Brewin: Cebrowski remembered

Retired Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, the smartest man I ever met, died Saturday after a long illness.

After 10 minutes of conversation with Cebrowski, who retired last year as director of the Defense Department’s Office of Force Transformation, my head hurt. He could cram more ideas and concepts into a short talk than all the PowerPoint slides produced at the Pentagon in a day.

At the end of a massive Cebrowski data dump when he was serving as the President of the Naval War College in 2000, I asked him if he was educated at a Jesuit university. He replied, “Augustinians, at Villanova,” quickly dismissing from my mind any idea of Jesuit intellectual superiority over Augustinian.

Besides his Augustinian education, Cebrowski also picked up a master’s degree in computer science from the Naval Postgraduate School. But Cebrowski’s true brilliance lay in his ability to quickly cut through layers of DOD bureaucratic gobbledygook. And he seemed to do so with impish glee and a quick chuckle.

This combination of steely intellect and disdain for the status quo and hidebound bureaucratic conventions, which were hallmarks of Cebrowski style, made him the best -- and maybe only -- person to lead the DOD transformation effort, which the former aviator turned into a bully pulpit.

He used that pulpit to deliver a final warning about what he saw as the enemies of change and transformation within DOD in his valedictory speech this February at the West 2005 conference sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute. Cebrowski quickly identified those enemies as DOD and service program offices "where the first casualty is truth."

After the speech, I had what turned out to be my final interview with Cebrowski, who though ailing, was willing to spend some time educating someone who had the misfortune of a Jesuit rather than Augustinian education.

As someone who once carried a radio on his back in the Marine Corps, I asked Cebrowski what he thought about a recent DOD directive that barred troops in Iraq from bringing their own commercial two-way radio gear because of a shortage of military radios.

"That’s nonsense,” he replied in a classic Cebrowski retort, adding that the troops should ignore the directive, forget the distant program office and buy what they needed.

I’ll miss the admiral for his style, class and intellect. And DOD will miss even more a man who calls nonsense by its name.

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