Interview with Gen. Christopher Cavoli ’87

Ivy’s own Chris Cavoli ’87 was commissioned into the Infantry from ROTC upon graduation. On October 1, 2020, he was promoted to the rank of General. The details of his brilliant career are too lengthy to list here, but along the way, he was deployed to Bosnia and Afghanistan, received an MA in Russian and East European Studies from Yale, and was Deputy Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is married with two children and speaks Italian, Russian and French. The Club’s first and only 4-star General was kind enough to give an interview to The Vine.

What made you decide to pursue an Army career after Princeton?

I’m not sure I ever pursued an Army career, I just kind of ended up having one. Princeton’s motto is “In the Nation’s Service,” so it was almost inevitable that the sense of service I felt coming out of Princeton was going to translate into a career in the Army. I think most people in the Army don’t look too far forward and decide year after year if they’re staying in the Army another one.

My dad was an Army officer. I grew up moving around Army posts and other places all over the world. I was born in Germany, spent elementary school in Italy – in Rome and Verona, and later spent more time in Germany; then went back to Italy for high school. So I appreciated and knew the lifestyle.

I received an ROTC scholarship at Princeton, and that kind of canted me in the Army direction. And then, as we closed in toward graduation, I realized that the sense of service in my heart was real, and that this was something I really wanted to do. I wanted to start my adult life off by being committed to something bigger than myself, and the Army gave me the opportunity to do that.

Then, you know, once you’re in the Army – it’s both extremely fun and meaningful. I was an infantry officer. It’s tough, physical, outdoor work mixed with leadership and management, so it’s the perfect combination of all the features of a job I was looking for and I just kept staying with it year after year.

What was the biggest surprise along the way?

I’ve been surprised by a lot of little things, but it’s the big things that really mattered most, and they have not been surprising at all. The quality of our Soldiers, the reward of doing this for a living, the feeling you get when you hear the National Anthem, the pride you get representing your country – none of that has been a surprise, and those are really the most important things.

Tell us briefly about the scope and duties of your current position.

I’m in charge of leading, organizing, training and equipping our Army forces to accomplish American national interests in Europe and Africa. In that capacity I am responsible for Army activities in 104 different countries from the tip of Norway to the southern tip of South Africa.

I’m the commander of that enterprise. A commander in the military has a pretty simple job description. As the commander I am responsible for everything our organization does or does not do. I manage the organization’s processes; everything from its budget to its readiness metrics, but most importantly, I lead the Soldiers of the organization and the Department of the Army’s civilians within the organization. I bear responsibility for their welfare and that of their families.

In the Army we talk about leadership as the act of providing purpose, direction and motivation. I have to have everything from a near-term daily grasp of what we’re doing, to a strategic vision for where this command needs to be 15, 20 years from now, and everything in between.

One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is living and working overseas, and the daily interaction I have with my European and African colleagues. We work with their armies at the tactical level, and at my level, I get the opportunity to have rich, professional interactions and personal relationships with them. That’s very valuable to me and has been very rewarding over the years.

What are your fondest memories of your time at Princeton?

My fondest memories at Princeton were at the Ivy Club. There’s nowhere really like it. We used to have a tradition — at the first snowfall, oatmeal would start to be served with breakfast. I remember sitting in a big, overstuffed leather chair in front of a roaring fire with that morning’s newspaper and a cup of coffee, and watching the snowflakes come down. Allen, our head waiter, came out — and he said, “Chris, there’ll be oatmeal this morning. Are you interested?” And I said, “Absolutely.” I have many memories like that — good times at dinner, the tradition of sitting down at the next available seat so that all the members of the Club always got to know each other well. That was really prized. Playing a round of billiards after dinner, having a beer on a Friday night — those were some of my truly fondest memories of Princeton and they were spent there on Prospect Avenue inside the Ivy Club.

What influence do you feel your Ivy friends and your experience as a member of the Club have had on your life, not just your career?

Very profound influences, in some cases personal, where a friendship named is a friendship forever. But I think the real influence was inspirational.

The members of the Club were — are — incredible. I was constantly challenged intellectually. The conversations we would have at dinner really brought out the best in everybody, and the members were all so very accomplished, adventurous, welltraveled, extremely well-read, just very admirable people.

Just saying something as simple as, “What are you doing this weekend?” could bring out an unbelievably surprising answer.

One of my clubmates, Doug Burden, rowed in three Olympics; Henry Huntington’s an Arctic explorer. He lives in Alaska and has climbed Denali multiple times. “Scooter” St. John produced television game shows, and on, and on, and on, and on. Just the diversity of the group and what they were capable of, and then later in life, what they accomplished was really inspirational. And that is what truly influenced me to try to do my best all the time. That’s what had the greatest impact on my life.