best education you can get on the planet. So marrying these two, when our cadets graduate, allows them to be at the top of whatever they do and be able to really make a difference in a positive way.