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Spring 2003

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A thinking man’s reflections on war and peace

by Barbara A. Melville

Glance at his résumé and it’s clear that Art Richardson ’77 has packed an awful lot of vita into his curriculum.

Married and the father of four, Richardson enjoys a wealth of interests: Delft pottery, old cars, P. G. Wodehouse novels, and the glossy fashion books that reflect his initial Skidmore major, studio art. He’s traveled to Australia, Antarctica, Europe, and the Near East. At various times in his life, he’s sampled more than a dozen jobs, ranging from candy-manufacturing executive to construction worker, schoolteacher to fashion model. And that’s just his civilian side.
     As Navy Captain Stanley A. Richardson, he’s a surface-warfare officer, a subspecialist in intelligence, command, control, and communication. Trained to fly planes and drive ships, he speaks Russian and a little Serbo-Croatian, knows his way around high-tech warfare, and has turned up in some of the hottest spots on earth—Baghdad, Bosnia, Afghanistan. Mild-mannered, witty, and exquisitely articulate, Richardson wouldn’t be out of place in a Tom Clancy movie.
     Which is what his life resembled when, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he was sent to Saudia Arabia, “looking for bad guys in Afghanistan.” As deputy director of intelligence, he worked fourteen-hour days at a command post on Prince Sultan Air Base. Amid banks of video screens, computers, and multichannel phone lines, Richardson directed about 200 analysts and targeteers in hunting down Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. Using video-equipped Predator and RC135 electronic aircraft, satellites, and human intelligence sources, Richardson determined which vehicles or sites the fighter pilots should target.
     “Earlier,” he says, “it was relatively easy to identify and eliminate bad guys. But Afghanistan is a place of shifting loyalties. You have to be awfully sure you know exactly who you’re whacking out there.” And mistakes still happen: an Afghan wedding party is fired on, Canadian soldiers are killed by friendly fire. “It doesn’t happen through poor training or because your people are bloodthirsty,” says Richardson. “Our people out there are remarkably decent—professionals with honor and conscience. But war is an unremittingly extreme circumstance, a time of valor and fear, momentary brilliance, and sudden, deadly stupidity. Terrible things, inexcusable things, sometimes happen.
     “We never take bombing lightly,” he adds. “We know we’re doing dirty work. Sometimes all you get is a simple choice—A or B—and sometimes in combat good people have to do bad things. I don’t lose sleep over it. I’d rather have good people making those hard choices than bad people.”
     “I always knew I would join the Navy,” says Richardson, who grew up in Brookline, Mass., with four siblings, a Navy-veteran father, and an intrepid mother who had served as a WASP pilot. “I thought it was my duty, a matter of earning my stake in my country.”
     His first year at Skidmore was “a cascade of terrific memories, a feast for the senses,” says Richardson, “just about every fun, stupid, scary, tender, and embarrassing moment one could fit into a nine-month stretch.” He and two Skidmore buddies once tried to “streak” across the Canadian border. Recalls Thomas Rastetter ’77, “Art was clean-cut, politically conservative, and never swore—but he was also outrageous, a crackup.”
     Richardson’s classes in government (his eventual major), particularly those with Professor Stuart Witt, sharpened his appreciation of the depth and dilemma of politics, “not the facts per se, but the weave of the facts through politics, society, and our perceptions of truth.” And today American citizens should be thinking critically in the same way, he says. “Don’t blindfold yourself with the flag. Patriotism involves keeping an open mind and seeking the truth. Ask your government, ‘What’s really at stake? What options do we have?’ The debate is important. Not all those big questions are just A or B.”
     Commissioned at Newport after graduation, Richardson completed Navy flight training and then chose to pilot ships rather than planes. But just as his young career was taking off, he was sidelined with seizures, diagnosed with a probable brain tumor, and given five years to live. After two years on heavy medication, suffering headaches and nausea, “I realized I had a choice: risk the seizures, or lie quietly in a dark room forever.” He chose to stop all treatment, and after a year on a hypoglycemic diet, he slowly, amazingly recovered. Lobbying his way back from medical retirement, he met and married Lieutenant Commander Renee Rivard.
     With his Navy career set back by his illness, Richardson left active duty for a whirlwind series of civilian jobs. (His favorite workplace: Antarctica. “There are no words for how cold, how white, how big, how clean it is,” he marvels.)
     But once Navy, always Navy, and Richardson returned to service. On staff in Naples, Italy, in the early 1990s, he drew up plans for NATO’s entry into Yugoslavia. “When the Srebenica massacre and other events precipitated NATO’s mobilization, we needed that plan. I became the staff director in Bosnia for Navy admirals who were helping implement the Dayton peace accords.” Between 1996 and 2000 he did five tours there, in operations and intelligence.
     “I have conflicting feelings about Bosnia,” he admits. “The people are immensely kind and darkly cruel. Imagine you’re sitting in a nice restaurant in Saratoga and at the next table is someone who once machine-gunned people in a pit. All over Bosnia you meet people who suffered unspeakably and people who committed the most barbarous acts. After a while I didn’t want to be around them.”
The Richardson boys play a round of Risk, the “Game of World Domination.”
     On the other hand, the Iraqi biochemical-warfare scientists he met during a post–Gulf War tour as a weapons inspector in Baghdad “truthfully, all seemed very pleasant.” For example, the director of Iraq’s largest biological weapons program was “fairly engaging and genuinely shy,” says Richardson. “Some may see her as something unhuman and evil. But when she goes home, I’m sure she hugs her children and wishes them a world of peace.” He adds, “When it’s war, she becomes our enemy. I can accept that—but not that she’s inhuman.”
     Most recently posted to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, at the Pentagon, Richardson was anticipating an April departure for another tense and tangled foreign posting—not Iraq, but Korea.

For many months now, Barbara Melville’s office door has sported a “Choose Peace” poster.


© 2003 Skidmore College