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(U) Remember the Past to Learn Lessons Today: Lt. Gen. Wilson Talks with DIA
April 27, 2009
(U) Retired Army Lt. Gen. Samuel Wilson, former DIA director, spoke to the DIA work force April 15 as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series. He described his first intelligence assignment, lead scout in a rifle squad, as a nervous wreck-inducing job. Wilson learned then of the true importance of timely and effective intelligence and that good operations always involve some calculated risk.
(U) “Out there on the point … nobody between you and an enemy in wait … with the name of the game to get him to fire at you and thus disclose his location. Rifle at high port in sweaty palms … creeping forward softly on the balls of your feet…eyes squinted sharply in all directions … ear balls straining for the slightest sound … sniffing the wind for any tell-tale odors … watching out of the corner of your eye the squad leader back there some 65 yards to your rear for his controlling signals and feedback, ‘collection guidance,’” he said, telling the story as a private first class, exchanging his M1A1 bugle (and company bugler assignment) for a 1903 bolt-action Springfield rifle.
(U) Wilson recalled the words of George Santayana saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” pointing out how important it is to study where we have been in order to learn the valuable lessons held in past experiences, both good and bad.
(U) As a first lieutenant during World War II, he found himself in North Burma as the chief reconnaissance officer in a special operations forces unit popularly referred to as Merrill’s Marauders. On a mission to probe the Japanese tactical dispositions, Wilson found a thinly patrolled gap and was able to successfully sneak through to a position well behind the enemy’s front lines. To inform then Army Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill of this weakness, he rode some 30 miles on horseback back through enemy lines leaving his men in place, deep in hostile territory. Based on Wilson’s intelligence, Merrill promptly force-marched his entire command behind the enemy forces and began the first engagement of U.S. ground combat force on the continent of Asia.
(U) Wilson noted one lesson learned, among others from this mission, “For intelligence to have real value, it must be acted on, sometimes quite promptly and decisively; otherwise, it can be about as useful as warm spit, regardless how romantic or dramatic it may sound.”
(U) In 1947 Wilson entered Columbia University’s Russian Institute as a member of the Army’s Foreign Area Specialist Training Program and launched a three-decade career as a Russian linguist and specialist in Soviet affairs, including defense attaché to Moscow.
(U) There is no substitute for getting to know your enemy, according to Wilson, learning his language and culture — especially his history — and whenever possible, walking the streets of his cities.
(U) While he served as the DIA director for less than two years, he followed the evolution of the agency since its founding nearly 50 years ago. Wilson, a soldier of three wars and nearly 70 years of public service, currently works part-time at Hampden-Sydney College, having served as a political science professor and the college’s 22nd president.
DIA is the nation’s premier all-source military intelligence organization.
It provides the nation’s most authoritative assessments of foreign military intentions and capabilities. The agency’s four core competencies -- human intelligence, all-source analysis, counterintelligence and technical intelligence -- enable military operations while also informing policy-makers at the defense and national levels.
DIA’s mission is unique and no other agency matches its military expertise across such a broad range of intelligence disciplines.
This page was last updated June 3, 2013.