Alex Wong  /  AP
A photograph of retired General Wayne Downing, as he appeared during a taping on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005.
By Military analyst
updated 7/18/2007 8:46:03 PM ET 2007-07-19T00:46:03

Patriots of the caliber of General Wayne Downing walk among us infrequently. He was a mentor to many of us who came to maturity as soldiers in the 1960s, and he continued to be an inspiration to all who strive to choose the difficult right rather than the easy wrong.

Yes, Wayne Downing was a brave and brilliant warrior with a chest covered with high honors.

But for his entire life as an active-duty soldier, he was also a brilliant military theorist. He was at the cutting edge of strategic innovation and he eventually came to command all special operations for our country. He certainly was the right man for the job. He was among the few who understood the unconventional threat to our security and the role that the military instrument should play in keeping us safe. Downing was a tireless advocate of training to defeat terrorism, even when it was highly unfashionable. He was proven to be prescient time and time again.

Later, after retirement, he was lured to the National Security Council to become Condoleezza Rice’s deputy for counterterrorism. An inveterate teller of the truth, the White House didn’t like much of what he said because it was antithetical to its untutored assumption that defeating terrorists was merely a case of launching precision munitions. Foolishly, he was ignored— much to all our peril.

Downing’s biggest problem was that he could never turn down an opportunity to serve. He was a sucker for appeals that he was the only person who could get a job done, and in most cases he was. So he never got a chance to sit down and relax, to actually retire like his contemporaries, and he worked like a devil until his very last day.

He was the man behind West Point’s important and growing Combating Terrorism Center. He was an outspoken and perceptive commentator for NBC, and he served on the many boards and advisory groups that were lucky enough to snag him.

But most important, and rare among successful people these days, Wayne Downing was the consummate gentleman, that perfect alloy of intelligence and valor that was once the stuff of romantic legend. It's occasionally seen in those, who like Wayne Downing, consider honor the most precious component of character.

Farewell, my friend.

Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.

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