Speeches by Jim

Military Leadership in a Changing Society

November 16, 1998
Naval War College Conference on Ethics
, Newport RI

My current professional endeavors offer me a great vantage point from which to observe the forces that are shaping the world. I travel a lot, and often find myself in discussions with people of widely varying backgrounds regarding the turbulence within our society, how other countries are reacting to us, and what has happened to leadership within our government.

Sometimes these exchanges assist me in the conduct of my trade as a writer. At others they help me when I pursue business opportunities. And always, because of my own life’s journey, they bring me to think of the United States military.

Where is its place in this changing world? Where does it stand among its own people? How do those on the outside view it? Where are current defense leaders taking it? And how are its own leaders honoring their sacred duty to preserve the standards handed down through the generations?

The world has been through many changes since my time in government. Borders and regimes have fallen. Crises have come and gone. Political positions have ebbed and flowed. Weapon systems have improved and become more costly. The nature of the threat has become unduly vague. The military has shrunk and become less visible to public debate. But the basic requirements of leadership, strategy and even tactics remain constant, just as they have over the ages, in the same manner that the basic elements of human character have not altered since biblical times. And so I feel comfortable today offering you a pair of eyes that watch from the outside, whose interest in these matters is nothing more than the well-being and proper functioning of the American military, an institution into which I was born, which brought me into manhood, which tested me under fire in combat, and which, when all the rhetoric is stripped away, is the ultimate guarantor of this nation’s way of life.

How does the rest of the country view you, and what you are doing?

Among all the world’s nations the United States is the most diverse in terms of ethnicity, longevity of citizenship, and ultimately, of viewpoint. And so it is impossible to know from aggregate numbers in polling and public opinion surveys exactly how our military is viewed, and how those views impact on an understanding of and respect for what you are doing. But I would like to address three separate components today, each of which present the military and the nation a different set of challenges. Those of the elite policy makers (including the media), the general public, and the “new Americans.”

First, and most important to the formulation of military policy, are the elites. At the outset I would offer you an important touchstone. The greatest lingering effect of the Vietnam era on our society is that by default it brought about a new notion: that military service during time of war is not a pre-requisite for moral authority or even respect. Indeed, every day since that era this notion has been accorded a quiet affirmation among our elites, usually whispered to one another, that some lives are worth more than others, that it is right and proper for those who are the so-called best and brightest by virtue of an elite education to be excused from the dirty work of our society. Think of the disproportionate loss to society, the logic goes, if a future Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison is killed in some fruitless foreign engagement. Or, as an old Chinese saying used to put it, one should never use good steel for nails or good men for soldiers.

I myself, like the majority of this nation, subscribe to a different view, in effect the reverse of that syllogism, because when it comes to leadership as opposed to law or medicine or engineering the logic is indeed the reverse: the hotter the fire, the tougher the steel, and the more reliable the leader. And also because in a democracy it is a given that the more one has benefited from the fruits of our nation, the greater is his obligation to serve. But it is important to recognize that our elites abandoned this position during the Vietnam War, and it has affected policy for an entire generation. As one example of this disparity, Harvard lost 691 alumni in World War II, while in Vietnam it lost a total of 12 out of all the classes from 1962 to 1972.

This notion of special privilege has spread, not abated, over the decades following the Vietnam War. For most elites who make policy or provide commentary on it, you are little more than an intellectual issue. Just as the crisis in public education is for them a matter to be worried over in removed policy terms rather than directly experienced by their own privately-schooled children, almost no one in a position to affect policy has a direct human stake in the outcome of a military engagement.

It has also created a vacuum of true understanding in the highest places. Today, for the first time since the United States became a major world power, none of the principals in the national security arena — the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, the Director of the CIA, or the national security adviser — have served in the military. This problem might recede when the Clinton Administration leaves town, but it is unlikely to go away. Twenty years ago when I was a committee counsel in the Congress a clear majority of the Senators and Congressmen were veterans, although most of their staff were not. Similarly, a majority of the editors at the major media outlets had military service, although their reporters did not. Today, the staff members and the reporters are now the Congressmen and the editors. In the congress veterans are a distinct minority, and in the media almost no one has served.

In terms of attitude, the elites fall into three categories. Some, I should say many, do have a sympathy and respect for what you do. But with a few exceptions they lack a referent — in their own experience, among their peers, and in their families — to place what you are doing in an understandable context. A second category, despite their public rhetoric, views you to be merely firemen and policemen of a different order, hired for a job, however dangerous, and expected to do it without complaint. This notion was reinforced during the Gulf War, when the Bush Administration often pointed out with pride that the war wasn’t costing the United States anything, because other countries were footing the bill. What does it make you when a national leader places your wartime service in the context of a bill for services rendered? And finally, there is a small but very powerful minority that believes you are dangerous, that you must be continually humiliated and subdued, that militarism is an American disease, that the more empowered and respected you become, the more you threaten pet political issues and even the fabric of society. Do not underestimate these people. Despite the absurdity of their views they are intelligent, well-positioned at the power centers of our culture, and intent on marginalizing your sacrifices.

This bifurcation of our society causes some otherwise well-meaning people to put modern military service into a false context. Recently William Bennett gave a lecture on ethics at the Naval Academy, in which he compared the World War II and Vietnam generations by focusing on twin events that took place in 1994: the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landing at Normandy, and the 25th anniversary of Woodstock. One celebration, according to Mr. Bennett, mirrored a generation that understood sacrifice and service. The other illuminated an age group consumed by drugs and self-absorption. To Mr. Bennett, who in 1969 was a student at Harvard Law School, this was probably an apt comparison. But for those who graduated from the Naval Academy during that era this speech bordered on insult.

If Mr. Bennett had wanted to reinforce the value of service and the notion of sacrifice in front of that audience, he could have compared the two elements of his own generation, and discussed what each were doing during the summer of 1969. I personally was leading a rifle platoon in the An Hoa Basin of Vietnam, and spent part of that summer in recuperation after being wounded. And I was hardly alone. 500 thousand other Americans — far more than turned out for the party made famous for its drugs, sex and rock and roll — were serving there with me. But who on the national scene saw this, or remembers it, even among conservative commentators? And who truly understands what it means to deploy to sea again and again in the 1990s, leaving family and friends behind for months at a time?

Next, the general public. In the aggregate they like you, they support you, and they respect you. But in reality they know less and less about what you are actually doing, and fewer and fewer among them have a human stake if what you’re doing goes wrong. When we had the draft, families throughout the nation paid close attention, because nearly all of them were at risk when troops were sent into harm’s way. Additionally, a constant stream of veterans was returning to communities throughout the country, and despite persistent media reports to the contrary they were bringing home a positive story about military service and the challenges of wearing the uniform. Those who are veterans are still able to communicate these messages, but with a smaller military, longer enlistments and higher retention the veteran population is dwindling. As one example, a thousand World War II veterans are dying every day.

And what of the “new Americans?” Our country is so vastly rich and powerful, so dominant in the world’s cultural centers through its impact in film, music and fashion, that it is difficult for many newcomers to understand that it was built from nothing, on the backs of individuals who carved out a wilderness, designed a unique system of government, and along the way had to be willing to take time from their lives and serve the larger good.

Many recent immigrants come from cultures that do not respect their military or from societies where the military is viewed as corrupt and authoritarian. They do not understand the deep sense of patriotism and tradition that is at the bottom of our most dedicated military people’s service. Indeed, they have been given no reasons to see military service as a duty of citizenship. And a lost opportunity lurks here — the chance to embrace these new Americans as equal citizens and to reinforce the notion that being an American brings with it a shared history, no matter at what point one’s own family arrived, as well as an obligation to serve the greater good. Being an American is more than paying taxes and obeying the speed limit.

The sacrifices of the past inform the greatness of the present, and the sacrifices of the present provide security for the future, and it is above all the military services which connect us all in such a way.

These are all, as we used to say in the Pentagon, disconnects. And there is a further disconnect embraced by all three of these groups that frequently distorts or submerges the importance of national defense. It can be summarized in one word: internationalization. We live in an age of multinational corporations, heightened economic interdependence, and instant global communications on the internet. It can be argued that the ability of powerful investment engines to withhold capital or to shift its flow from one country to another is the most visible form of raw power in the world today. And people across America want a piece of the pie. They want to become well-off. They want to do business. They don’t want to be told that in five or fifteen years the business they are pursuing might in some vague way hurt the country. And so in a world where the threats to our national security have become arguable and blurred, money has become amoral, refusing to recognize national borders, and investments repudiate the notion of loyalty. Our government leaders have consciously ignored this phenomenon, hidden from it, sometimes even fed it for fear that their campaign contributions would dry up if they did otherwise. And American business has become almost a caricature of Lenin’s famous taunt that the last capitalist would be hung from the rope he sold for a profit.

Is it really that bad? Well, the short answer is “yes.”

One can see the dangers of this lack of strategic thinking in the present administration’s China policy, for I cannot imagine a greater example of what can happen when conscious strategic ignorance creates a disadvantage for those who must wear the uniform. I spend a lot of time in Asia, usually with Asians rather than Americans, and it was clear that the President’s announcement of a “strategic partnership” with China during his trip last summer sent chills through the region. He spent nine days in China and did not visit Japan, in my view our most important ally. His rhetoric and his actions went far beyond normal bounds to reward the policies of a repressive regime that has been a nuclear proliferater and has developed a dangerous strategic axis through the Muslim world for more than a decade. Why? Everybody knows why. Trade.

A recent New York Times investigation spelled out just how far this obsession with China has gone. Looser regulations regarding American export policies have enabled Chinese companies to obtain a wide range of sensitive, sophisticated technology — worth billions of dollars. The new rules allowed American companies to sell many of these products without prior government approval, and the President decided to change these rules without a rigorous review by intelligence officials or other national security experts. The new policy was anchored in the fantasy that industry executives would raise questions about their own sales, requiring them to seek a Commerce Department license only if they believed the equipment would end up in military hands. And now it’s been revealed that some of the high-speed computers sold to civilian customers — ostensibly for predicting weather patterns but also capable of scrambling secret communications and even designing nuclear weapons — are being used by the Chinese Army.

As my thirteen year-old daughter would say, like, DUH. Even those with a passing knowledge of China know that in matters of security and technology its government is a monolith, and that the Chinese military itself has operated dozens of shell corporations involved in everything from selling AK-47s and SKS rifles on the streets of Los Angeles to obtaining just this sort of technology. And that this travesty occurred at the same time the Chinese were enabling Pakistan to develop a nuclear capability, thus setting off the dangerous exchange of nuclear explosions between Pakistan and India last summer, and were assisting Iran and North Korea with their missile programs. I can think of no greater example of calculated stupidity and unthinking betrayal over the past forty years.

But who benefits from it? And who pays if these sorts of miscalculations go wrong? A memory lurks here, of World War II soldiers lamenting that the Japanese artillery coming their way was made from scrap metal that American businessmen had sold a few years earlier for a profit.

But let us now speak of the present, and of the future. Does our nation have a strategy in the wake of the Cold War? How is the military being used, and positioned for future use?

From this outside observer’s studied referent, there is not a clear strategy, particularly one that is driving the makeup of our armed forces. The last clearly enunciated strategy of this sort was the Nixon Doctrine, announced in 1969, which laid down three bench marks for American defense policy: that we would provide a nuclear umbrella for our non-nuclear allies and work vigorously against nuclear proliferation, that we would honor our treaty commitments, and that we would provide assistance to other friendly nations defending themselves from external threat if such actions were in the national interest of the United States.

The American military is becoming quite sophisticated in meeting lower-end threats such as those it recently encountered in Haiti, Somalia and Bosnia, and has made impressive doctrinal strides in such areas as the potential use of force in littoral areas. But focusing on these scenarios in the absence of a clearly enunciated global strategy actually puts our overall force structure at greater risk. We can do this job well and so we fund it, but we should be careful about when we do it: the fruitless commitment to Somalia, where we have no treaties, no national interest, and initially had no forces at risk, is perhaps the classic example of how not to use the American military.

On the larger scale, in the face of truly serious threats, we are the only credible guarantor of deterrence and stability in the free world. The potential for such threats is real, and their dynamics are unpredictable. Korea is as always a tinderbox. The Islamic world is galvanizing and gaining ever more sophisticated weaponry. Historical references are always flawed but Russia increasingly reminds one of Weimar Germany, and China of Japan in the 1930’s. If we cease to structure our forces in a way that can defeat these and other threats, the probability of their occurrence will increase. And to state the obvious, it is impossible to rebuild and train a larger Navy in six months or a year if the world turns ugly again and requires us to sustain a large-scale military presence in a vital region. And nowhere are we so vulnerable in this new era where so few Americans understand the nature of war and military operations than in the reduced size of our Navy.

This is not to diminish the difficulties of the Army and the Air Force, which have seen dramatic reductions since the end of the cold war. But these changes were largely the product of our reduced presence in NATO Europe, and that presence was an historical anomaly for the United States. Never before 1949 did our country occupy large positions in foreign countries solely for the purpose of local defense. By contrast, for more than a century we have recognized that the Navy connects us to the world and is essential to its day-to-day security as well as our own. Just as Russia, China and Germany are traditional continental powers; the United States is a maritime nation, by virtue of its geographical position, economic and security interests, cultural ties, and treaty obligations with other countries. The NATO reductions were actually a return to historical normality for the U.S. military. And it should be remembered that in the decades before World War II the Navy received roughly half of the national security budget.

The end of the cold war brought very few changes to the obligations faced by the Navy. It must operate continuously in the present low-threat conditions, and it must be capable of doing even more at the turn of a switch. Its presence around the world on the calmest of days is a signal of global stability, a message that the United States is looking after its economic and security interests. Its ability to maneuver and respond at crisis points is the single most important measure of our day-to-day credibility. If the threat increases, the Navy-Marine Corps doctrine of amphibious power projection in the littoral regions of the globe allows us to assert our interests without the diplomatic frustrations and operational vulnerability of ground bases. And the capability of putting a sustainable logistical train in place during major engagements, coupled with the power of the fleet, is an essential ingredient of national strategy.

But what has happened to the Navy in the last ten years?

Our effort to build a 600 ship Navy during the 1980’s was in reality a rather modest comeback from a period of serious neglect. I had argued in writing — before becoming Secretary of the Navy — that we should return to historical normality by reducing our presence in NATO and increasing the size of the fleet. The morning I resigned as Secretary rather than agreeing to a reduction in the fleet I made a half-joking comment to Larry Garrett, then my undersecretary, that I did not choose to be remembered as the father of the 350 ship Navy. But never did I imagine that the Navy’s leadership would allow the devastation that has now resulted in a 300 ship Navy, with the numbers continuing to sink. If present construction schedules hold, we may be headed for a 200 ship Navy.

By FY 2001 the Navy will have reduced the size of the fleet by 45 percent since my resignation — if it meets its procurement goals — and funding for procurement is lagging far behind those goals. Since 1992 alone, the size of the fleet has decreased by 31 percent while optempo has increased by 26 percent. More than half of the ships in the Navy are at sea on any given day, and a majority of those are forward deployed. The aircraft mishap rate is nearly double last year’s, the highest level in the last five years. Recruitment is dramatically off, 7,000 below requirements, the worst of all the services. Enlisted retention is below requirements and all the officer war fighting communities forecast serious retention problems. Funding for ship and aircraft modernization has decreased by more than 50 percent since 1990. The people who are leaving cite more and more frequently that their greatest reason is a disappointment in the quality of leadership they are receiving from above.

These are all signs of a force that is growing tired, fraying around the edges. And what is the Navy’s leadership proposing in response to this dilemma? The answer on the table right now is to cut back infrastructure — that is, to size down the bases so that they meet the reductions in the fleet. In other words, rather than argue the dangerous reduction of the size of the fleet, they are accepting permanently its reduction by removing the infrastructure that supported larger numbers. Their only other substantive proposal is to bring back the 50 percent retirement package, as if 10 percent more in retirement pay alone is going to keep the overworked and under-appreciated 25 year-old in the system.

Those of us who have been around for a while — including today’s admirals — have seen all of this before, although not at this truly dangerous level. When I was commissioned in 1968 there were 930 combatants in the Navy. We had the high optempo of Vietnam but we did not have the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. In the post-Vietnam malaise the traditional strategic arguments were discredited, the careful warnings were disregarded, and by 1979 the Navy had bottomed out at 479 combatants. Then the Indian Ocean commitments began after the twin crises in Iran and Afghanistan. Optempo became unbearable as it became necessary to keep carriers continually on-station. The Independence made a 210-day deployment with eight days ashore. The Nimitz made a 146-day deployment with no days ashore. Ships fell into disrepair. People voted with their feet until the Navy was short 23,000 petty officers. My Navy peers came up with a cynical slogan: make Commander and get your divorce.

This vision haunted me in late 1987 and early 1988 when we were faced with again reducing the size of the fleet. As we argued the issue I had my staff come up with a chart that covered several decades. On the chart I had them plot three curves: the size of the fleet, the operational commitments assigned to the Navy by the national command authority, and retention. Predictably, it was shown that operational commitments did not vary with the size of the fleet. And retention went down along with the “bath-tub” effect of fleet reduction. And so after three attempts to meet budget reductions without reducing the size of the fleet were rejected, I decided that I would not walk the fleet back from our goal of 600 ships, into the bath tub where the Navy now resides.

Why is this happening again?

The answer is that it was allowed to happen by leaders who were unable or unwilling to make the case for a larger Navy, and as a result failed to educate the congress and the public. They didn’t fight at 600 ships. They didn’t fight at 500. They didn’t fight at 400. They’re telling the world that 300 is fine and doable, while they’re on the way to 200. And so I return to my initial observation. In a world where fewer and fewer policy makers have any connection to the military, and where the political process knows less and less about matters of strategy, leadership and the intricacies of force structure planning, whose duty should it be to bring forward the logic and the answers? The senior admirals should not be selling 300 ships to the Navy. They should be arguing 400 ships, or more, to the nation.

Those leaders who comfortably claim that the notion of civilian control precludes them from arguing their own case should study the success of the Marine Corps, for this is exactly what it did in the late 1940s when it was threatened with extinction, and in different form it is what Marine Corps leaders continue to do today. Military subservience to political control applies to existing policy, not to policy debates. The political process requires the unfettered opinions of military leaders, and military leaders who lack the courage to offer such opinions are in my view just as accountable to their people as the politicians who have secured their silence.

The silence of the admirals as the fleet shrinks and their sailors continue to do more with less has not gone unnoticed. A recent Naval Institute Proceedings article pointing out that only one in ten Navy junior officers in a recent study aspires to command — and that number not even addressing the issue of quality — is an ominous warning. A lot of reasons were given, but two messages came through loud and clear. The first was that money alone won’t solve the problem. Americans have never been mercenaries, and although it is the duty of their leaders to provide for their well-being, they can’t simply be bought. The second was an overwhelming disenchantment with the Navy’s senior leaders. I recently heard these same two messages again and again during a discussion with junior aviators in Japan.

This evident breakdown in the junior officer corps is deeply troubling, for it hints of a fundamental change in the Navy’s culture, probably fueled in equal parts by the Goldwater-Nichols legislation and the effect of the Tailhook scandal on Navy leadership. Command is tough, risky, lonely, the most challenging job an officer can have. But it is also the very emblem of traditional military service. It is what dedicated officers have always lived for and aspired to. The greatest experience of my professional life has been the privilege of commanding marines at the platoon and company level. And what is a military service whose leaders do not aspire to command? It becomes a gutless bureaucracy, pushing papers and taking a paycheck.

These young officers did not come into the Navy with this attitude. The circumstances of their careers have inflicted it upon them.

When leadership fails, sometimes a fundamental shift overtakes a unit, or a military service, or a nation that is so profound that it can indeed change an entire ethos. Most often the sea change takes place gradually, not because of decisions taken by senior leaders so much as from their inaction, an acquiescence to insistent, incremental pressures generated from the outside. Usually the leadership, reacting to and sometimes overwhelmed by these outside pressures, are the ones who comprehend the changes the least, and in some cases cannot perceive what has happened until it is too late for them to protect even their own legacy.

Let’s hope that this will not be the epitaph for a United States Navy on its way to 200 ships and a third-rate future. Its history, its traditions, its special place at the center of all that is great about this country, demand that those who serve, of whatever rank and level of experience, do what they can to explain to the American people that the Navy must be led from within, that what has happened over the past ten years is not right, and that what is left is not enough.