ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: Thank you Ann and I very much appreciate your leadership and energy and vigor and focus across everything that our military is doing, but in particular – and also I’d like to say thanks to Al Pierce who leads this here at NDU and as I – I think Ann said what is important, from my perspective, is that the beginning is not the beginning but it’s an opportunity to begin a conversation and a debate about who we are, what we have become, how that matches up to who we should be and in fact, literally, learning, probing, in stride, our military, our profession while it’s – when I say in stride – while we are in our 10th year at war with no immediate end in sight.
There are those that might offer or, at least, historically at how we’ve done this in the past our consciences get pierced by events which, from my perspective, hurt us badly, caused the introspective and then the realization of what we’ve become and then we fix it. And I would argue that we – we shouldn’t do that, and we can’t do that, because we have to stay guided fair in terms of our profession in the underpinnings and the principles that are there.
And like many of you – I speak to this from my own experience. I’m not a young man. I’ve been doing this since I was young and I’m happy to confess to the scars, if you will, of that youth which drive me, to this day, going back to when I first came into military and I kind of divide this thought and I – first of all, there’s some very dear friends of mine here, Dick Meyers, Leon Edney, Harlan Ullman and others – I know, who’ve actually mentored me over the course of my career.
And actually, just to be clear: Just because you have a mentor, it doesn’t mean the mentor always had it right either. But individuals who engage, who led and who care a lot – Julius Beckett is another – and have had big impacts on me, personally, and our profession, writ large, and others as well so I appreciate your time in this – in this discussion.
So for me, I sort of broadly divide us – this up into the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and the last 10 years. And the ’70s, for me, were obviously Vietnam. I mean, out of that – those wars and in an incredibly difficult time and understanding, as a young officer, not just the times, to some degree, the times we were living in in the country, but also the impact on our military and how, in particular, the American people cared or didn’t care for our military. And I care that they didn’t. And it was very, very rough for those of us that participated in that war.
And as a young officer trying to figure out where the compass was and what the political – you know, how do you mix – I mean, I didn’t realize I was trying to move it – of how you mix the profession with the very difficult issues of the time – political issues as well. And really to emphasize, from my perspective, what Ann said we didn’t teach it much. We didn’t – we talked about it in our words; we talked about it in our – in the pubs; we talked about it on liberty; we talked about it at home; but we really didn’t ring it out as a profession and that’s what I argue we need to do right now and I’ll come to that as to why.
But there are a couple of things about Vietnam: An incredibly unpopular war at one point, not always, but certainly for the last several years. And a military that was seen to be the principal not just guarantor for it but the principal force for how this was executed so poorly when it really was a very, very different situation politically that the military got the blame and we all took that aboard.
It was the time of the draft and there were those who joined to avoid ground combat that were on my ship, actually, so that they didn’t have to go in directly in harm’s way and then got out as fast as they could once 1971, 1972 – those are just – those are – those are lessons very much branded in my brain and it took us a long time to come to grips with that quite frankly. But I would argue that those scars and the depth of them have been passed on to our children and we have a generation of children who serve at an enormously high level.
So while those scars were not exactly the same – I can recall when my two sons were in high school in the ’90s. In the mid-’90s – I was actually home one night checking homework because one of them was studying and I go, well, so what is it? He goes, Vietnam and I thought, history? That’s not history. I was there. And so our young ones across the board, including those who serve – you know, I can argue that the effects of that war will last 60, 70, 80 years from the day it ended in terms of who leads our military, the decisions that they make because of their parents who were – who participated in those wars.
And if I just fast forward to now and go to – you pick the year – 2005: We’re talking about the same kind of impact, when you consider the length of the time, the sacrifices, the differences of where we are, in so many ways, right now in these wars I would argue that the lessons that are being learned and absorbed will carry to the end of the century.
I have been struck time and time again – and I’d like to tell you I’m a big historian, I’m not, but I have read a few books – and I read a book not too long ago, a couple of years ago, now, called “A Peace to End All Peace.” This is the fall of the Ottoman Empire – there are a lot of books about that – extraordinary book from my perspective. But one of the things that strikes me about that is there were decisions made in 1913 that a hundred years later we’re living with, literally, today.
So for something like that – something like this, which is at the heart of who we are, we can’t do enough self-examination. This isn’t self-flagellation. This is examination to make sure we understand it and that we keep feeding back to raise those who will lead in the not too distant future: our military and in fact our country, not just our military because so many will come and leave the military and go on to lead throughout the country. So from my perspective, the amount of time that the effects of these wars have is an enormous driver for understanding this as best we can.
I moved from there to the ’80s and, many of you who know me, by that time I had – actually, I had had commands in the ’70s – and one of the things you learn about commanding pretty quickly is accountability – and from my perspective – now, I’m a product of my own service at that time. I wasn’t “joint” at all. I didn’t understand the other services. But from the accountability standpoint, we started to erode back then in terms of holding individual commanders accountable to the degree that I thought they should be held accountable.
And it was a time when we, from my perspective, again, had enormous impact on the legal side. We were much more focused on – we were focused on the image of who we were, the communications of who we were, particularly when things got tough, and I just saw too many not stand up when they should have stood up, from an accountability standpoint and it bothered me to no end. Subsequent to that I had several more commands and for me, accountability is at the heart of this.
And one of the things that – over the course of my career that has – that I have learned was in the clarity of accountability when we were young – nice, neat commands, certain size, number of people, et cetera, direct responsibility as a commander for a unit at the O4, O5, O6 level. The flag level then starts to blur a little bit. We don’t talk a lot about that. What does that mean from O7 through O10?
Because the organizations get bigger, the responsibilities get broader. There are a lot of individuals who are accountable for the individual units, if you will, that are in these broader commands and that’s – sometimes those responsibilities can be blurred and there’ve been examples of that, from my perspective, in the course of the last few years.
And that just leads to the gradual changes which occur, which I think are occurring, now, in these wars and that we must understand and identify and not wait for that spike to wake us up – or the wake up can be something that really, really hurts us. And I don’t have any answers to that except to examine it and make sure that we know where we are.
In the ’90s – now, I’m a – I’m an O6 in the ’90s – O5, O6 – I’ve had multiple commands at this point and then I watched my service go through an extraordinary period of time that I, as an O6, didn’t really understand to the depth. I knew we were in trouble but I didn’t know how much trouble and I didn’t know why and at the heart of that was the whole Tailhook issue.
And fundamentally, from my perspective, it became an issue of who – you know, what is the institutional responsibility here? And from a standpoint of the ’80s where, you know, I’m a younger officer, where we’re more focused on the individuals, if you will – transitioning, I didn’t understand it at the time – transitioning to what I call the institutional responsibility and how do we do what’s right for the institution which takes, sometimes, courage beyond what might be expected of yourself to make sure the institution survives as opposed to the individual.
So that was a big transition for me, personally, and a big lesson where, from my perspective, as I look back on it and even understood it to some degree then, our Navy was an enormous, enormous difficulty and we didn’t really understand how difficult then – that how deep that difficulty penetrated. And it wasn’t just the institution. It was the people that were there.
What was instructed to me, when my institution was failing was – my junior officers all got it. They all got it. They didn’t understand why we weren’t doing more about it than we were doing but my junior officers understood it. Not precisely, but when you pulsed them and gauged them and asked them what was on their mind, in totality, you could put together that they had an understanding of where we were and leaders needed – myself included – to listen to, to move us forward out of those challenges.
And now I fast forward to the last several years and the difficulties, the successes and the failures that we had and I’d also argue I’m a product – some of you have heard this before – but I learn a whole lot more when I fail than I succeeded. Now, I’m not arguing, and I’m careful to point this out, for a strategy of failure so we can learn an infinite amount. But the true measure, from my perspective, and we all do, large and small and I have failed big a couple of times – the true measure is how you pick yourself up off the deck, dust yourself off, learn the lessons and move forward.
So in the most difficult times that we had in the last 10 years – and there have been moral challenges, ethical challenges. There have been – there have been leadership gaps where leaders weren’t ready or didn’t hold themselves accountable and responsible. And how – and again, I would argue junior officers and our NCOs get this, sense it. They may not be able to explain it fairly well, although a lot of them can if you ask them, more than – more than you think, sometimes.
So what has happened to us? Where are we? And the metric that I used – and I thought Cohen – Richard Cohen – wrote a great column about the whole issue. If you haven’t read it, you ought to read it. Because I had validated that column. And fundamentally, what Cohen was saying is, America doesn’t know its military. And the United States military doesn’t know America.
And I have been out and around the country. And statistically, it gets into this less than 1 percent, one more focused, kind of, from various – they know from certain parts of the country, extraordinary – American people are extraordinarily supportive of our men and women. This was an antenna that was way up for me on, you know – in March of 2003 because of my background – because they weren’t Vietnam.
And I wanted to watch that and understand that I have, and they are. And they want to – actually, while there’s a sea of goodwill, they are – they want to connect with us in an – in an awful lot of ways. But they also have their own challenges, certainly intensified over the last three or four years because of the economy. And I understand all that.
But where this connection of who we are is not understood by them – and too often, we’re just talking to ourselves. Well, we need to do that – you need to have good, healthy internal conversation. But I think you got to mix that pretty – I think we all do – mix that with the conversation with the country constantly.
And it’s a two-way street. I think – I think – well, I’ll say that the American people have some responsibility there. I think we do as leaders, as well.
So how to do that, and not just write this up in our own publications – and I did think that the article that was put together for this was exquisite, and probably captured it better than I have in terms of where we are. But our audience, our underpinning, our authorities – everything we are, everything we do comes from the American people. And fundamentally, I believe that – everything we do.
And we cannot afford to be out of touch with them. And to the degree we are out of touch, I think it’s a very dangerous course, and that it will generate an outcome – someday, we’ll wake up one morning. It will be an event that will cause us to examine this. And in that, we will find out that yes, we are less than one percent, and yes, we’re living in fewer, fewer places, that we don’t know the American people. The American people don’t know us.
And we cannot survive without their support – across the board – can’t be done. So how do we – and in all the things that – and many of them were mentioned in this article that was prepared for this congress today – that in all the things that it discussed, how do the American people feel about – who the American people believe we are, and how do they get their message track? How do they get those messages? They get it from the 24-7 news cycle – less and less so from the printed media, for sure. And we need to be – we need to be knowledgeable about how they are seeing us, and how we connect with them.
So all that we do – my measure – my single measure is, how does this affect our relationship with the American people? Because in the end, that’s the one that matters. Yes, the relationship with Congress, which is fundamental to that, quite frankly – and yes, we must be apolitical, and I think we’ve watched that erode over time, over the last 20, 30, 40 years.
And we have to set ourselves on that. And I won’t argue that we’re off a lot, but we are – we have accepted – we have accepted messages – sending a message to the American people, which too frequently don’t send that apolitical view.
Again, back to those of you that know me – and I don’t see it in the audience, but I think you got a panel here today – you know, I think the best piece I’ve seen on what we should do after we retire is the one Chuck Boyd gave in 2006 down at Maxwell. It’s not the only piece. It’s not the only view. But I think it captures it exceptionally well.
And we are – we are raised in a military for however long we’re in it. But let’s say we have a career, and there is this underpinning with us – it’s okay, I did that, served my country. And now, I’m on to other things. And yes, you have the right to a voice. There’s no question about that.
None of this – none of the concerns that I have shared over time would ever impinge on constitutional rights or anything like that. But it gets back to understanding the institution that we care about so much – and too often, blurring the line between policy and agreeing or not agreeing with it, and execution, which is what we’re supposed to do.
It goes to, you know, this accountability discussion. You know, what does it mean? And then, in the essence, all of this is tied to, who are we? What is our profession? What are the principles that we care most about? And in everything we do, we have got to keep those principles front and center for ourselves and for those that come along.
So what are young ones thinking about right now? How have their lives changed literally forever? What have they seen? How has it impacted on them in terms of what we know, and actually, in terms of what we don’t know? How will we keep our arms around them and cherish their sacrifice and their service and who they are for the rest of their lives, whether they’re – whether they’re wearing a uniform or not?
How do we make sure that their life experiences – you will have – be in touch with the American people about who we are, make sure that every single military member who joins us and then returns home, whenever that is and wherever home is, tells a good story. You want a recruiting – you want a recruiting command that – I mean, you would – if you wanted an approach and do away with recruiting, that’s the approach.
You know, I speak with and engage with, on the very difficult end of these wars, the families of the fallen. And I know these young men and women’s backgrounds. And it is true in almost every single case that these young ones have responded, first of all, to 9/11. If you asked them what they were doing 9/11, you would get a response like, you know, I was having my braces taken off. But it has impacted them more deeply than we know.
And you ask them – and you look at their background when they fall and they want to make a difference. And they have essentially been recruited by somebody in their family, a friend of the family, et cetera, that they saw and admired.
So telling a good story about us, being a good story about us – we have a system without due – we have a system that just, when you serve, thank you for your service, and you go back to your communities. And I just think that that’s a fundamental shift on how we need to be approaching who we are and how we move forward.
Of the groups that you will talk about – if I were to ascend the center of gravity for this, for me – and there are two – well, actually, there are two centers here. One is obviously the current leadership – ’06 to ’10. But that leadership isn’t going to be around very long of that scale of 60, 70, 80 years – but those young ones, those young first lieutenants, JGs, captains, they’re going to be around for a long time. And there are a lot of them.
And they’re the ones that we ought to make sure we get it right for. And that we understand their thoughts, not that we try to enforce our thoughts on them. Two-way street – we should be engaged with them, for sure.
So that’s the E-5s, the E-7, E-6, E-4 to E-6 and the O-2 to O-3 to junior O-4. And part of that is to understand what they went through. And quite frankly, if you haven’t been out with them, it’s hard to know what they’ve been through. A lot of them won’t talk about what they’ve been through.
And how we – how we gather that kind of input into making sure we guide this well in the future – and we look at some of the most difficult times we had in these wars, that there were things done that were outside who we are as a country, who we are as a military, and have we learned those lessons, all of which are key.
So those are some thoughts. And again, I greatly appreciate you taking the time to come. And in particular – and I’m late to need here. This was something I wanted to do the first month I was chairman. And I’ve had 18-wheelers running over me, keeping me away from this for a long time.
But I really do appreciate the opportunity to have this discussion, and in particular, in our educational institution where this is time and there is thoughts, and it can be grown. Believe me, there’s no easy answer here. And understanding who we are, what we’ve become, the impact of these wars on us – not just now – and the extent of that impact far beyond individual men and women who wear the uniform, but also their families.
In recent months, Deborah and I have been talking about – some of you heard me using this example – an 18-year-old who just went off to college, who’s mother or father, mostly father in the Army or the Marine Corps – and they were 10 when these wars started, or they were nine in their lives.
And so they just went off to college. They haven’t seen their dad. Half of their lives have been spent at war. And then, you pick the age – 15, 14 – for essentially since I was conscious as a kid, we’ve been at war. Their whole life, okay? What does that mean? And how do we incorporate meeting the needs and the challenges that are associated, and they have been extraordinary.
So a pretty big subject – critical subject from my own perspective. And you know, I appreciate you taking the time to do it. I’ve been very anxious to be informed by this day and continuing the conversation and the debate and the discussion, quite frankly, far into the future. Thanks.
I have time for one question. No, I’m kidding. Actually.
Q: Chairman, I believe you said – you just said –
ADM. MULLEN: Who are you, and who do you work for?
Q: Hi. Anne Flaherty, with Associated Press. You mentioned Tailhook, but not the more recent situation of the ship captain who was fired for the videos that he made more than three years ago. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, and whether or not you think the tolerance level within the military has changed regarding ethics?
ADM. MULLEN: I would actually – from an ethics standpoint, part of what I would hope we can explore here was answering that question. I think we have to have a true-compass ethic. But we have to have a true-compass moral. We have to have a true compass inside our profession.
And I think one of the questions – and I don’t – this isn’t – that having this conference is not meant to be a jury in the sense that, you know, we’re way off. I don’t know that, quite frankly. But I have been around too long, and then formed that we’ve changed by incidents, if you will, or events where we could have probably thought our way through that ahead of time, given, sort of, the intensity of the events.
And so I think that’s a – I think that’s a question that’s out there, specifically. And with respect to the – you know, the recent – the firing of the CO of the Enterprise, I’d just as soon not comment on that, that there’s still, quite frankly, an ongoing investigation with respect to that. And I think we need to just wait until all that, as we say in the Navy, is in our wake.
Q: Sir, Col. Ray Robbin from Air War College. I was struck by your comment about that young people get – and if you can, we have an opportunity, I believe, with “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the implementation of that – can you elaborate a little bit about what leadership’s role is going to be in that?
ADM. MULLEN: The more senior I have become, I’ve for years talked about listening, learning and leading. And the more senior that I have become, the more I learned that I need to listen. So my own experience – and it wasn’t just Tailhook; that was a pretty intense time and event – that I was just an O-6 trying to piece together what does all this mean.
And I wasn’t in it – in it, but it was certainly, you know, an organization I loved a lot and I cared a lot about. What struck me in all that – and actually, in other very difficult times – were the questions that were raised by the young lieutenants. And about – and in particular, the questions essentially were, where were – where are our leaders? Where are our leaders?
And this goes to the accountability piece from my perspective. It doesn’t mean we don’t hold individuals accountable at every pay grade – we need to do that. But too often – and I would just leave this as an open question for you to spend some time on – too often, it’s too easy to hang the juniors and not look where we really need to look, which is what they’re asking.
Not those necessarily who are even directly in the chain in terms of holding young ones accountable, but others that say, what’s going on with the leadership? So listening very specifically is, I think, critical to them. They don’t have it all right, and they don’t have it comprehensively right.
But where we might be shutting down, if you will, they are shining light, which are – you know, from my perspective, illuminating the holes in our logic at the senior level and our understanding about what’s really going on.
So I think there’s a great resource there that we have to pay a lot of attention to. And as I look around, you know, each service has their own ethos and culture. And I understand that. And each service has been through difficult times, whatever they are. And we will go again – that’s another thing.
If we – if we get this right – you know, these young captains have said this for some time. If we keep the right young captains in the Army, no matter what programs we keep or don’t keep, the United States Army is going to be just fine. And I would argue that’s the case in every service.
And we don’t – I’ve struggled right now – knowing that we are. Because the numbers are good, economy is bad, people are staying. And I would argue, McFarland doesn’t even know the right case because he’s too far in the brigade command. The brigade – the battalion commanders, the commanders of our ships and our squadron – they’re the ones that know whether we’re keeping the right JOs or not, or whether we’re keeping the right NCOs or not.
Everyone that’s in command knows that. And we’ve got 3(00) or 4(00) or 500 or whatever it is – we know the good ones. And then – and I get an instantaneous answer. We’ll – sorry – if I’m a – I could, if I walked onto a – into a unit, I could get an instantaneous answer. But try getting where I live.
Now, it all gets rolled up. The numbers are good. Thanks very much for asking, chairman. See you later. You know, next question. And I’m not giving up on that because I believe that’s the essence of our future in every single service.
So what do they then prove? What do they care about? What are their career paths? The basics are still the same. Or have they been through so much that they just can’t keep doing this? And if so, why are they going to go home and tell a good story? Or are they going to tell a story that is devastating either by what they say or by what they do?
We can’t keep track of those men and women that we have beyond 120 days of their ETS. So I don’t know how many combat vets go out and kill themselves on the 121st day or the 365th day. And what drives that? My understanding in what drives that is because that’s how long we pay benefits, you know? It’s a – it’s an administrative, bureaucratic decision that says, hey, we tracked you for 120 days and after that, we forget your mailing address. That’s not acceptable in the world we live in.
So those things, from my perspective, have to change. And when they tell a really good story out there, it’s enormously positive, as is the odds.
Q: Sir, I’m Dr. William Kirkus from the U.S. Naval Academy. And then, first I wanted to commend you for putting this together because it’s very important to me. I teach civil-military relations there – a course for midshipmen. And I have two – a free comment, and then two questions.
One is that I’m somewhat concerned about how you relate to the midshipmen, the activities that go on at that nexus between the strategic leaders and our military courses and the civilian leadership? And in some cases, I have difficulty explaining to them the actions at that level versus concerns about the non-political aspect of military service.
The second is on the civilian side. I was teaching in a course on military and American foreign policy at George Washington University. And I was really shocked one night in one of my lectures, one of the students stopped me and posed this question, which we, I think, as a part of that education and civilians and their relationship with the military.
He says, the military has all of this firepower and so forth. In the course, we’re discussing, you know, when the president will be getting a budget, the military has to proceed with that. Why don’t you just go down to the Pentagon and take the money? It was shocking to me because I spent a career in the military. And that represented a kind of gap between the civilians’ knowledge of how the military – how our system operates.
And so it seems to me that, and others have wrestled with this question: how do you get the civilian side to understand the military that you have?
ADM. MULLEN: I think that – and it’s a great question. But I – and I think I would be looking for, from your perspective over the course of this and other discussions today of exactly how to do that, because we have a certain image. We’re trusted. We’re seen institutionally by the American people as an institution that they care about and have great trust and confidence in.
And that’s what we’ve got to sustain. It wasn’t always the case. But when you – when you plumb that and find out what they know about us, my experience – not just at GW, my experience in almost – and I’ve been to maybe about 10 different major cities over the course of last year – is they know precious little about who we are and what we’re doing.
What do they know? We’re in two wars. We have sacrificed a lot. Lost a lot of people – you know, over 550 people. They are very supportive of that. They know we’re spending a lot of money. We’re good at what we do. They care a lot about great young men and women that they know. Many of them don’t know that many.
And it just speaks to, I think, the disconnect and again, I couldn’t say it any better than Richard Cohen the other day. I thought he said it exceptionally well. And that serves – from my perspective that ought to serve as sort of a baseline. Okay, if you accept that is that acceptable? My answer is no. What do we do about it?
And then the political piece, Dick Myers and others, Bud Edney, I mean, I didn’t grow up in politics. You know, I actually did that with malice aforethought and you know, here I am wearing a uniform but I’m in Washington. I’m in a political environment all the time and I recognize that. And I represent and I represent an institution that, you know – I think, you know, to sustain itself it must be apolitical.
And I think somebody like Huntington and others who looked at it a certain way – and I can’t remember if it was Huntington that talked about – was it Huntington that talked about it doesn’t need to be on the enlisted side?
MR. : (Off mic.)
ADM. MULLEN: Yeah. I mean, that’s just – those days are gone. I mean, you can’t integrate Huntington, or maybe you can. But if you integrate Huntington from there to now it’s changed and that just isn’t the case anymore for a lot of reasons. But I guess the example that I would give you is when you’re in a very tight situation in the military and you’re a leader, a combat leader, your stomach ought to be churned.
You know, you ought to – you’re hyperaware and you know this is going to be tough and you’re going to be nervous and that’s just okay from my perspective. If it isn’t, something’s wrong. And here in Washington, you know, in the heart of that political environment, from a military perspective, as I have learned this – and you learn it – to a certain level you can work on a Joint Staff forever but until you get to these top jobs you don’t experience the whole force of that and that – I want to tell you that that churn is there. There’s nothing that brings it to me then, you know, in the middle of that specifically which is just fine. I mean, it keeps me focused on staying apolitical.
And making – and giving my advice privately and not confusing the American people – publicly, trying to explain it so the American people understand whatever it is that we’re doing. And then, when the boss says here we go, as he has in don’t ask, don’t tell – or as the Congress has said, we’ll march about and we’re going to execute that and the American people have to know that. Have to know that.
And then the – the only other point that I greatly appreciate you focusing on the shipment – there are people here who are focusing on cadets, that that is our future. I’ve invested a lot of my time over the course of my life in that because those institutions have given us so much and given me so much, personally, that reinvesting there is an insurance that we’re going to be just fine because they are extraordinary young men and women.
And so safekeeping them in this discussion, even at the nation stage of their understanding, is really important. But tell them they don’t need to worry too much about politics at this point. They need to just graduate and go out and make a difference.