"Reunions bring you back to teachers and the many things they do. They motivate, they inspire, they kindle the imagination," said Bard O'Neill '63, who spoke during Reunion Weekend in early June.
O'Neill's lecture, "Al Qaeda's War on America and its Allies," featured the speaker in the persona of an Al Qaeda strategist to dramatize and humanize the terrorist mindset. Many of those crowding a Cheray lecture hall for the Saturday morning program were O'Neill's 1963 classmates, the newest Golden Knights.
In 1963, O'Neill was a young business student and Air Force ROTC enthusiast from a working-class family in Poughkeepsie, NY. Never, he says now, would he have imagined then that by the late 1970s into the 1980s, he would be an Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War turned professor, with teaching and research stints at the Air Force Academy and National War College and several important books under his belt. As a rapidly-rising American expert on insurgency, terrorism and the Middle East, O'Neill led multiple delegations on strategic backstage policy missions for dialogue with such eminent figures as Egypt's Anwar Sadat, King Hussein of Jordan, several Israeli prime ministers and many military and diplomatic top dogs. His book Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse is now considered a classic framework for analysis in his field and an indispensable tool for understanding modern-day conflicts and combatants. Several U.S. military leaders have urged soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to carry it in their rucksacks.
"In my career there were pivotal moments where people counted big-time," says O'Neill, who struggled in his early St. Mike's classes before realizing what the college would demand of him. "Critical early people for me included Bernard Gore, who spent hours after class with me when I had a D in English, as did some other professors, or Fr. Paul Morin SSE, the academic dean my first year at St. Mike's, who all turned out to be critical in basically turning my life onto the right path that first year."
"Life is made up of all those critical forks, and I knew which way to go each time because multiple people along the way opened a gate and said, 'come down this path.'"
He remembers with a smile how every man would run out of his quad dorm room and do "The Twist" in the hall each time the hit song came on the radio, which was often, and enjoying long nights at The Mill bar in Winooski with pals. Current events sometimes entered their consciousness, he says, particularly during the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis when students gathered around TVs in common areas to follow tense developments, as bombers armed with nuclear bombs could be seen landing at the nearby Vermont Air Guard facility in case they were called on to attack the USSR.
But it was really Professor George Olgyay, a Hungarian refugee from post-war Soviet rule, who introduced what became a career interest for O'Neill. "In ROTC we were compelled to take an international relations course junior or senior year - as a business major I wouldn't have taken it otherwise - and he provided the spark for me, just by the way he'd talk about world affairs and lead us in fascinating discussions. That's wen I said, 'you know, I think when I get into the Air Force I'd like to pursue political science.'"
He did just that, right from his first posting at a Minuteman Missile silo in Wyoming when he took night courses at University of Wyoming for credits enough to qualify for grad school in political science. Then, during his year in Vietnam in 1964-65 doing planning and intelligence, O'Neill read voraciously on the subject of insurgency, seeing as he was in the middle of one. "I read everything I could get my hands on, and remember reaching the conclusion, several months into the war as a second lieutenant, that we were going to lose this war because we didn't understand Vietnam or the dynamics of politics in Southeast Asia."
O'Neill decided it was imperative to learn how to avoid future Vietnams, so once back stateside he enrolled in graduate school at the Air Force Institute of Technology in San Diego, specializing in Africa. A fellow student recommended him for a teaching post at the Air Force Academy in Colorado and the Air Force offered to fund O'Neill's doctoral studies. For his doctoral dissertation, he wrote on "The PLO: A Political Military Analysis." About that time "a guy on sabbatical was a top Middle East guy, so I got piled on with that, and soon it was my main interest along with insurgency, and given the proximity of Africa and the Mideast, it all converged, reinforced and worked out great."
He knew a transfer was coming after four years at the Academy and he wound up at the National War College (NWC) in Washington. They liked his early work so much that superiors gave him the option to stay rather than moving to the Pentagon, and he spent 35 years as a teacher, writer, lecturer and Distinguished Professor of National Security Strategy, then later as a civilian after Air Force retirement in the mid-1980s. He also was adjunct full professor of politics at Catholic University for many years. The framework he used for his PLO thesis was the basis of both his subsequent books analyzing other insurgencies and the eventual demand for his expertise. The National War College was just coming into its own in this period by education prominent military men and future leaders, a prestige that led to invitations for his many diplomatic forays to the Middle East, he says, which was extremely exciting and eye-opening.
Some years later, when wars erupted in Iraq and Afghanistan, his work surged from relative dormancy to wide notice. "The book just came into its own," he said. He's lectured extensively on the Arab-Israeli and Islamic Sunni-Shia conflicts, and is proud that both sides in each conflict have either affirmed his fairness behind closed doors to him, or charged bias publicly, but in equal measure from both sides. He's done media work with major networks, particularly in the first Iraq war, and consulted for most major federal agencies.
As the "Al Qaeda strategist" during his St. Mike's guest lecture in June, he said that while these extreme terror groups are just a small fraction of those self-identifying with Islam, they are strategic, patient and practical, with long historical memory, deeply committed to doing virtually anything to kill as many non-Muslims as possible by all means at their disposal, feeling justified by history and religious beliefs.
O'Neill said the key was to "know yourself, know your enemy. Trying to be your enemy is most important" for understanding them properly. "The majority of Muslims utterly reject Al Qaeda, and they're our most important allies," he said, adding, "the most catastrophic thing for the U.S. was to invade Iraq. It did no good and cost us a tremendous lot, and got us involved in Afghanistan. It was one of the worst U.S. foreign policy decisions ever made."
O'Neill rates his career satisfaction "a 10 out of 10," saying, "It all began with ROTC compelling me to take that Olgyay course. It seems life is made up of all those critical forks, and I knew which way to go each time because multiple people along the way opened a gate and said, 'come down this path.'"