Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Ten Whats With… Colonel Willard Buhl

by Micah Zenko
November 10, 2011

Colonel Willard Buhl.

Colonel Willard Buhl

Short Bio
I am currently a military fellow, U.S. Marine Corps, at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York. I joined CFR after the great privilege and honor of commanding the “Fighting” Fifth Marine Regiment for the past two years.

What is the most interesting project you are currently working on?
Everything I have been exposed to so far at the Council on Foreign Relations has been incredibly interesting. However, the most interesting project that I’m currently working on is related to pre- and post-deployment health assessments. This covers combat resiliency, post-traumatic stress, and traumatic brain injuries, with an emphasis on the small-unit level. The goal of the project is to make men and women who are deployed into combat environments more resilient on the front end, and better equipped to cope and recover on the back end. As a Marine Officer who has served with men and women in and out of combat in the past, including myself, I have a deep personal passion for this issue. Out of nine deployments, I’ve had four in combat environments, including two in Iraq.

What got you started in your career?
I have a long tradition of service in the Marine Corps in my family. My dad, uncle, brother and cousin all served in the Marines. When I was very young, maybe three years old, I knew I wanted to be a Marine just like my father. However, my dad did two enlistments and left the Marine Corps as a sergeant, so he did not make a career of military service.

What advice would you give to young people in your field?
One of the principal reasons I stayed on active duty is because I love working with young people. I talk to young people every day in my job. In terms of advice, I would tell them to get ready for a period of austerity that they just cannot conceive. We’ve been at war for ten years and—within the limits of our ability to do so—we’ve given the men and women who were going into combat everything the Corps and Nation could provide. Over the past ten years, I have never seen such dramatic advancements in equipment, weapons systems, communications, and training. We’ve put a tremendous amount of money, energy, and resources into the military and we’re about to face significant cuts—we need to brace ourselves…. So, hang in there! Over the course of my career I’ve seen both the buildups and the peace dividends, and as an expeditionary force used to working in austere environments, the Marine Corps has traditionally been very responsible about their finances and allocation of resources. We are only 7.8 percent of the entire Department of Defense Budget.

What person, book, or article has been most influential on your thinking?
I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with great men at every level, but I would have to single out Major General John Toolan, the current commander of Marine Forces in Afghanistan. I studied under him and I tried to keep up with him as a battalion commander in his combat regiment in Iraq in 2004 –  there is no finer combat leader and Marine Officer. Everything he did, from his thoughtfulness, to his engagement with Iraqis and others, to his ability to build a team, you always knew that he would do the right thing. He set a great example for me of how a senior officer should act and command in combat. Big boot size to fill, so to speak.

What was the last book you finished?
I’m just finishing the last couple of pages in “Counterinsurgency Leadership in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Beyond,” published by Marine Corps University Press. It discusses counterinsurgency at all levels, from the small unit, to strategic thinking, to the whole of government. It is short and an excellent refresher in counterinsurgency with some very current thoughts for ongoing operations.

What is the most overlooked threat to U.S. national interests?
I believe the most overlooked threat is the issue of cybersecurity. Although I’m not an expert in the subject, the potential implications of a cyber attack, not just on our military readiness, but on everything that we do—air traffic control, trains, utilities, communications, banking, etc.—are profound. If you can’t communicate, it is very difficult to do anything else.

What is the most inflated threat to U.S. national interests?
Not too long ago, I would have said Hugo Chavez. At this point, however, I think we may have brought al-Qaeda to a position where they are so degraded vis-à-vis the amount of resources that we have dedicated and the infrastructure that we have built, that they do not pose as significant a threat today as they have in the past.

What is the most significant emerging global challenge?
I believe that the most significant emerging global challenge will be facing the economic crisis and overcoming the downturn that we’re experiencing. Right now, the fiscal health of some nations such as Greece, Spain, and Italy, could have cascading effects with incredible implications for the U.S. and global economy. Our prosperity is our strength. This will definitely be the major issue to follow over in the near future, and will have significant implications for our national security and Defense Department.

What would you research if given a year and unlimited resources?
I would spend all of my time researching on my aforementioned project. Next week, I’m going to speak at the National Suicide Prevention Council to talk about combat resiliency and mental health. I’ve lived the problems associated with combat resiliency and mental health day in and day out as a Marine Officer for many years, and I think it is an essential readiness issue, with long term impacts on the health of our Nation, especially those who have served in a time of war. The Marine Corps has a traumatic brain injury task force and a combat resiliency study that is ongoing; among the many things we are doing is staffing mental health professionals in combat units, and constantly seeking ways to understand and better care for our warriors. Surveys, oral interviews, and biometrics are being used to inform the body of knowledge with is steadily growing over the past 8 years. .

What would you want readers to know about the Marine Corps on its 236th birthday?
I just celebrated my 30th anniversary of service in the military. When I joined the Marine Corps in 1981, our Nation was at peace, so to speak, other than the Cold War. Today, we’ve been at war for ten years. Since the attacks of September 11th, I have been amazed that despite the long war, the public debate, and the controversy over the circumstances of our invasion into Iraq, that people continue volunteering to serve. I am very proud of the youth in this country. The things that young Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen will learn from serving in the military, from problem solving in difficult situations to putting differences aside to focus on the mission at hand, bodes well for the future of our country, although it contrasts sharply with the highest levels of leadership where there is a lot of infighting and a demonstrated inability to get things done.

The Marine Corps has an incredible reputation of combat excellence in anything that the President of the United States has asked or directed the Corps to do, whether it is humanitarian service, peacekeeping missions, or collecting Toys for Tots around the country every Christmas. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, and the 10th anniversary of 9/11; it is also the 7th year since I sang “Happy Birthday” to brother Marines in Fallujah under fire. We have many incredible Marines who serve and protect the nation under the most dangerous circumstances, and I am proud to report that on the backs of these great Marines—particularly the young men and women—we continue to measure up to those highest standards. Although boot camp is a little different today than when I enlisted, we adjust with every generation, and we get the best out of every generation for the challenges that we face. They’re talented, they’re innovative, and they’re inquisitive. I think they are going to take the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan and utilize these experiences in ways that we haven’t yet envisioned.

Post a Comment 10 Comments

  • Posted by Arnold V. Strong


    What an incredible interview and great history you share. I am an Army Reserve LTC, having just taking command of a new USAR Public Affairs Operations Center, and subscriber to Foreign Affairs. Like you, I joined the Army in the eighties when things were very different. My first active duty assignment was in the Berlin Brigade, a cold war ago.

    What advice would you offer a reservist on how to become a fellow at the CFR? For now, I am focused on my command and in standing up a unit from activation to 100% manning and MOSQ, but after command I am seeking the opportunity to return to either a Senior Service College or fellowship like that in which you are enrolled.

    Finally, happy birthday, Marine! Thank you for your service, Sir!

    Remember the fallen!


    Arnold V. Strong
    201st PA Detachment

  • Posted by John Visci

    Happy 236th Birthday Colonel

  • Posted by Marcie Scheible

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  • Posted by LtCol Matt Sutton


    Firt, Happy Marine Corps Birthday!

    I enjoyed your interview, and envy your new assignment. I’m currently working through my MA in Diplomacy and Military Studies, and find it a facinating course of study. Have you read the Marine Corps University Press; Al-Anbar Awakening, Vols I and II? Although we lived a portion of it, these volumes are interesting as they capture both the U.S. and Iraqi perspectives of the same events. Highly recommend them.

    Continue having fun in your new assignment, and thanks for sharing your interview.


    LtCol Matt Sutton

  • Posted by Joe Lisi


    It was a privilege to spend our 236th birthday with you. First at CFR and then again later at the ROMEO gathering.

    Very nice interview, filled with positive and motivating opinions.

    Your readers should know that you personify the Marine Officer. Smart, confident, considerate, generous, kind and steadfast – your uplifting leadership approach is the fuel Marines thrive on. I treasure our friendship and regret that I never has the opportunity to serve with you. I would have been very proud to be one of your Marines and follow you into combat.

    Semper Fi,

    Joe Lisi

  • Posted by Peter Mulroy

    Colonel Buhl:

    Let me say, once again, what a pleasure it was spending time with you after the premiere screening of “Act of Valor”.

    You truly exemplify what our Corps stands for in character and leadership.

    Your concern for the well being of our young Marines is commendable and to know that you are looking out for them while involved with global affairs is true to our motto —

    “Semper Fidelis”

    Pete Mulroy
    USMC/NYPD (Ret)

  • Posted by Ruben A. Salazar

    Colonel Bul,

    I recieved this e-mail article from Roger Neria, the photographer.

    Man, was I ever surprised when you sent me that c-rat box top, as a post card. After you came back from your deployment to Afganistan, the last time. It was so good to here from you, and I’m also happy to here how well you are doing currently.

    I hope you remember me. Ho Chi Minh, can kiss my ass! 😉
    OOOOHRAAAA, Semper Fi.

    God Bless you Colonel, Keep up the good work!


  • Posted by Miriam Gillies

    Your dad must be smiling down at all you accomplished. Congratulations

  • Posted by Timm Buhl

    You’re a straight champ Willy, super stoked and proud to call you my dad!

  • Posted by Wilson, W.P. GySgt/SFC USASOC (Retired)

    I served under then Major Buhl in Keflavic, Iceland & he is an inspiring & amasing leader. I spent 12 years in the Marine Corps prior to being selected or for a unit under the auspeses of the Army Intelligence & Security Command (INSCOM) & United States Army Special Operations Command; where I served as a Subject Matter Expert (SME) in a variety of Subjecs including Information Operations; Media Relations, Combat Videography, Psychological & Electronic Warfare, as well as Counter-Intelligence, & Middle Eastern Language & Culture.

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