Okay, we are here at the studios of the West Point Center for Oral History on June 6, 2011, with Lieutenant General Daniel Christman, C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-N. Did I get that right?
Good. So welcome, General.
I’m going to ask you just to do for me first a little highlight reel. Tell me the sort of greatest moments of your career.
Well, the best, as far as I’m concerned, were the five years that I spent here as the Superintendent.
Which would’ve been the years—
1996 to 2001. It was—I love the Army, the 36 years that I spent, and there were clear highlights in the course of the command of troops at the company and battalion and brigade level commands. But the one that was the most satisfying, the most exciting, and frankly, continues, June 6, 2011, continues to be that way, because I run into former cadets all the time who are now, you know, if they’ve stayed in, majors. If not, who have come through Washington, DC, and contacted me in some way— mostly electronically.
But the five years that I spent as Superintendent to try in some modest way to influence the next generation of leaders for the Army was exhilarating, because the cadets are that way, and rewarding, because you can see the results of what that leadership development has meant to the cohort of officers that are now, in many respects, leading the Army, at the major junior field grade level. So the five years at West Point.
And in that period, what were your—what were the greatest— what did you come in intending to do, and were you able to do it?
Well, I followed a lovely man—a real professional, named Howard Graves. And I respected all through my time—I didn’t know Howard as a cadet, but when I was a young captain, fresh from [the] Vietnam [War] and teaching here at West Point in the department of social sciences, beginning in 1970, then-Major Graves was in the department. And Howard was, in so many ways, a mentor for me from that point on. We were both combat engineers. We had both prized continued intellectual development through one’s career. Howard looked after me, I think, in so many ways. He commanded the same battalion on the old East German border, the 54th Engineer Battalion, as I did. He became the assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs as a three-star—the same job I had before I came to West Point.
So Howard, I thought, established the most important basis at West Point for a successor to continue to deepen, and that’s the basic ethos within the [United States Military] Academy environment of what it means to be an officer. You value integrity, you value respect towards others—the two bedrock values of our profession. Howard did a fantastic job to nurture those values, and I admired that in Howard as a young officer. I admired it especially as the president of a college—i.e. the Superintendent of West Point—and wanted very much to continue in that vein.
tight fiscal constraints from the end of the Cold War in 1991 until I left as Superintendent in 2001.
Let’s give people a little historical context. This is the drawn-down, essentially, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of communism, the end of the Soviet Union, there was the notion that we had a peace dividend, right? We’re going to pull back—
Enormous peace dividend.
And just paint the picture of that time, if you could.
I will. In the aggregate, the Army was about 900,000 active duty. We fought Operation Desert Storm at about that level, and while Howard was Superintendent and then I took his place in ’96, the Army fell from 16 divisions and 900,000 to 10 divisions and 480,000 in strength. And in budget, the total defense budget fell from around five percent of gross domestic product to about 2.9 percent of gross domestic product. And all that eventually trickled down to the posts, camps, and stations of our Army, in terms of constraining maintenance and repair, new construction, pay and benefits.
In fact, what Howard faced, and I saw a residual of, was this question—”Well, the Cold War is over. The Soviet Union has disappeared. Where is our enemy? Do we even need a service academy?” And there were serious questions raised in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which Howard combatted, and I still felt a little bit towards the beginning of my tenure, and that is: “What’s the relative merit of keeping the federal service academy system afloat?”
The argument was—and it was erroneous—but the argument was, “We can do it more cheaply through ROTC, through Officer Candidate School, OCS. We don’t need to be spending the hundreds of millions of dollars that the federal government spends on service academies every year, because A) we don’t have an enemy, and B) the Armed Forces that we will retain can be acquired more cheaply—the officer corps.” And that was a major battle that we had to face early on in the stewardship.
Now, does that mean that the Academy’s operating budget was shrunk as well, even though you still had the same number of cadets. Your force of cadets didn’t actually drop, did it?
The original authorized ceiling for the Academy was 4,400. When the Cold War ended, that was brought down to 4,000. That’s the number that pertained while I was Superintendent, changed subsequently. But I’ll never forget this, Todd— Howard retired from the Army in June 1996. He was told in May of ’96, just in the process of transition to me, “General Graves, we are going”— “we” the Secretary of the Army, Chief of Staff of the Army—“Are going to cut roughly $23 to $25 million from West Point’s operating budget for the coming fiscal year. Make do.”
Howard was devastated by that, because he had begun a restoration program for barracks for the soldiers that are assigned here for the cadets, and for the infrastructure of the gymnasium, the physical development center, that were really in horrible shape.
Give me a sense of what percentage that is of the overall budget.
What’s the overall budget of the Academy, roughly?
It’s tough to say in operations/maintenance dollars, probably 300. So we’re talking like this, you know, a range of, you know, close to 10%. And when I heard this, I went immediately, while I was in Washington, DC, to the Chief of Staff, and that was General Dennis Reimer, and said, “Sir, I understand West Point’s budget has been cut. If I can have an opportunity while I get on board to take a look at what the needs of the Academy are, and what the impact of this will be, I’d like to come back to you, and if appropriate, reclama some or all of that.” And General Reimer said, “Fine.”
When I first arrived, comfortable with the basic ethos of the Academy, worried about the Academy’s ability to sustain itself in its basic mission because of the serious budget cuts that were underway, and which frankly continued for many of the years while I was Superintendent.
Now, the answer to my reclama, fortunate during that time, I think General Reimer was very, very supportive, ultimately, and I was able to get back almost two-thirds of the roughly $25 to $30 million that was cut, and all of that went for basic infrastructure maintenance and repair for the Academy. Especially barracks, roofs, and roads and power grids and the like, that were necessary just to turn the lights on.
So did you see your tenure here as principally one of maintenance and resisting the pressure to reduce the budget and tighten the belt?
No, it really was a lot more than that. What I told the Chief was, “Look, I was last assigned to the Academy in 1973. And so, you know, we’re talking—
That’s when you were on the faculty here.
Mm-hmm, exactly. “We’re talking 23 years later. Give me a chance. I have some instincts about what needed to be done, but give me a chance to take a look, and let me come back to you after 90 days with a report of where I think the Academy is and where it needs to go.” And the bottom line of all that was to map out a strategic program that basically maintained what General Graves was doing on the fundamental values and education side.
The academic program, I think, was in great shape, but we clearly had to tweak certain areas of that, recognizing that our common enemy for half a century had disappeared. And it was also clear by ’96 that we were deploying more and more into areas to stabilize—the Balkans, for example, Iraq initially in ’91 —so we had to tweak a little bit on the academic side. Military training—we had a series of excellent Commandants, and I wasn’t worried about that. But what really did concern me, Todd, was where the Academy was going in terms of modernizing its basic physical plant.
And so what we tried to do was marry a modernization program of the Academy’s physical plant on the government funding side—which was very hard for the reason I mentioned earlier—and combine that with our bicentennial celebration that was forthcoming—2002, year after I would have left. But all of us were spinning up for that, even in ’96, to recognize some opportunities that were there.
And so we used the bicentennial celebration as the first ever capitol campaign opportunity to try to attract private funding from our alumni and friends, to add to what the government was doing on the core side, to develop ultimately what we called “the margin of excellence” that would distinguish West Point from its peers by the value that the alumni and friends were putting into various programs in the Academy’s infrastructure and academic programs that would distinguish it from the run-of-the-mill competitor giving bachelor of science degrees.
And the Center for Oral History is an example, and so is the Combatting Terrorism Center and the Center for the Rule of Law—all these various centers of excellence, as they’re known here, initiated through this venture.
That’s right. And we had never done that. The Academy had had some modest efforts before to attract private dollars for specific projects and programs. But what we did in working with the Association of Graduates while I was Superintendent was to develop this holistic, strategic capital campaign that was built around the bicentennial. Initially, the goal was to raise $150 million, but it was clear that we were having incredible success in the late ’90s in attracting dollars for the “margin of excellence.” And we raised that goal to $200 [million], and wound up raising, ultimately, over $220 million by the time the capital campaign was over.
Why had this never been done before? Why had the Academy never reached out to the alumni community? I have my own ideas about it that might be the case, but I’d like to hear if they were—if they’re true or not.
Well, in large part, it was a competitiveness argument. And it was also part of the general fiscal environment that I had described here earlier. And the best example I used at the time with our alumni was the time when West Point was expanded just prior to World War II, when you could look at the playing fields down by the Hudson River and see the projects that were built under the Roosevelt administration—Shea Track and Field Stadium, for example—a brand-new, ultra-modern, at the time, field house. Those were federal dollars in 1938 that were apportioned to the Academy—in part because of Roosevelt’s connection with the area, in part because of the recognition that we were facing a very dangerous world environment, and needed to build up our Academy.
And there was no need to raise private money for that, because when they were built—field house, track, stadium, even the barracks at the time were world-class in terms of what they represented for undergraduate facilities and opportunities for cadets to excel.
By the 1990s that had changed dramatically. We were struggling just to maintain fiscal dollars for the core program—to turn the lights on and live in a barracks that didn’t leak through hundreds of holes in the roof. And I was never going to ask the alumni to give money to turn the lights on. We called that the core program. But what I wanted to do was then add to that these additional programs, the margin of excellence that had become a competitiveness issue. Because so many other schools had developed clubs and activities, club sports, model UN debate teams that were globally competitive—that would take their students around the world.
And West Point, when we did that, was unbelievably both popular and successful, and so I wanted to continue that—to embed it in a way, ideally, to endow it with private money, to complement the core program. So it was driven in great part by competitiveness, driven as well by the reality that we couldn’t ask the federal government for money to build an indoor tennis complex or a football weight room or a press box for the stadium. We might’ve been able to do that in 1938, or, you know, say in the ’50s, when the common enemy of the Soviet Union raised the defense budget accordingly. But not in the 1990s—so the timing was such that we had to find the money.
Because the economy was certainly percolating in the 1990s—it wasn’t—and yet, it seems like it was all driven by this sort of “end-of-history” notion, right? I mean the idea in the 1990s that war was obsolete or that kind of war that we had trained for here is obsolete—that the world’s not going to engage in those kinds of affairs again. Naïve, we now know, but pervasive, I’m guessing, and therefore the notion that defense budgets don’t need to be as big as they were during the Cold War.
Right. As I say, it shrank. I just was looking at the data ‘cause I was giving a speech on this a couple of weeks ago at Princeton University. And our defense budget, as a percent of GDP, just before 9/11, was 2.9%. It was almost 5% at the time we fought Desert Storm ten years before that. And of course, it’s gone back up now, as we’ve fought Afghanistan and Iraq, between four and five.
But the fiscal budget came into surplus at the end of the Clinton administration, in great part because we had extraordinary economic growth, but also in great part because we had slashed the defense budget so dramatically, post-Cold War to pre-9/11. And that was done, as I had mentioned here earlier, on the backs of a lot of posts, camps, and stations, and programs that worried me even then, and frankly, they worry me now—the same trend.
And it worries me, Todd, because we cannot be destroying the seed corn—i.e. officer commissioning programs here—that will determine the success of future battles that we’ll fight by ensuring the proper education and training of new cadets, new ROTC graduates, new Officer Candidate School graduates as well.
Was there any resistance when you did this—that is the turning to the alumni to raise these funds? Was there any resistance on the basis that there’s a kind of privatizing of the curriculum that comes from that? Because whoever wants to write the check and says, “I’d love to see a Combating Terrorism Center,” is, in some respects, shifting the academic goals of the Academy.
Right. There was resistance, initially, Todd. I’m glad to say I think we’ve largely overcome that. But there were probably two sources of resistance—two arguments that were raised. One you just outlined, and that is that a particular donor—private individual or corporation, or even a nonprofit—would insist as a condition of the gift that we’d have to do something a particular way.
And early on, we made the decision that there were some gifts that we wouldn’t accept, either because the source was questionable, or because the conditions that were attached to it were inconsistent with the overall mission of the Academy. And I can point to two or three of those where we said, “Thanks very much for your interest, but we’ll respectfully take a pass on that.”
The other argument was this—and it was, in many respects, probably more pernicious, and continues even to this day, a bit, and it’s the following. Let’s say the total operating budget for the academy was $300 million, and we were successful in raising private funds that would allow the Superintendent and the staff to take $25 or $30 million, either annually in giving or a spin-off from an endowment, and use that $25 or $30 million to augment the basic budget.
Well, the argument from the private donors was—and again, still continues a bit—that all the federal government will do is to say, “Thank you very much, alumni of West Point, for adding $25 million to the operating budget. We will slash $25 million more from what we’re giving you.”
And so what we had to do I, the Dean, and the Commandant—the leader team at the Academy—we would meet every quarter in Washington, DC, with the Secretary and the Chief and the Director of the Army Staff or a G-level staffer who had responsibility for the school. We’d meet every quarter in Washington, DC, and I would take the Dean and Commandant with me.
And the argument we made was, “Look, I need an assured base-level funding from the Academy. We’ll come back here”—and we did—“to argue this should be the core funding from the government, to operate the Academy on a sound basis for the long-term—both yearly dollars and long-term capital investment for barracks, library, physical development center, and so on. I need that assurance, because our alumni, if they understand the government will commit itself to a long-term stable funding of the Academy, they will add to that for the “margin of excellence” that we’re not going to come to you and request—a press box, a football weight room, an indoor tennis center, and so on—or endowment for—[Crosstalk] will not do that, because the alumni are willing to do it, provided they have the assurance that their money to the Academy will not be subtractive of what the federal government provides.” And that’s the argument we still, the Academy still has to make, both with the government and with our alumni.
I mean this is before—you left before 9/11, right?
You’re in a period of great flux, 1996 to 2001.
Yeah. And we did not know who our next enemy was going to be, really. I mean I remember a lot of arguments during the time that, you know, the Bosnian experience will be—sort of the humanitarian war will become the next—
Focus of American foreign policy.
But we also had the beginnings of cyber-warfare as a topic. We had the beginnings of germ—continuing of germ warfare and issues associated with new technological and biomedical issues. During your time when you were here, academically, was there concern about the vagaries of the future vision? I mean the end of communism had come upon us very suddenly, really, in historical perspective, and I don’t think anyone as recently as the latter years of the Reagan administration would’ve anticipated that the whole thing would collapse the way that it did by 1989.
And yet, it did. And all that energy and brainpower, as well as hardware, that was dedicated to fighting the Russians— the Fulda Gap war with the nuclear program, whatever it was going to be— suddenly was in the history books. What kind of flux was there here in terms of understanding what the future was going to bring?
Well, that refers spot-on to this point I was making earlier about the need to tweak the academic program. The academic program continues—it was solid when I arrived. It continues to be that today. But it was also very clear that the training of junior officers for a very different environment, particularly overseas engagement in areas where instability characterized the operating environment, required some adjustments to what we were doing here. One of those was language, a second was world cultures, and a third was an understanding of world religions.
The reason I say that is that by the end of the decade of the ’90s, we, the Army, had had extensive experience in the Balkans, the Dayton peace process leading to NATO’s intervention in stability operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and then after that, shortly after that, the Kosovo operation—again, as with Bosnia, predominately Muslim—in Kosovo, predominately Muslim. Post-Kuwait, Kuwait rescue and Operation Desert Storm—stationing and operating alongside predominately Muslim armies in combat formations.
So it was very clear to many of us who had experiences in that region, in the Balkans, particularly in Desert Storm, that we needed to ensure the cadets had sufficient understanding of the global environment in which we were operating, particularly religion and cultural histories and language. And so we worked hard, not as successfully as we would’ve achieved, as we would’ve hoped, because at the same time, we had to balance areas like that against reaccreditation requirements, the DAC and AR reaccreditation requirements, for a Bachelor of Science degree.
And we had already bumped off almost to the limits of the number of credit hours that we were granting in the non-math/science/engineering at the time we began to look at this.
And so we did offer additional opportunities to specialize in foreign languages—introduced a broader global culture perspective in history, and then I brought in the Imam from Newburgh for a religious diversity seminar. And used other opportunities like that to introduce Buddhism—we had a Buddhist Priest here along with the Imam, our own Catholic Priest and Rabbi assigned here were part of an effort on my part and by the leadership team’s part at the time to ensure cadets understood the incredible diversity of the global environment in which they were likely to operate.
Secretary Gates just gave his farewell speech here at West Point, what, two-and-a-half months ago, and Gates said from the time he first began to be exposed to national security studies in the Ford administration—the Mayaguez incident in the Gulf of Thailand to 9/11—Gates said, “You know, we have an absolutely perfect record of anticipating the next conflict. And that record is we’ve gotten it wrong every single time.”
And it was pretty clear by the end of the ’90s, we couldn’t forecast where the next involvement would be. I mean as it turns out, how prescient it would’ve been to have looked at some of the indicators of al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism in forecasting—[Crosstalk]
You were in the right neighborhood, then.
In the right neighborhood, yes.
I mean you may not have predicted the actual events or the nature of them—
But it strikes me as prescient that you would’ve anticipated particularly the Muslim, and brought down the Imam from Newburgh, which—but there must’ve been a lot of head-scratching during that time here.
And I imagine there was a substantial contingent that said, “Well, I don’t think Russia’s disappeared yet. Reformation could happen as quickly as it deformed, and therefore we’re wrong to abandon conventional thinking.”
Right. Yeah, how do you, as an Army—I think the Army and the Marine Corps have the most difficult challenge, looking 10, 15, 20 years ahead, because they’ve got current conflicts that require boots on the ground, but they also have to intelligently hedge against the emergence of a peer competitor.
And further, you’ve still got North Korea there, you’ve got Iran there, and you’ve got, Todd, precisely what you mentioned, and that is what’s the Russian Federation view about its own near-abroad—about its Ukraine and Georgia and Moldova and the Baltics? And, you know, sadly, as we saw, what, two, two-and-a-half years ago now, in the Republic, former Soviet Republic of Georgia, now the Independent Republic of Georgia, that wistful longing for a restoration of the old Russian Empire has not disappeared.
Where were you on 9/11?
In lower Manhattan, watching the south tower collapse.
Really. Where precisely, then, in lower Manhattan?
Just south of Washington Square—in fact, I was just there, actually, yesterday. I had joined a corporate board called Ultralife—Ultralife Batteries, originally—now Ultralife, a maker of lithium batteries—
That would’ve been immediately after your time here.
Yep. I joined the board in August of 2001, and our first meeting was 9/11 in New York City. And in fact, as I’ve learned subsequently, we had narrowed the sites down to one of three— one of those was Windows on the World. And we decided at the last moment not to have it there because the price was too expensive, so—
Windows on the World being the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center.
At the top of the World Trade Center. And so we, instead, decided to have it at a building at NYU’s campus, because one of the board members was a professor at the Stern School there. And so I got on the subway, the Lexington Avenue line, after having breakfast with her, and then headed down on the 4/5 line, on the Lexington Avenue line, down to Lower Manhattan, and—
From where—you were where for that breakfast?
We had breakfast just north of Grand Central.
So you’d gone on the IRT, Grand Central-42nd Street, and you took the—
I took the 4/5 down to—the stop was just above Canal, as I remember, and we got off of the subway, and we were walking up the stairs, and the first thing that hit me—because the building’s masked the Trade Center, the first thing that hit me was the billowing smoke that was blowing over the top of us. And I leaned over to—her name was Tosh Barron, the member of the board of directors—and I said, “Boy, Tosh, someone here in New York’s going to get their ass in a hopper, because they’re violating air pollution regs.” It was just thick, acrid smoke that was blowing over the top of the subway. And we walked one block, turned to the left, and at that point, both towers had been hit.
You didn’t see it be hit, though.
No, it happened while we were on the subway.
But while you were in the subway, the second tower had been hit.
Right. And we were closest—the one that was most visible was the south tower, which was the first one to come down. And so she went in—it was very clear that this board meeting was not going to be held, so I stayed outside. There was a crowd had gathered around a cab driver who had his radio on, and we were watching this as the flames burnt successive lower layers of the tower—of the towers. And of course, the radio then had on the reports of the attack in Washington, DC, and there were these other reports about, you know, bombings—that if you remember at the time, bombings reported by the reflecting pool there in Washington, DC, which were, of course, erroneous, but the Pentagon report was not.
And I’ll never forget this, Todd—the most dramatic thing to me was the watching the South Tower burn, and then maybe 30 seconds before it collapsed, there was this river of molten metal that cascaded down the north-facing side of the South Tower.
And I turned to this cab driver or the person next to me—I can’t even recall who it was—and I said, “My God, you know, this reminds me of Yosemite Falls in flame.” That’s exactly what it looked like.
As it turns out, it was the molten wing and fuselage of the airliner that had gotten, at that point, so hot that all the metal had fallen off the side, as the building was just beginning to tilt. And the next thing was to see the floors explode to the side, and it settled symmetrically. But at that point, we just said, “We can’t stay here.” It was clear the North Tower was going to come down shortly as well, so this woman, the member of the board, flashed $100 to the nearest van, and it was a fruit and vegetable delivery van that had just dropped off some food.
Almost the entire board of directors piled in this smelly vegetable van, and we drove north to 78th, which is where she lived, and several board members stayed there that night while we tried to get out of the city. So that was where I was on 9/11.
How helpless you must have felt after being here in a position of significance in the national security structure and spent a career in the Army in the national security business, and there you were, riding in a vegetable van from a scene that was an attack, a domestic attack on American home soil.
I know. Lots of images went through your mind at the time. The one thing that was very clear, though, was that we were going to be investing, again, our young men and women’s lives, the treasure, in military operations at some point. I mean you were correct, Todd—we had generally forecasted the part of the world and the culture that we were going to be investing this treasure in—not precisely the nature of the new enemy.
But that’s the first thing, you know, to think about what all this meant for the young people. And in fact, shortly thereafter, I was contacted by CNN to be a military correspondent, a military analyst, for them at CNN International in Atlanta. And as we were gearing up, both for the Afghan operation and then subsequently for the Iraqi mission, that same feeling emerged.
I just felt— I really felt, I must be candid, sick to my stomach, because I knew the nation had committed itself. Regardless of what one thinks politically about the necessity to do what we did, it was going to happen. And just to know what all of us from the [the] Vietnam [War] era had gone through as young officers, leaving young wives or leaving parents to go off as lieutenants or captains—all that came really roaring back when I began to contemplate what all this meant in late ’01, ’02, and early ’03.
On that day, did you immediately have a sense of who the enemy was, or did you know?
No, I really didn’t. You know, it’s a—I guess it’s a shame on us, because we were vaguely familiar with al-Qaeda, because of the earlier attempts to attack the Trade Center, earlier in the decade, earlier in the—
1993, I guess.
Correct. And the activities in Dar es Salaam, in Nairobi, and the Cole—exactly. What that movement represented and what its leadership—Mullah Omar on the Taliban side, and of course, Osama bin Laden on the al-Qaeda side—that was only dimly appreciated. It quickly became apparent, but only dimly appreciated at that point.
One of the startling things, I would imagine, for someone with a career in national security and the greatest power in history, had to also be—they did it with box cutters and, you know, it was primitive. And they took out an enormous number of people, and the soul of the country, for a period, I mean was really— the sense of—again, back to the sense of impotence.
I mean with all the size of the American defense budget, and here we have something like this happen. It had to be a terrible shock.
It was. It was. I had had enough experience on the intelligence community throughout my career in the Pentagon and Washington, with the CIA, with DIA. We used their data all the time, were briefed by them, and in turn, briefed them, throughout my 36 years —especially in the last 15 years with that. And what really both surprised me, then ultimately angered me, as you read more and more about how this happened, was the stove-piping—almost the hardened, perpetual stove-piping between DIA, CIA, FBI, NSA — the various elements of this intelligence tapestry—that missed some obvious signals.
Certain elements didn’t miss it, but the ability of the institution of the intelligence community to, as they say so often, to connect the dots, to tie this together, to coordinate in interagency cells, was sadly, sadly lacking. I’d like to think that the intelligence reorganization that’s put all of these at least nominally under the direction of an office of the director of national intelligence—ODNI—has gone a way towards solving much of that. But I still worry.
And this is an historical problem, not only with intelligence, but with the services, too. I mean that’s why we created the joint command, was because the inter-service rivalries and the unwillingness to share information led to, not only inefficiencies, but to, you know, corrupting various ventures, because they were not on the same page.
Right. And that’s exactly right, Todd, and it’s not just on the pure intelligence side as well, but as you were suggesting, it also spills over into the ability to execute operations based upon intelligence on the uniform military side. The special operations command had been created 15-20 years before that, but they suffered a great deal from a lack of synthesis on the intelligence data that was given to them. And still, from some bureaucratic infighting that, hopefully, as we saw in the raid that captured and killed Osama bin Laden, has been largely overcome as well. That was a milestone in reflecting on what’s happened, both to the ability to fuse intelligence and to work on the ground with special operations command that’s truly joint, between the SEALS, Delta, Army Rangers, and so on. It’s a far cry from Desert One in Iran that was such a disaster—
That would be in the Carter administration—
Attempt to rescue—
Attempt to rescue the hostages.
Hostages in Tehran—exactly.
Let’s go to that, that raid, for a moment. I mean when—so this happens in 2001, and you’re now out of the service, but you’re watching it, and you’re involved as an analyst. You’re involved eventually as an advisor to Senator Clinton—your sense that how we should’ve responded to al-Qaeda in its various models. You could examine the crime model, in which you go after the one that did it, or should we try to prevent the next attack by sort of preemptive war, as the Bush administration undertook. Where did you fall on that argument?
Well, I remember one of my first appearances on Wolf Blitzer’s show—
That would be the CNN—
The CNN Wolf Blitzer, typically on Sunday morning. There was a period there where almost every weekend Wolf would have a panel, and I’d be asked to comment. And there was one episode in particular, in the fall of ’02, winter ’02-’03, when a lot of us were wondering why are all the Rangers being pulled out of [the] Afghanistan [War]? We had sent elements of the 75th Ranger Regiment there, and obviously, elements of the more covert actors in the special operations command, to capture or kill elements of the al-Qaeda and—
The sort of high-value targets.
Mm-hmm, Afghan Taliban leadership. And a lot of us were wondering— and this was before it was obvious that we were going into Iraq—why the diversion of assets here, because, surely, the job isn’t over in Afghanistan.
And then it became quickly apparent that, well, as a result of the efforts that we saw in the UN with Secretary Powell and so on, that we were after an additional target here in Baghdad. And I kept worrying, at the time, about the bandwidth of our Armed Forces’ ability—not necessarily with numbers of boots on the ground. But all of us understood, there were precious few intelligence assets that were necessary— especially special ops folks—to go after the targets that we knew had been responsible for the long-term planning and execution of the attack on the United States.
And so why are we doing this now in Iraq? And I think a lot of the Army felt worried about that decision for much the same reason—that we have a mission here in Afghanistan to go after a group that was responsible for an attack on our homeland, for the death of 3,000 in New York City, and that had clearly a long-term plan to take this battle to the US and to our national assets. And so that’s, obviously, the debate that continues even to this day, as the Iraq venture continues to wind down.
And the answer to that, of course, was that the Bush administration started to adopt the language that the fight against terrorism is not against one man or one organization, and instead thought of it as sort of the defanging of the entire network that might be in support, and therefore to provide money and safe harbor to terrorism.
Your feelings at the time was that this was unrealistic, idealistic?
I think a lot of us were skeptical, you know, on two counts, really. One, the weapons of mass destruction path upon which Saddam had, you know, allegedly—
You were skeptical that he had actually pursued that path, you mean?
A lot of us who were veterans of the planning for Desert Storm were aware that he had chemical weapons. In fact, as we were planning that mission in the fall of 1990, I’ll never forget sitting with the Chief of Staff of the Army and the other members of—this was General Carl Vuono, at the time—and the Vice Chief, General Gordon Sullivan, and the DesOps of the Army, Danny Reimer, who became the Chief, subsequently—all trying not only to support Norman Schwarzkopf with the assets on the Army staff, but also trying to hypothesize various casualty estimates for alternative game plans.
And the big uncertainty was does Saddam use his chemical weapons, yes or no? We knew he had them, and if he felt his regime was threatened, you know—either just to expel his forces from Kuwait—or felt threatened the deeper we went into southern Iraq, at the time, was he going to employ chemical weapons on our forces?
And it was an order of magnitude or two in terms of the casualty estimates as a result. So that informs some of our debate ten years later, in terms of the WMD piece. But I think that the nuclear link was far more tenuous. What was even more tenuous than that, as it turns out, was the al-Qaeda link to Saddam.
There were reports of meetings in Prague, in the Czech Republic, which turned out, apparently, to have been ephemeral at best. So the rationale there was tenuous, but the other argument—which is interesting in light of what’s happening right now, on June 6, 2011—is the democratization argument. And that is here was a brutish, nasty dictator with a family that was wreaking havoc on a proud and historically rich nation, and wouldn’t it be a turn of events for that region if somehow the precepts of representative democracy could be engrained? I’m not saying those of us in the Army felt this was an easy path, but we did understand that that was part of the argument that was being perpetrated at the time.
Although that was the sub-argument. The problem with—I’ll editorialize a little bit here—but the problem with the Bush administration’s approach to the war is they sold it on weapons of mass destruction, when the far more legitimate argument was the planting of the seed for democracy. But I think they didn’t believe that they could sell it on that basis.
But now we may be seeing—is what you’re arguing—we may be seeing—may be, we’re not sure—may be seeing the flower of that, not just in Iraq, but in terms of the Arab Spring and what’s happening.
That’s just where I was going, yeah.
Tell me more about that.
I was with the Iraq ambassador late last week—Ambassador Sumaida’ie —who is a very, very accomplished international diplomat. And I was there, actually, meeting Secretary Clinton, with about 35 or 40 other members of the private sector, to encourage—she wanted to encourage the private sector to get suits on the ground, not boots on the ground. Which I thought she’s exactly right—American private sector remains, still, unbelievably timid about going in, in comparison to Korea, Japan, and the European Union. But nevertheless, that was the purpose.
So I was talking to Ambassador Sumaida’ie, before the meeting with Secretary Clinton at the State Department, and I said, “Ambassador, in light of all that’s going on in the Middle East right now, from the Maghreb, from Morocco to the Gulf, Persian Gulf, Iraq is emerging through all of this as a…”—and I paused for a second, ’cause I couldn’t quite think of the word. And Sumaida’ie said, “You mean a beacon?” And I said, “You know, Mr. Ambassador, that’s a fascinating term,” because in many respects, the Arab Spring, the outcome of the Arab Spring, is highly problematic.
But of all the democracies that have begun to flower, if I can continue with the analogy for a second, Iraq, at this point, in terms of the roots of democracy that are emerging, may well be the most promising. And I often use this expression—I don’t know how apocryphal it is—but I had this opportunity to work for Henry Kissinger when I was an Army captain/junior major. And it was fresh after his success in the opening to China in ’72—I joined the Clinton—I joined the Kissinger staff in the summer of 1974.
And this apocryphal, perhaps, story was told about Kissinger’s first meeting with Chinese Premiere Zhou Enlai, who was a student of history. And Kissinger was looking for a conversational opening, so he said, allegedly, to Zhou Enlai, “Well, Mr. Premier, I know you’re a student of revolutions. What do you think is the significance of the French Revolution?” And Zhou Enlai allegedly said, “Dr. Kissinger, it’s too early to tell.”
And I’ve often wondered, and particularly in listening to Sumaida’ie and meeting the Iraqi ministers, whom I’ve met prolifically with here over the last two years, whether it may still be too early to assign Iraq, there, to some dustbin—particularly in light of what’s happening in Iraq right now to stabilize a form of democracy.
And it’s equally too early to raise it up and say it is the beacon, because we may discover that the Arab Spring turns the Arab neighborhood into chaos.
It may be that without that supporting structure that the US provided to Iraq to help build its democracy, that the rest of these Arab states are going to be finding themselves in a kind of revolution—a civil war kind of atmosphere.
Well, that’s right. In fact, I’m fond of quoting from Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, who wrote his novel, his historical novel, loosely based on the revolutions of 1831 and 1848. And there was this line from the musical drawn from the book that said, “We sang and dreamed about tomorrow, but tomorrow never came.” And that may well be exactly what happens for the Arab Spring. And I think—the argument I’ve tried to make in my current job with the US Chamber of Commerce is the test case in that region for transitioning to a form of stable Arab democracy is Egypt.
Is Egypt—it’s been the cultural center of the region for generations, and it has a civil society that gives one some hope, but it needs jobs. It needs investment, it needs trade with the US, and it needs some aid, and sadly, our own government right now is hardly in a position to offer the kind of fiscal support, or, because of deeply divided internal politics, trade support.
Where were you when the bin Laden raid news came out?
In North Carolina with my wife. We heard the announcement at about 10:15. We had just finished watching, what, I guess the NHL playoffs—the Caps had just gone down to defeat, and frankly, we were ready on Sunday night just to turn in. And the announcement came, “The President’s going to speak at 10:30”—on Sunday night? So we waited and waited until the announcement came, and—
Were you surprised that that was the announcement?
Well, I was pleasantly surprised that it happened. Once it was clear, though, the President was going to be talking to the nation on a Sunday night, first two things in my mind were A) Muammar Gaddafi has been killed, or B) that we got Osama. And then the more we understand about the nature of the operation, the more, frankly, exciting and positive it became.
Did you think, at that point, having how many years passed—all of nine years had passed, I guess—that that was ever going to happen? Taking yourself absent from that night, I mean—
No. No, I thought, frankly, that he would pass from the Earth in some way, and his spirit, the sort of inspirational leadership that he provided to that brand of extreme Islam, would continue to live on, and that we would never know what happened to him. You know, all of us anticipated that he was stuck someplace in a cave in North Waziristan, not living in, you know, right outside Pakistan’s West Point.
And what are your reflections on how the raid was carried out, and the disposal of the body, and all that?
I think professional and appropriate. Those that argue about the disposal of the body need to offer an alternative besides that that would have been any better in terms of the perceptions to global Islam or to the larger public. I think it was held—that it was conducted superbly.
Sure. I think it’s going to come out at some point, almost for sure. I can’t imagine, just given the nature of modern technology, that that’s going to stay hidden forever. I think the decision was correct, especially at that period where emotions were so inflamed in the Arab world, I think one needs—this is why, I’m sure, Obama did this—to listen to on-scene commanders—Gates, Petraeus, and so on—that understood what that would do to American lives in the region if that were published.
The real issue—I don’t think is that at all—the real issue is what’s this mean to US-Pakistan relations. And I think that’s the most significant national security dilemma that we face right now.
Let’s go back to your personal history—to your class of 1965—
At West Point, which means you’re commissioned not at the height of the Vietnam War, but it’s starting—Vietnam is in the conversation, certainly.
More than in the conversation— it’s on the front pages. Gulf of Tonkin had already happened, right?
And you would’ve entered the Academy, that means, in ’60—
’61. So you arrived at the height of the Kennedy years—the enthusiasm, the prosperity of the “bear any burden” notion of the inaugural speech. And yet the world was, more or less, at peace, except—I guess you were here for the Cuban Missile Crisis, too.
And you were here for the Kennedy assassination, too.
Let’s actually begin by walking through those events and how you felt as a cadet here about what part you might take in—how those events might affect your own personal history.
When I first arrived, at least in my case, and I suspect most of the class of ’65 felt the same way, we were just overwhelmed by the demands of Plebe year—especially that first summer, Beast Barracks. And it was a matter of survival—sort of, you know, the whole indoctrination into the military, leaving home, starting college—thank God I had gone to an excellent high school that had prepared me superbly in calculus, so the academic piece was not an issue for me.
But the culturalization process into the military sure was. And we didn’t have much of a chance during that period, really, to contemplate in the summer, fall, even the winter of ’61-’62, much that was happening outside the confines of the Academy.
Let’s pause there for a second, because I have a sense that you were disappointed in the sort of culturalization aspect here.
I was. I was. I had grown up as—obviously, I still feel this way—as a great admirer of the Academy and the products that the Academy had produced for America and for leadership in the military and elsewhere. But the thing that really struck me was some of the sophomoric antics that the leadership cadre, when I was a Plebe, exhibited to those of us who were first introduced to West Point as Plebes.
And that stayed with me, actually, all through my career—still does—and affected, in many respects, what I tried to do as Superintendent, and that’s to make sure that the culturalization process, the introduction to the military, at West Point was tough and demanding and psychologically stressful, but that it wasn’t demeaning—that tough and demanding didn’t equal demeaning.
I’d like to think that was my expression. Actually, that expression was used by General John Abizaid, then-Brigadier General John Abizaid, who was the Commandant of Cadets during my second and third year as Superintendent—tremendous officer.
So this must have been the father of John Abizaid who served in Iraq, or was he—
Nope. No, this is John Abizaid, himself.
I’m sorry, my mistake—okay, no, I get it.
Yeah. No, that’s all right. He was the one—
You said the Commandant. He was not—he was the—
Yeah. He was a one-star at the time. John is class of ’73, and had come to the Academy fresh from assistant division command—
I’m getting confused—you mean during the time when you were Superintendent.
That affected my time as Superintendent, because I did not want to have—and I must admit, I was probably only modestly successful here—have the new Plebes introduced to treatment like this, treatment that they would never expect to exhibit as officers in front of junior enlisted soldiers.
But yet, somehow, when I came here in the summer of ’61 with my class, I saw some behavior from the upper class that was just really sophomoric.
I guess my question comes—you know that then. You knew that in ’61. But it’s still going on by the time you came back here as Superintendent.
Some of it was, yeah. We had some whacky things in ’61—shower formations, a lot of yelling and screaming, and sweating pennies to a wall, and you know—I mean it was just—it bore no relationship, in my mind, to leadership development.
And what was surprising was, in the middle of all this, this harassment, unnecessary harassment, were floating officers. Captains and majors, who were the tactical officers at the time, in ’61—they were observing this. Most of them were Korean [War] combat veterans. Why weren’t they asking themselves, “What relationship does this have to training a junior officer for the Army of a democracy?”
So anyway, that was the summer of ’61, you know, and I was thinking about survival as a Plebe. Not much, at that point, about—
And you were bringing a critique of what you were seeing, though, which is—
Yeah. Well, that’s right. I never really had an inclination to resign or even consider resigning—
That was my next question, yeah—you never thought about leaving during that time?
No, I never did. I said, “Look, I’m going to give this first year a crack, and you know, assuming, you know, I don’t fail in something while I’m here.”
Any of your time here, did you ever think that, “this is not for me?”
No. I got through that first year, things change magically when you become an upperclassman. I’d like to think that it affected, in a positive way, how I dealt with Plebes when I became a junior, a Cow, and subsequently a Firstie, but no, I never really thought about resigning.
And frankly, once the academic year began, most of the upper class were muscling their way through calculus and English and physics and everything else, and I found those not particularly challenging. And so, you know, you have a little time to think for yourself.
The most important thing, though—and I sort of reminisced about this a bit when I was Superintendent—was a period of about 75 days in the spring of my Plebe year—spring of ’62 —when I was the section marcher for the first section of English. And into my class comes William Faulkner for his visit to the school and his discussion with our class about his new novel, The Reavers.
About two weeks later, Douglas MacArthur comes, and I’m sitting as a Plebe in the mess hall, and he gives his “Duty, Honor, Country” address, May 12, 1962. And then about three weeks later, John Kennedy comes and gives the graduation address for the class of ’62. And, you know, as a Plebe, that was—
Pretty heavy stuff.
It was pretty heavy stuff. And I said to myself—probably still a little worried about am I going to get through Plebe year—but I said, “Boy, an institution that’s able to attract visitors like that to give you the sense of identification with them while you’re a student.” And hopefully, you know, if you’re successful enough to follow in the footsteps of some of these people, and “I’d like to consider making a commitment, both to the school and to the profession afterwards.”
So then, you know, that was the first year—the Cuban Missile Crisis took place in the fall of ’62, when I was a sophomore, and that was worrisome as hell. People forget how very, very dangerous the situation was then. We were briefed, I remember, in one of our clubs, in the barracks, by tactical officers about what was happening then, and said, “Look, you just need to be prepared here for some movement on your part, either to a safe area or whatever, if it worsens.”
And then the Kennedy assassination, I was a junior then, and we were getting ready for the Army-Navy game. He had come, Kennedy had come to the Army-Navy game that fall, in the fall of ’62, and we were anticipating he was going to come in the fall of ’63 to Philly. And when he was killed, they postponed the game— didn’t cancel it, they postponed it. We stayed at the Academy, watched—I can remember seeing live on television, Jack Ruby killing Lee Harvey Oswald in that grainy, black-and-white picture that passed for TV back in ’63.
But the game was held the following week, and it was with an enormous heavy heart, because we liked Kennedy a lot. Politics wasn’t important. The fact that he loved the Army—[Attorney General] Bobby [Kennedy] would come there frequently to see us train. He and Jack, brother Jack, were big supporters of the Green Berets and Special Forces, and we were doing things in training that were clearly designed—small unit warfare, irregular warfare, patrolling—that were designed for a very different future —i.e. Vietnam—than we anticipated when I applied for the Academy in ’60, ’61, you know, when the big issue then was holding the Soviets, you know, east of Fulda.
These days one might detect among the more conservative members of the Corps of Cadets that the Democratic Party is not their friend, and that they’re soft on defense. But that wasn’t the case back then, by any means, right? I mean Kennedy was a World War II veteran himself. The notion of both parties was that we were united on a defense posture. Can you speak to that just a little bit?
Yeah, it’s interesting you say that. We had a West Point grad, class of ’15, Dwight Eisenhower, as our President for almost the entire time that I was maturing into political awareness. But if one recalls, the senior Army leadership wasn’t terribly wild about Eisenhower’s “New Look” policy, because the service that really suffered from that was the Army. Eisenhower was focused almost entirely on the Strategic Air Command [SAC], Air Force, massive retaliation.
In fact, several of the Army Chiefs of Staff, to include Maxwell Taylor, wrote in Taylor’s book, The Uncertain Trumpet, very critically about the defense policy under a Republican President who was, of all things, an Academy grad.
So that change in emphasis, then, in the early ’60s had two dimensions to it. One was this incredibly attractive, young, different generation Commander-in-Chief, who, second, had made it clear by the nature of the advisors he was bringing around him—to include Maxwell Taylor, former Superintendent at West Point—that the Army was going to receive a very different budget priority and nature of emphasis than was the case during the Eisenhower “New Look” period.
Ironically, one of the things I’ve heard said, ironically, is that Eisenhower is his own Secretary of Defense, and he knew where the skeletons were in the Army, and no one was going to fool him. So he looked, actually, more cynically upon the Army than a President who didn’t serve in the same capacity. So you were a fan of Kennedy.
I was. Mm-hmm, I was.
And so this news of the assassination must’ve struck you hard.
Oh, devastating. I had come from the mess hall, November of 1963, and was studying for—just reviewing some notes—’cause I had the first hour free after lunch—for our law class, second hour in the afternoon. And I was in company L2 at the time, and as I was listening to the radio, I heard some radio announcements, and went out in the hall and saw this—again, I was a junior—saw this Firstie who was in tears in the hall.
And I still remember his name—that’s not important for this—but I said, “Jeff, is everything okay?” And tears streaming down his cheeks, he said, “Listen to this,” and here was the announcement about the Kennedy shooting. And I can’t recall at that point whether Cronkite had come in and made the announcement that he had passed, but it was a very, very dramatic moment. And I remember going to law class in the afternoon—normally, there’s a lot of banter and chatter in the cadet areas as you’re heading off after a class break. It was just as silent as a tomb as we were heading off to class, and, you know, it was really an emotional moment for the entire corps.
Did you sense that—’cause this would’ve been a unique perspective, it strikes me, on the assassination here. Not only had you lost a President, you lost a Commander-in-Chief, too.
Was that part of the sense of grief here—was the loss of not just a political leader, but your commander?
Right. By the same token, though, I think all of us understood that there is a system in place to replace the Commander-in-Chief. Obviously, Johnson raised his hand on Air Force One and assumed that responsibility.
I think it was much more visceral—it was much more emotional on the level of feeling that we had. This very, very dramatic, young, attractive, talented President, who was very quickly taken from us, after, you know, 1,000 days.
You talked a little bit about the shift—which strikes me as somewhat mirroring what we discussed earlier—from the Eisenhower years, in terms of massive retaliation, and the Kennedy years, when there was a new understanding of the possibility of unconventional warfare—the rise of these sort of proxy wars. And which was prefiguring Vietnam, but we already—Algeria [the Algerian War] was going on at the time, I guess, and the notion of unconventional warfare was starting to enter the doctrine, I assume.
Did you find that that was part of the conversation here at the Academy in terms of preparing you for what was going to happen in the later ’60s?
It was. But it’s interesting—it was in the context, still, of a view on the nature of the threat, which was global communism, and that particular phrase tended to be attached to so much of what we were about. We would understand, we’d look a little bit at the British experience in Malaysia [the Malaysian Emergency], but it was all understood there, well, there was a communist element to that. Laos was beginning to bubble over, and the Pathet Lao were attached somehow to a larger communist movement. The most dramatic, of course, was just off our shores, 90 miles away, with Cuba. See, here’s yet one more effort on the part of the global communist hegemon to affect US security policy.
It was like a domino theory, essentially.
Well, it was. It was. I got to know, while I was Superintendent, David Halberstam—actually, quite well—and had him sign for me his 1972 book, The Best and the Brightest –which I constantly refer to now, because I’m still amazed that in that period, as much as we admired Kennedy, the group that surrounded him, that set the policy for defense and security and foreign policy in the period while I was a cadet, was still absolutely beholden to this notion that there was this growing global hegemon called, you know, the international communist movement that affected so much of our intellectual thinking.
I remember, I was just reviewing the other day—I applied for a Rhodes scholarship. Did not win it, but went to the final interview in Chicago, where the Rhodes candidates were selected. And I remember reading this portion on communism and the threat that it posed to our military. And there was an expression in there that I had used that our way of life is threatened by an atheistic totalitarian society that threatens to impose its will and way upon us—a phrase much like that.
And I remember being asked a lot of questions in Chicago by the panel about that particular phrase, like, “What’s wrong with being an atheist? What’s the nature of this communist conspiracy here?” And you read the contemporary history about what guided policymakers in the early ’60s, and there were really—and this is Halberstam’s thesis, in large part—there were really two elements that I didn’t appreciate as a young student.
One was, “Who lost China,” and that’s where the Democrats still have this enormous challenge. Nobody wanted to ever be accused of losing another critical ally as Nationalist China was viewed during the war.
And second, Joe McCarthy. And the combination of those two—McCarthy finally disappeared from the scene around ’54 or so—but by the time I was a cadet, that was about six or seven years before. And the impact which those two events had on the general context of thinking about security policy, strategy, and who the new threat might be and how we fought it was very much in evidence.
It’s interesting, ’cause both of them were reactions to the intellectual input into American policy. Acheson was accused of having lost China. He was certainly symbolic of the Ivy League kind of arrogance, right? And then McCarthy was a populist movement against the pointy-head intellectuals also, so there was a defensiveness, even though you had—you’re referring here to Robert McNamara as the Secretary of Defense, I guess. Bundy, the whole crew around Kennedy, which were certainly brilliant, but in their own way, were reacting to something rather than initiating.
Right. And those that raised their nose or head above the parapet—Averell Harriman, George Ball, you know—and said, “Are we sure about this here,” were very quickly marginalized.
Yeah. So you’re commissioned in the spring of ’65, then, and you go where first?
Well, there was an option then, if you finished in the top 5% of your class you could choose where you wanted to go. You could go to grad school—
And you were number one for your class of ’65.
You could go to school right away, or you could go out in the Army and we’ll do our best—we, the Army—based upon where you finished, to give you your post and unit of choice. Well, I had enough of college at that point, and I said, “Look, I want to give the Army a fair chance.” So I said—
And you had branched engineer.
Engineer. So I said, “I’d like to go to Korea.” You know, I’d heard wonderful things about the combat engineer experience there, and so my first assignment after Airborne and Ranger School at [Fort] Benning in the summer of ’65 was to head off to South Korea and to be assigned to A Company, 2nd Engineer Battalion, just by the Demilitarized Zone, near Panmunjom, from roughly December ’65 to January ’67.
And then—you heard about Vietnam from there, obviously.
And that—did you sort of yearn to go to the hot spot, I guess?
Well, I did. Again, I knew that’s where the bulk of my classmates were heading. By the spring of ’67 when I came back to grad school, I applied almost as soon as I got to Korea to the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and heard that I’d gotten in about a year later, so we’re talking now winter-spring of ’67.
And I had a choice then—I mean do I turn this down and head right to Vietnam, or do I get the graduate degrees—it was a combination of engineering and public affairs program at the Woodrow Wilson School. And I said, “Well, look, I’m here now, I’m back—let’s get the graduate degrees out, ’cause my sensing is that it’s probably—this war is not going to go away anytime soon.” So I spent two years at Princeton to get the advanced degrees and then went to 101st Airborne in the summer of ’69.
So 101st Airborne is your first real combat experience—talk to me about that. How did it match your vision of what combat was going to be like, and how did it depart from it?
I felt pretty prepared, actually. There was one aspect, which I’ll just talk about in a moment, but just in terms of leading and managing a company in combat, I felt, actually, not only prepared because of West Point—
You were a company commander there.
Yeah, I was thrown right into command B Company, 326 Engineers that was assigned to the 3rd Brigade of the 101st. At that point, was operating in what was called the A Shau Valley, which was one of the infiltration routes in northwestern South Vietnam, bordering on the Laotian border on the west, and the DMZ on the north.
You’re about 25 now.
I’m 26. So I had had a company in Korea, at the end of my time there they—because of the investment the government was putting into South Vietnam, they took a lot of the junior officers, the captains, out of Korea to fill the units. And so, essentially, there were second and first lieutenants left in most of these battalions in South Korea, and I wound up for six months commanding a company—which was fantastic.
To be comfortable that I could do that, dealing with the NCOs, discipline, and of course, the combat engineer training that we had a responsibility for even then, which was mostly minefields and clearing booby traps, which today, you know, we call IEDs.
Yeah. I was there, actually, just at a very important transition. Nixon had started the Vietnamization program—we still had over 500,000 in South Vietnam.
We started doing that in South Korea, and that was, in great part, what we did during my time in South Vietnam. So I started that in the summer of ’69 when I got there in August and commanded the company until the following January.
Give us a history lesson for 1969 in Vietnam. Where’s the war at this point?
And describe for the viewers the Vietnamization program was the—
A plan to eventually turn the combat operations over to the South Vietnamese military—the ARVN—the Army of the Republic of Vietnam—by investing in their equipment and training, sending advisors to develop their officers and NCOs, and, then, increasingly to conduct joint operations with them.
This is what he referred to as his secret plan for Vietnam in their campaign of the year before, right?
Right. Now, when my time—almost my entire time with the 101st, we did not work with the South Vietnamese, that was a different organization, a different part of our military in South Vietnam at the time. Our unit, 101st, was organic, operated alone, part of the corps that we were assigned to in northern South Vietnam, but the first part of the mission there was really main force search-and-destroy operations, where the 101st Airborne was operating in this section, as I mentioned, called the A Shau Valley, that had been a major infiltration route.
And we were going after North Vietnamese, principally—North Vietnamese units that continued to work just across the border in Laos, but that would make incursions into—
So this is North Vietnamese Army as opposed to the insurgent elements in South Vietnam, right?
Yeah, and that’s why I say I was sort of there at a very important shift, because by the late summer of ’69, we had been able—the US Army had been able to push out a lot of the North Vietnamese main force units in these areas that were deemed important to us. But because of the Vietnamization program and the draw-down, we couldn’t hold the area. So we were in the A Shau Valley for probably two-and-a-half months, and my company there had responsibility for supporting the Infantry units. We’d go out with them on the search-and-destroy missions, and either collect and demolish the booby traps and the demolitions that we would find, or engage in small unit activities with the 101st.
But by the time—the late summer-early fall emerged, we were pulled back to operate along what Bernard Fall, the French historian of the Viet Minh operations in the early 1950s, called “the street without joy.” And that’s where my company, then, following the main force operations against the North Vietnamese, engaged in counter-guerilla operations against the Viet Cong. And our mission then—
Viet Cong being the insurgent units in South Vietnam.
Right. Right. And what we principally were asked to do was to clear the small villages and hamlets of the mines and booby traps that had been left by the Viet Cong and encourage the South Vietnamese villagers, who had lived in this area. The district was called Phong Dien—P-H-O-N-G D-I-E-N—Phong Dien district of Thua Thien province, north of Hue.
And so for the next two or three months, our principle mission, then, was not search-and-destroy that was the first part of my time as company commander, but it was what we would today call IED—improvised explosive device—clearance.
What did an IED or a booby trap look like in Vietnam at that time?
Vietnam, at that time, it was principally captured American artillery or mortar shells that we had left behind, either Marines or Army, on fire bases that we had closed. But we’d incompletely close them and leave behind shells that the Viet Cong would grab and store, and then booby-trap.
And there—in fact, my first casualties were sustained—a young Specialist named Craig Rogers was killed when he came across a booby-trapped 155 millimeter artillery shell that had a branch separated by a small twig. And when he would step on the branch, it would close the circuit to a battery and explode the shell. And that was the nature of the IED at the time. It was not, you know, not radio-controlled, it wasn’t cell phone-controlled—it was very rudimentary, but unbelievably effective.
And it was bad—I mean the worst time of my Vietnam tour was that period of about two or three weeks, when we sustained, for a combat engineer company, fairly heavy casualties. Two killed and about a dozen seriously wounded, because of their tripping of these booby traps that were part of our mission.
As a company commander, this was the first time you lost any men, I assume.
And what did that feel like, and how did you respond? How were you trained to respond and then did you respond in the right way?
Yeah. Well, I’m not sure my battalion commander particularly appreciated the next thing, but because we had—the next thing I did—but I explained to them why I did it. I took the whole—I probably had two of the three line platoons doing this at the time, and I took them all out of the operation and brought them back to our base camp there, at a place called Camp Evans, just north of Hue.
And I told the supporting brigade commander, the Infantry commander, I was doing this primarily because we had done such, in my judgment, a bad job of trying to figure out what these devices were, that I wanted to spend about two weeks getting as much information as we could from the casualties we had sustained. Setting up classes in our mess hall showing what these devices were like, and then trying to work through how we could defeat them, so we weren’t sacrificing lives or limbs in the course of learning on the field.
My battalion commander, I remember, flew in, and I’m not sure he was particularly pleased, but I said—his name was Mickey McClellan, and he just passed away—a wonderful man. I just said, “Sir, the casualties have been so great. I think our training on this was incomplete, and I want to deepen this training. I want to professionalize how we go after these booby traps so that we are not going to be using our soldiers as a training device.”
Did you feel any guilt that you’d not figured this out beforehand?
A little bit—I still do to this day. But the reason I do feel that way is when we were first sent into Phong Dien District to do this, it was to replace an Infantry unit that had essentially said, “We’re not doing any more of this.”
Because they’d suffered so many casualties.
Because they’d suffered so many casualties. And I’ll never forget —I went with these two platoons out to the site—it was an old, abandoned church. And sitting around the church walls were the soldiers, the Infantry soldiers, of the 101st, and they had told their unit, “We’re not doing any more of this.” And so the task force commander, the Infantry task force commander in 05, asked if my unit would take its place, because he knew we had mine detectors and had that as a secondary mission.
And so I said, “Sure,” and in retrospect, I probably should’ve said, “Let me sit down first with your subordinate commanders and understand exactly what we’re after here, and the nature of the casualties that you’ve sustained, and why those were sustained in the way that they were, and train my unit up accordingly.”
But I didn’t do that, you know. So much of what we are trained to do here is, “Yep, this is the mission. We got it assigned. We can do this.” And you know, part of it was we did some of this in Korea when I was there as a company commander, on sections of the old DMZ. I felt, you know, we had pretty good expertise in counter-mine operations. This wasn’t substantially different from what we were facing in Korea.
It turned out to be hugely different, and so the regret would’ve been that that particular decision, to say, “Yep, I’ll do this.” And the sad thing about it, which I still—I wrote to family, and this was actually—I told the story to a USA Today reporter when I went back to Vietnam, this time to Hanoi with the Secretary of State. I was the only veteran on the plane when we were recognizing the country of Vietnam in August of 1995, and the reporter said, “Describe what you were doing the last time you were in Vietnam.”
And I said, “Well,” I told the story. And I said, “The young man who stepped forward, he was from Iowa—Waterloo, Iowa—this young man named Craig Rogers.” And he volunteered to be the point on this team that was going through these rice paddy dikes that were essentially the trails that the villagers would take to go back into Phong Dien. He said, “Sir, I got it,” you know, “I’ll do it. Give me the mine detector.” Everyone followed him—he was point on all this. And so I left him to go to the next platoon, and about 90 minutes later, I heard this radio message that he had tripped a booby trap, and they were bringing his body back.
And so, yeah—that was the story I recounted to the USA Today reporter. He published this in the USA Today, and the sister of Rogers in Iowa read that and wrote me a letter when I came back to Washington, DC, and I, you know, subsequently wrote back to her, just to say how much she appreciated remembering her brother from that story.
But, you know, he—although I was disappointed in myself at not having thought through the implications of saying, “Yep, I’ll do it, I got it,” I also felt that the way I treated the company in the months before that—with respect, the values that I had talked about here earlier of integrity and respect, caring for the soldiers. Of being worried about their welfare and where they were sleeping at night and their food and everything else—led that company to say, when they could see the other soldiers, the Infantry soldiers from the side, sitting down on the job, they said, “Hey, sir, we got this, sir. We’ll take care of it.” And so I had, you know, a great deal of confidence that the leadership style that I was trying to exhibit in the company ultimately, in an environment like that, would pay off, because you were able to instill the trust in the junior soldier in your leadership that you don’t get by alternate behavior—by the yelling and screaming and the kinds of things that we had discussed earlier.
Well, it strikes me, a couple things here—that leadership really goes two directions then, right? You’re given the mission, and part of it is leading the mission—the other part is leading the men below you, who must execute that mission.
You had their trust. That’s why they were willing to step up. Then it turned out that you had not vetted the situation completely. You could imagine the men losing trust in you, in that instance. So as a company commander, that’s kind of a critical moment.
What do you do?
That’s why I decided to bring them back. I was worried about precisely that. That after we had sustained day after day of this, and although in today’s terms, only losing 2 and 12 wounded may not seem all that much, it is when you’re, you know, 26 years old, and you know these folks really well. But I just felt it was my responsibility there, especially thinking back on my quick decision to say, “Yep, we’ll do it,” to step back and to make sure that they had the benefit of all the intelligence, the battlefield intelligence, we could acquire at the time, before we headed back out and did this again.
Did you take on any fire at any point in your company, or—
And in what instance? What situation would that have been—during this—
For this operation, very seldom—the occasional mortar. But the Viet Cong had long since been cleared from this area, and so it was the residue. The focus was, in terms of the strategy, was to focus on the agriculture and population areas while we were training the South Vietnamese and to bring the villagers back into their native areas. So there was very little residual Viet Cong strength, except for these IEDs, these booby traps, which they left behind. The fire that we took was in the first phase, the main force operations.
We’ll come back to that in a second, but in terms of the IEDs or the booby traps that were left there, the villagers must’ve known they were there, right?
They had been evacuated, months before, and put in refugee camps, that could be more easily guarded and protected and secured. And of course, the government in Saigon, and our own, wanted to bring them back and get them out of the camps. They were not, you know, the best places for long-term living. And so the mission was, let’s clear these hamlets and bring the villagers back and allow them to live where they were born and raised.
Did you eventually—through this focus now on what these booby traps were and how to discover them, did you have success in terms of rooting them out in a way that you couldn’t before?
Yep. The booby traps, you mean? Yes, as it turns out, we did, and it was really serendipitous. What we were able to work with the Infantry was a technique that essentially burned all the vegetation and foliage on the trails, that exposed—that either burned the trip wires or exposed the booby traps. And we did that, essentially, by dropping contaminated JP-4 helicopter fuel from blivets that would be slung underneath helicopters—not probably environmentally friendly, in today’s terms, but that’s what we did. Dropped the fuel, set it off with a thermite grenade or some other device, and then burned the path through.
Let’s close, if we could, with one other scene here, which would—and then maybe in a later interview we can come back to some of the other, the earlier operation we talked about with the 101st, with the ARVN. But you’re coming back here with Secretary of State Warren Christopher in 1997?
Five—very controversial, right, to be coming back to recognize Vietnam. How did you feel about it? How did you feel as a veteran from Vietnam?
Yep. Well, I was a little nervous—nervous from, obviously, a very different basis than 1969—nervous, in great part, for how we would be treated—I in particular, because I was in full uniform—by our counterparts. However, a lot of the nervousness abated, based on the discussions I had with a real hero of mine—his name is Jack Vessey. And General Vessey was, at that point, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had commanded our troops in Korea during the Reagan administration.
But he had started conversations with his Vietnamese counterparts on a series of actions that were collected under the umbrella of Joint Task Force Full Accounting, i.e. securing Vietnamese help in identifying the remains of our, principally, downed pilots, for identification in Hawaii, and then return of the remains to the families. And the issue at the time was if we recognized Vietnam, would they continue to help Joint Task Force Full Accounting in the way that they had prior to the recognition, which had been very full—a very fulsome, good faith effort to help.
The theory being here that there was nothing left to win, so—
In terms of recognition, so why should they cooperate?
We got what we want, we got the recognition—we’ll slack off on the identification, on the help. So my mission while I was there with the Secretary of State was to meet with a Vietnamese three-star, who was their principal go-between for Joint Task Force Full Accounting, that would help with relay sites and guides and interpreters, etc., and to try to convince him that it was in our collective self-interest to work this program for the coming years, as long as it took to identify the remaining MIA.
And this Vietnamese three-star could not have been more cooperative and professional. As it turns out, he lost a brother in this area along what was called QL-9 at the time, an east-west road that went from Quang Tri on the coast, west into Laos, which is precisely the area where my company was fighting in the fall of 1969. He lost a brother there.
And he could’ve lost him to one of your—
To one of our missions.
But there were no recriminations. He couldn’t have been more professional. When we landed, Secretary Christopher—I just thought the world of him, an extremely consummate and professional diplomat, was met by a Vietnamese delegation that had, as I remember, Todd, there were four coffins that were on the tarmac at the Hanoi International Airport, covered with an American flag, about to be loaded onto probably a C-141 to be flown to Hawaii for the central identification laboratory work.
But these were the most recent remains that were recovered in the mountains west of Hanoi and had been the result of this cooperative effort. And so there was a formal ceremony there on the tarmac, the coffins were put in the plane, and we were escorted, then, into town for our first series of official meetings.
And it went so well that Secretary Christopher pulled me aside at one point and said he has just sent a cable to the President to describe this episode that I had with the Vietnamese policeman, and the episode, briefly, was this.
We were sent on a brief sightseeing tour to a central park in downtown Hanoi—elegant grounds, where they have, under a pagoda, these giant tortoises, which carry on the back plaques of all the Hanoi residents that have earned doctorates in college, studying there. And they date back hundreds of years, to the probably 16-1700s. It was a very, very placid, calm scene—the Vietnamese were giving us the tour of this—and so I was fascinated. I asked a couple of questions, and as we were leaving, there were four or five of the cars that were ready to take us from that spot to a meeting with the Vietnamese host.
And as I was getting in the car, a Vietnamese policeman, who was wearing a two-tone blue uniform, medals and his saucer cap, saw me get into the car. And as we were pulling away, slowly, at first, the Vietnamese policeman gave me the best-looking salute. And then as I looked out and repeated that salute, returned it to him, he blew me a kiss as we were driving away. And I told the Secretary this, because it just conformed with this extraordinary hospitality that was shown to us by the Vietnamese leadership.
The only exception was when we visited the Hanoi Hilton—or tried to—and that’s a separate story entirely. But the official delegation, from prime minister on down to my three-star counterpart, couldn’t have been more cooperative. And the story that I’ve just described, Christopher cabled back to the President as a signal for how we were being received by the Vietnamese—important to Clinton, because as you correctly pointed out, this was a little controversial at the time, within both parties. But it was a signal that this was going to be a very successful visit, and hopefully a successful future, as we put the Vietnam War in its historical context and moved forward.
Let’s stop there. We’ll pick it up later, then. Thank you.
Thank you, General.