It was inevitable, if slightly pathetic, that many Americans first became aware of Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Feb. 2, when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do. No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."
Mullen's statement was a breakthrough, soon emulated by other key members of the military and given his biography, growing up as the son of show-business publicists in Los Angeles, perhaps not an entirely unexpected one. But it is not the most significant thing Mullen has done or said during his time as the highest-ranking U.S. official in uniform. Indeed, Mullen's tenure has been revolutionary in both substance and style. He has been a wildly activist and well-traveled Chairman, having visited Afghanistan and Pakistan so many times in recent years that he has lost count: "I think it's in the neighborhood of 16 or 17 times," he says. "But I'm a sailor leading our military in two land wars, and I figured I needed to work overtime to understand what was happening in these places and it was necessary that I really interact with our troops on the ground."
I traveled to the region twice with Mullen in recent years, and his trips are notable not only for the time he spends with troops on the front lines and the strong relationships he has built with the Pakistani military but also for the time he spends with Afghans and Pakistanis, from top civilian leaders to farmers. "He has the widest-ranging intellectual curiosity of any Chairman I've known," says diplomat Richard Holbrooke. "He'll invite members of my staff to his office and discuss Afghan agriculture for hours."
Mullen has also been an activist in another way: he has taken clear and unprecedented stands on matters of military doctrine, emphasizing troops over weapons systems, and counterinsurgency over the use of overwhelming force. These were controversial battles within the Pentagon and in each case Mullen took positions that ran counter to the traditional naval emphasis on equipment and technology. But both have been central to the most important military project of this decade: the transformation of the U.S. Army and Marines from conventional ground forces into what Mullen calls "the best counterinsurgency force in the world."
Mullen has gone about his business quietly. In a general staff dominated by hyperintense superintellectuals like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, the admiral comes on like a rural pediatrician. He says he chose Annapolis, somewhat to his parents' dismay, because "they recruited me to play basketball, and I knew I needed to go somewhere that had some discipline ... and then I fell in love with the sea."
The admiral held his first command at the age of 26, "which was an awful lot of responsibility for a kid," he says. At 63, he has reached the pinnacle of his profession an unlikely, but perfect, no-drama military leader for a President who has proved to be a careful, and perhaps reluctant, but ardent Commander in Chief.