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A nation must think before it acts.
On Sunday morning, I opened an email and learned of the passing of Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, USMC (1928-2018) the day before. This news saddened me. Surely, 89 years is a long time to walk the earth, and as an infantryman and reconnaissance Marine for 39 years, he put in more boot time than most; still, he maintained keen insights and a keener wit until the end. He and those qualities will be missed greatly.
I first met the general (I always addressed him as general or sir, even after I resigned my commission as a sign of the enduring respect that I had for him) back in 1996 when the Foreign Policy Research Institute held a conference on threats to U.S. national security at the Union League Club of Philadelphia. I picked him up at the airport, and we hit it off. We were both graduates of Jesuit undergraduate institutions (he the College of the Holy Cross and the University of Scranton for myself), and he had a Jesuit priest relative that had taught English at my alma mater. Our Irish surnames were also a connection. When we checked into the Union League, he turned to me and said, “You know Noonan, 20 years ago a couple of Micks like you and me wouldn’t be allowed in this place.” He was a prodigious storyteller and oftentimes the stories were hilarious, but always with a point.
Born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx, Trainor enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1946 and then was selected to become a Midshipman in 1947. Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1951, he attended the Basic School and then was assigned as a rifle platoon commander in 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division in Korea in December 1951. Upon his return in 1952, he served in positions in the U.S., at sea, and abroad. In 1958, for instance, he served as an exchange officer with the Royal Marine Commandos in both the United Kingdom and as a company commander in Malta. As a Naval ROTC instructor at the University of Colorado, he also earned an MA in History. He served in Vietnam twice as an advisor to a Vietnamese special operations group in 1965 and as the battalion commander of both 1st Battalion, 5th Marines and the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion in 1970. Throughout his career, Trainor completed various levels of professional military education and then rose through higher levels of assignments and responsibilities. He retired on July 1, 1985 as a Lieutenant General after serving as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans, Policies and Operations, Headquarters Marine Corps for the previous three years.
What he did next was in some ways even more remarkable. From 1986 to 1990, the retired general served as the chief military correspondent for the New York Times. In a military context, this was remarkable because in the net assessments of the post-Vietnam military, the Soviets were generally enemy number three behind either Congress or the press depending on whom you were asking. This is more extraordinary as he was a retired general officer. If you’ve ever seen Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, this would be as if Jimmy Page left Led Zeppelin in 1975 and went to work as a rock critic for Rolling Stone magazine. In this capacity, Trainor covered things like the Libyan-Chad War of 1987, where the Chadian military routed the Libyans and captured roughly a billion dollars’ worth of Soviet arms while fighting from the back of Toyota pickup trucks—later in the Somali conflict, the U.S. military would call such vehicles “technicals.” He also covered the Iran-Iraq War. I remember one story of how he had grown a beard before departing for Iraq. When he arrived in Baghdad, a cab driver told him the Iranians had the beards, and he shaved it off that evening!
From the Times, he went to Harvard University, where he was the Director of the National Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government from 1990 to 1996. After that, Trainor served as a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Among other writings, he and Michael R. Gordon have written three of the most definitive books on America’s wars with Iraq: The Generals’ War, Cobra II, and The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.
Since meeting him in 1996, our paths crossed fairly frequently at conferences and events. He was always much too kind to me and always offered valuable advice and mentorship. He spoke at FPRI events a few times (e.g.), and we kept in touch over email.
In 2017, FPRI was approached by the Iron Hill Charity Golf Open, led by Jim Petrucci and Greg Rogerson, about supporting an effort for a returning veteran. After a brief discussion, we settled on the idea of supporting a veteran-in-residence who was interested in developing a career in journalism or long-form non-fiction writing. Lt. Gen. Trainor agreed to offer his name for the fellowship due to his unique career. My colleague Ann Toews, an Army military intelligence veteran of Afghanistan, was selected as the first Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor USMC Fellow.
My deepest condolences to Mrs. Peggy Trainor, his children, grandchildren, and the rest of the extended family on your—and our—loss. He was a larger than life individual, was a sharp wit and keen intellect, and he will be missed. Hopefully, one day our paths will cross again as surely he is entertaining the angels with his amazing tales.