#Monday Musings: Chad Pillai

"Monday Musings” are designed to get quick, insightful thoughts based around three questions from those interested in strategy, from the most experienced and lauded, to our newest thinkers/writers.

1. Who had the greatest impact on you intellectually (whether through writing, mentorship, etc.)?          

I’ve been fortunate to have many great mentors during the course of my career, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll mention two: my parents and my first professional mentor, Lou Schwartz.

My father, a Ph.D. in economics who taught public policy and served as a state budget analyst, and my mother, a county supreme court chief law librarian, instilled in me the love of learning by encouraging healthy debates of politics, economics, history, law, and international affairs at the dinner table. They encouraged me to broaden my horizons by enrolling me in the Air Force Civil Air Patrol program where I developed my love of the military; the town Youth Court program where I was introduced to the criminal justice system; and international travel to India, Belgium, and Singapore before my high school graduation. Their encouragement led to my enrollment in the accelerated international program at the State University of New York College, which required national and international internships as part of my degree. These internships and my introduction to Lou Schwartz, my first professional mentor, would profoundly impact my decision to become a strategist.

Lou Schwartz was my boss and mentor at the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security in 1998, and he greatly influenced my career as a future Army officer and writer. My final week there ended with the twin bombings in Africa, and Lou was the first to introduce me to Osama Bin Laden and his Fatwa. He told me that what he feared most was a smart terrorist willing to die–something we all saw on 9/11.  My relationship with Lou helped me earn a follow-on internship at the U.S. Embassy in London that would serve as the springboard for my final internship at the Office of National Drug Control under General (Ret) Barry R. McCaffrey. Later, this relationship influenced my desire to become an Army Strategist. Lou and I remain in contact and he continues to provide me valuable advice. He gave me three professional points to live by: get as many advanced degrees as possible; read broadly, write, and publish as much as possible; and continuously learn new technology.

2. What book (fiction, history, or academic) do you think best explains strategy?

I don’t believe any one book explains strategy in its totality. I know many cite On War, but for me, while it is a very important book, I always felt something was missing. This has led me to read and study Machiavelli and many of the western philosophers, and it expanded my reading on the role of economics, social dynamics, and religion in the context of human warfare. Without this breadth, someone may miss the larger context behind a given conflict. Additionally, I think the mistake some make is in trying to translate strategy into Newtonian physics, which I believe causes problems. The reason this is wrong is because, as Clausewitz rightfully points out, the role of chance and uncertainty make understanding strategy and conflict more like quantum mechanics. So, to repeat Lou’s advice, strategy requires reading broadly. 

3. What do you want your legacy to be?

I want my legacy to be of someone who contributed to the strategist community, helped push the ball forward, and served as a mentor for the next generation. The most important aspect of my career from now on is reaching out and engaging the new cohort of strategist as a mentor. I greatly benefited from mine and I want to share that with them. The one piece of advice I would offer from my assignments as a strategist is: 

  • “Funding is policy and all else is rhetoric.” This is the key lesson I learned when I was in the Army War Plans Division.  No strategic idea (good or bad), operational design, or approach matters if some leader is not willing to apply resources (money, manpower, and/or material).

Chad M. Pillai is an Army Strategist serving in the U.S. Special Operations Command–Central (SOCCENT).  The opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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