Sharing a stage together for the first time, former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs Hugh Shelton, Richard Myers, and Peter Pace engaged in a wide-ranging and at times starkly frank discussion about the U.S. military on April 12 at American University.
The three men, from different branches of the service, took questions from AU students at the Kennedy Political Union–sponsored event. On topics including national security, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and mistakes made in Iraq, the retired generals pulled no punches.
“In the period I served as chairman and the study I’ve done since, I’ve come to believe that the greatest threat to our nation comes from violent extremism,” said Myers, an Air Force general (retired) who served as chairman from 2001 to 2005. “I don’t think this country has developed an adequate strategy to deal with that threat.”
Adam L’Episcopo, a School of International Service student and member of the U.S. Army, asked about the effectiveness of the VA system.
“I go back to something Abraham Lincoln said, and I hope you forgive me if I paraphrase,” said Shelton, an Army general (retired) who served as chairman from 1997 to 2001. “A nation that forgets its veterans will itself soon be forgotten. We can’t do too much for them.”
But Myers voiced concern over the military’s response to assisting veterans returning from battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“In these present conflicts, the [hallmark] in terms of injuries are [post-traumatic stress disorder] and traumatic brain injury,” he said. “On that front, I don’t think we’re doing all we can do.”
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is by law the highest ranking military officer in the armed forces, and the principal military adviser to the president. The job requires a political touch as well as a military mind.
“One very important factor is the civilian-military relationship,” Pace, a Marine Corps (retired) general, said of achieving success in the position. “I can tell you that every time I reasoned we should not do something for military reasons, we did not do it. That’s not the same as saying everything we recommended we did.”
In responding to a question about exit strategies, Pace, chairman from 2005 to 2007, took responsibility for mistakes made in the aftermath of America’s militarily successful invasion of Iraq. When U.S. forces reached Baghdad, there were not enough of them to keep order in the city, he said.
“We thought whole divisions [of the Iraqi army] would surrender and become part of our allied forces,” he said. “Not only did they not surrender, they disintegrated. It’s not that we did not have a plan, it’s that the plan was based on faulty assumptions. There was not an exit strategy because you know that when you go into Iraq, you’re going to be there for 10, 15, 20 years.”
Washington College of Law student Colby Sullins, a member of the Air Force, asked the generals about their feelings on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Since it was enacted 17 years ago, 13,000 members of the military have been forced to leave for violating it, a microscopic percentage of all those who have served in that period of time, Shelton said.
“It’s not a big issue in terms of our national security and our ability as a fighting force,” he said. “As the old saying goes, if it’s not broke, don’t try to fix it.”
At the night’s conclusion, Myers thanked the Bender Arena audience for its serious and thoughtful questions.
“This country needs really serious people like you.”