Profile | Meet this year’s U.S. Army War College Fellows: Colonel Vince Mucker


“Looking back, I never knew what the consequences of each of my decisions would be, but knowing now where I’ve ended up and what I’ve been able to accomplish, I couldn’t imagine going back and doing anything different.”

Nicole Butler

This piece is part of ISD’s blog series, “A better diplomacy,” which highlights innovators and their ideas for how to make diplomacy more effective, resilient, and adaptive in the 21st century.

(Courtesy of Col. Vince Mucker)

Colonel Vince Mucker is a 2023–2024 U.S. Army War College Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Col. Mucker was commissioned as a Field Artillery Officer in 2001, and transitioned to a Eurasian Foreign Area Officer in 2010. He has served as the Deputy Chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia; as a nuclear weapons inspection team chief under the New START Treaty; and as the Security Cooperation Division Chief at U.S. Central Command, with a focus on Central Asia. He has spent the last two years training Army Eurasian Foreign Area Officers at the George C. Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany. Colonel Mucker has a Bachelor of Science in Political Science from Texas A&M University and a Masters of International Policy and Practice from George Washington University.

Col. Mucker sat down with The Diplomatic Pouch’s Freddie Mallinson for a conversation about his path to joining the U.S. Army, his experiences serving as a Foreign Area Officer, and his outlook on public service.

Q: You first commissioned as a field artillery officer in 2001. Tell us about your journey towards your military position and what made you want to pursue that career.

A: That’s a great question. I think at the age of 45 and with 22.5 years of service, it’s an understanding that has evolved over time.

Looking back and deciding what the inflection points were in my life, I think probably the most impactful element of my upbringing was my family lived overseas when I was a child. My dad worked for IBM, which we used to joke stood for “I’ve Been Moved.”

At the age of five, we moved to Germany in the 80s and lived in Stuttgart from 1983 to 1987. During our time there, of course, the wall was still up — the Soviet Union was still a thing. We were able to travel fairly liberally, including through East Germany and Berlin, through what’s now Belarus, Communist Poland, what was then called Leningrad, and Moscow.

So, I think there was just a natural affinity for travel and adventurism. In reality, the decision to join the military was as much a function of economics as anything else. I was the youngest of four. I saw the challenges that my parents had financially in funding the education of my three older siblings, and so taking an ROTC scholarship was kind of a natural solution for something that I had already decided I had an interest in.

Taking the ROTC scholarship to Texas A&M and becoming an artillery officer was not a part of my plan — artillery was not in my top five branch choices. But that year, the artillery branch was a shortage branch, and they force-branched a handful of distinguished military graduates — those of us who were in the top 10 percent of our graduating class — into the artillery branch for service. So that was a little frustrating.

Q: They punished you for high achieving.

A: [laughter] Exactly, right. I’ve long said that “competence never goes unpunished.” But no 18-year-old knows why they joined the Army. I think the more important question is “Why have you continued to stay,” right?

I think for every opportunity or moment that there’s been a fork in the road for me to decide “Are the opportunities outside of the Army better than the opportunities that the Army will provide going forward,” my answer has always been, “No, they’re not.” So, at a certain point, you’re invested enough in the military, probably around the 10-year mark, where given the vesting of your pension at 20 years, you’ve decided you’re going to do 20.

In that regard, I think the first day that I was truly a volunteer was the day that I hit my 20th year of service because the economic incentive was so strong to stay in. And at this point, I think I continue to serve — reflecting on the fact that the opportunities are not better elsewhere.

The experiences that the Army has provided for me professionally, but more importantly for my family, my wife, and my children, have been so unique and so rewarding. I can’t imagine another place to serve or to work where those experiences would at all be close to what I’ve been blessed to experience in the Army.

(Lieutenant General [ret.] Ben Hodges and Colonel Mucker. Image courtesy of Col. Vince Mucker)

Q: Tell us a little about where the military has taken you, both geographically and experientially. You said you gained an affinity for traveling as a child — was that satisfied?

A: So, to your last question, absolutely. As an artillery officer, my first assignment was Lawton, Oklahoma, Fort Sill, followed by an assignment with the 101st Airborne Division. I signed in as a Second Lieutenant on September 10, 2001. I had two combat deployments, and returned back to Fort Sill a couple of times. I think the reality was if I stayed an artillery officer, I would continue to live in places like Killeen, Texas, Lawton, Oklahoma, and Clarksville, Tennessee, which are all great places in their own right.

But I think because of the appetizer that I had received as a child — of traveling internationally — I wanted something different. So when I had the opportunity to apply for and become a Foreign Area Officer, which was about my 10th year of service, I did. We were out in California, where I was teaching ROTC at Santa Clara University at the time. I did my language training in Monterey, California one of the most beautiful places on earth, but a place that I didn’t get to enjoy that much because of my Russian language studies.

We then moved to Garmisch, Germany for my in-region training, which included time spent in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and Tbilisi, Georgia. I was able to come back to Washington, D.C. to get my master’s degree at George Washington University. I’m not sure I had any idea that would ever be in the cards for me.

After grad school, I did two years at the embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia as the Deputy Chief of the Office of Cooperation, which was an incredible time because of the relationship that the United States had with the Georgian military at the time. We were assisting in developing the institutional capacity in the Georgian Armed Forces, but also in training them for their deployments to Afghanistan, which was incredibly meaningful work.

Following that, I did three years of inspections of nuclear weapons under the New START Treaty. Where else do you get to inspect nuclear weapons, some of which were probably aimed somewhere near my house in Washington, D.C.? After that, I was told I was going to our embassy in Brussels, Belgium. I had visions of Chimay in one hand and French fries with mayonnaise in the other, until I was redirected to Tampa, Florida to work at Central Command. At first I was disappointed, but it became one of the best assignments I could have had.

I was responsible for the Central and South Asia portfolio before ultimately becoming the Division Chief in the J5 [Strategy, Plans and Policy Directorate]. I was responsible for the entire security cooperation portfolio in the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility — just an incredible developmental opportunity.

At a time when we were working on the Afghanistan withdrawal, I recognized that the access I had to the highest level of policymaking conversation as a relatively junior officer was really special. Since then, I’ve gone back to Garmisch, Germany, and was responsible for training Foreign Area Officers at the George C. Marshall Center before coming here to my fellowship for the Army War College.

Q: Military diplomacy has been a cornerstone of the last few years of your career before you came to ISD. Talk a little about military diplomacy, and perhaps how it differs from conventional civilian diplomacy and how it’s been so important to U.S. policy, particularly in your region.

A: It would be incorrect to consider military diplomacy as something different from “rank and file” diplomacy, because the military really does not do anything overseas with our partners or allies without it being a part of our State Department-recognized diplomatic efforts.

We are a tool of diplomacy. Diplomacy is firmly owned by the State Department. We recognize that. But we bring a tool to our ambassadors, to our Foreign Service Officers, and a resource that they don’t have internal or inherent to the State Department. Most nations are concerned about security and defense, and our ability to help train or develop capability and capacity with our allies and partners is just a part of a standard nation-to-nation relationship.

It’s really just a function of [the military] having that capability, and the fact that the State Department doesn’t. I wouldn’t necessarily parse it out as two separate things. I think military diplomacy is part and parcel of our diplomatic relationship. And the obvious governing body of our diplomatic relationship is the State Department.

When you look at budgets across the U.S. government, and you see who has people, who has money, and who has equipment that many of our partners and allies are interested in, that’s where the Department of Defense has some unique capabilities. But all of that is done under the auspices of the State Department relationship.

Q: Take us back to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the relationships that you formed out there in the aftermath. The U.S. just made a lot of new allies, right?

A: I think it’s less about relationships than experiences. I was fairly young, but I remember spray painting my name on the west side of the Berlin wall. I remember seeing the Brandenburg Gate between two walls because it was in no man’s land between East Berlin and West Berlin, and until just this past summer in May, I had never seen the Brandenburg Gate again. So it was truly an emotional moment for me to be able to walk through the Brandenburg Gate with my wife and my children and just to see what has come of this failed idea of communism in Europe.

I think it was hugely rewarding just to recognize that my role as a Eurasian Foreign Area Officer, which largely encompasses the former Soviet Union, is a part of that story. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’89 and the Soviet Union in ’91, you went from one country to 15, each with their own concerns and interests. To be able to understand and navigate within not just the nuance of each of those individual country relationships, but also the ambiguity, I think is quite empowering.

We very often focus on developing generalists within the military, and so to have a specialization while being able to speak with some level of knowledge, and to a certain extent some level of authority, has provided me an opportunity to weigh in on those conversations of policy for a force — the Army — that is often focused in more tactical matters, has been incredibly rewarding.

Q: Would you do that over again?

A: Absolutely. Looking back, I never knew what the consequences of each of my decisions would be, but knowing now where I’ve ended up and what I’ve been able to accomplish, I couldn’t imagine going back and doing anything different.

Q: At the strategic level, it’s your job to consider all components of a mission, as well as be able to carry and shoot things. Do you have any particular intellectual inspirations that you think any readers of this interview might benefit from as they look towards potentially similar careers to you?

A: I don’t think anybody who studies the Soviet Union and Russia could look at the situation today and not still go back to George Kennan, and even if just superficially, read the long telegram and recognize so much of what was true then is still true today.

The levers of power might have changed a little bit. The vehicles to get there may have changed a little bit, but in many cases, the objectives, the desired end states, are the same. Culturally, things have not changed a whole lot. So I think that’s a natural starting point for a lot of people.

That’s not to say that the history of the Soviet Union begins with George Kennan’s writing. You have to read back centuries to understand the development of this culture and the history and even understand the geography that has lent itself to the situation that we’re in today. In reality, and Luke Coffey at the Hudson Institute gets the credit for this thought, the Soviet Union didn’t end on a day. It’s overly simplistic to look at December 26, 1991, and say that was it, end of story. I think you’re seeing in Ukraine today a continuation of that dissolution, and all of the dysfunction and collateral damage that comes along with that. Again, special thank you to Luke for his thought on that, as I think it’s something we all need to understand.

If you don’t look at the situation holistically and across generations, then you are doing your own understanding and your own intellectual pursuit a disservice. The war didn’t begin in Ukraine in 2022. It didn’t begin with the invasion of Crimea in 2014. This has been a trajectory of great, and falling, powers for quite some time. You have to be able to conceptualize and understand the historical perspective to get here, to understand what the future might hold. And that, of course, is still an incredibly open question.

Q: So, do you think we need a new long telegram, or do you think the old one still fits?

A: I think there are a lot of parallels, I think there are still a lot of truths in the long telegram. Our understanding has to continually evolve — we can’t just dust off old literature and say, “Aha, this is still the end-all-be-all of our understanding.”

But it should certainly inform where we are, and if there has been evolution, let’s identify what that evolution has been. We need to be deliberate in doing that. We can’t dismiss that which was known and that understanding that took generations to obtain just because we think we’re in a different geopolitical moment. The geopolitical moment that we’re in is a product of the understanding that existed then. We have to deliberately decide what continues to be true and what has changed.

Q: Do you have any tips that you might give a potential undergraduate, graduate, or even senior high school student on how best they might make use of the opportunities that you had or any new ones?

A: The biggest piece of advice I would give would be to keep an open mind. I didn’t know when I signed my name to an ROTC scholarship that 28 years later, I would be here. The one pitfall that I have never fallen victim to is fixation on any one definition of success– that there is one job or one place or one accomplishment that would be the “end all, be all” of my existence as a professional.

Not having that one target to pursue has allowed me to be able to accept opportunities without any real preconceived notions. I was never chasing any one thing. I have always just wanted to be good at what I did.

I have always wanted to meaningfully contribute in a way that was necessary in the moment, and I wanted to be professionally fulfilled. And if those are the things that you are seeking, I think there are any number of avenues that could provide that. A huge contributor to my own sense of professional satisfaction, I think, has been the attitude with which I have approached each subsequent assignment.

I can look back at my resume and if you were to ask me which of these jobs was the best job that I’ve ever had, I would tell you every job subsequently was the best job that I ever had. And I can say that with 100 percent truth. The job is what you make of it, and I have found something of incredible value in every role that I’ve had. If that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t still be doing it.

(Ambassador [ret.] John A. Heffern and Colonel Mucker. Image courtesy of Col. Vince Mucker)

Q: What’s next for you? What would you like to be next for you?

A: Well, one of the conversations we had in class today was about the nature of our service. It doesn’t rob you of control, because control is a myth, but it does rob you a little bit of agency, right? And so, what’s next for me is what the Army tells me is next, largely.

That’s especially because coming out of the Army War College comes with an active-duty service obligation of two years. I’ve been nominated to be the next Army Attaché in Kyiv, Ukraine. So I’ll be spending this semester and this summer preparing for an assignment in Ukraine, which I’m excited about.

That excitement is tempered by the reality that I will be spending a year away from my family, but that’s obviously necessary given the circumstances in Ukraine. We’re in a moment right now, and probably since certainly 2022, but probably back to 2014, of particular gravity.

And this notion that existed in the 90s that we were going to bring Russia into Western Europe because Russia wanted to be European, was a mirage. Realizing our own mistakes of those assumptions in the 90s has left us now, since the mid-2010s, to say, “No, Russia is something that we really do have to pay attention to again.” They are a chronic threat…a chronic problem. That threat isn’t going away, and we can’t be wishful about that.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Nicole Butler is a research assistant at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. She is also a graduate student in the Security Studies Program at the Walsh School of Foreign Service concentrating in international security.

While Vince Mucker is a career Army Officer, the author’s views are not the official policy or position of the Army, DOD, or USG.

Read more interviews in our series, A better diplomacy:



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