So Senator, welcome. This is—
Today is February 16, 2012, and we’re in the studios of the Center for Oral History at West Point. And thank you for coming by to sit with us.
You were a Navy SEAL.
What prompted you to want to go into service to begin with?
Well, I was about to be drafted, so when I graduated from college in 1965—actually, technically I graduated in ’66—I finished a five-year program in four—my draft classification went from 2F to 1A. And in those days, there were some exemptions, but for most of us in that era, you knew that if you passed your physical examination, which I did in December of that year, that shortly thereafter you’re going to get drafted.
Why did you choose the Navy?
Well, I was practicing pharmacy at the time, in Sioux City, Iowa, and I just finished reading a book called The Caine Mutiny, by Hermon Wouk.
And, you know, a land-locked boy from Nebraska, life at sea sounded pretty exciting, so I volunteered for the Navy—went in the Fleet Reserve.
You tell the story in your book that you had an uncle who was lost in World War II—
And that story was very powerful to you. Can you tell that story first, and then give us a sense of what impact it has upon you as you enter the service yourself?
Well, actually it had a bigger impact on me later in life than it did when I was going in the service. I became aware of who he was by accident. My father had an extremely difficult time talking about him. He was a couple years older than my dad. My father’s mother died giving birth to him in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and in those days—in 1913—in those days, you either went to an orphanage or some family member raised the kids. So he got a older sister to agree to help raise the boys.
Then he died shortly afterwards, so they were orphaned, raised in Chicago, and my father was quite close to his older brother. But they came of age as the Depression started, and, you know, it was a—he went off and was sort of gone and back and gone and back. And I think my dad always thought that he would come back from the Philippines, ’cause he deployed in, you know, 1940, and was there when the—
He was Army. This is Army, right?
Army—Army Signal Corps. And he was there when the Japanese invaded. He was actually on MacArthur’s staff, so he was taken prisoner, and up the Bataan Peninsula he escaped, and was killed in October, just before the U.S. forces came back into Leyte Gulf in 1941—1944. So that’s—most of what I just said I acquired much later in life, because I got an interest in honoring my own life, trying to understand it.
But in order to understand it, I had to go back and try to get some detail on my mother and father, and their lives.
And your father was no source of information for you on this.
Well, he was a source of some information, but I would say my father had almost no interest in what we would call genealogy, so.
But it was also that this episode was so painful, I take it, right?
Yes, it was, I would say, painful for him. And most of the examination that I’ve done occurred after my father died, so I didn’t have the opportunity actually to interview him to see what he could provide me. I went to the survivors of Corregidor and Bataan, and talked to many of those people, and tried to find—and found some people who knew my Uncle John. So most of the contact that I made to my uncle’s life came through, you know, those connections.
And did you ever learn the circumstances of his death?
Well, there’s three reports, so it’s, you know, it’s like you were saying earlier, with oral history, you never know, so I’ve got—
And the reports differ.
One report is that he was drowned. He was— but all three reports are the same in one respect: he was going out to a submarine to deliver a packet of intelligence, and was going to be taken back to Australia. And he either died because the surface conditions were rougher and he drowned, he died because he was shot by the Japanese, or he was—he died because he was shot by a Filipino that they were working with, with whom he had a—not a very good relationship, so.
But the body was never recovered.
The body was never recovered.
And you say you developed a more powerful interest in this later in life than the time when you first entered the Navy.
Why was that, do you think?
if you’re—and I was, and still am—trying to understand who I am—if you’re trying to do that, it’s important to try to get some understanding of what came before you, because it matters. Not only is there a genetic transfer, but there’s behavioral passes that occur from people that you never had any contact with whatsoever. So I mean the fact—for just as an example—that my father was an orphan had a big impact on me and my life. The fact that my mother was a farm girl from Iowa had a big impact.
And trying to understand that was the purpose of going back. And then I was struck by the story. It’s an interesting story—fell in love with a woman who ends up working in the Army, Army Intelligence, for the purpose of trying to find out where my uncle was. Evangeline Mella was her name, and she worked, she volunteered, ended up working for O.S.S. and then worked for C.I.A. for a career, and fell in love.
And met another guy after she confirmed that my uncle was dead, and he was killed under mysterious circumstances in Berlin, also.
He was Army Intel, but I didn’t actually penetrate that veil and go back any further. But it’s an interesting story. It’s like so many others from World War 2, where a separation occurs because of a death of two people who are in love, and they go on—you know, the story goes on in some fashion, so. But I have learned characteristics of my uncle that feel similar to my own, you know.
Well, that was where I was going with this. I’m wondering whether there’s some association for you with the fact that he was a combat veteran and you were a combat veteran.
Yeah. Although I’m much more—I feel much more interested in personality characteristics, and my uncle tended to resolve almost every conflict with a fight. And I don’t resolve every conflict with a fight, but I like a good argument.
And I don’t know for certain—there’s no way of knowing these things for certain—but I see that kind of a characteristic as probably passed on in some mysterious fashion.
Did your father have any military experience himself?
Yes—my father—both my father and my uncle. My father was in the Army Air Corps. Also, in Signal Corps he was being trained to be a part of the invasion force and went there as a part of the occupation force, and he was also on MacArthur’s staff by coincidence, so. But then the rules at the time were that if you had a brother who was killed, you could get out early, so he came back to the United States more quickly than his tour of duty would’ve normally allowed.
What did he do for a living, your father?
After the war.
Right. He was stationed in Florida.
I think I was actually conceived in Florida, and then he was reassigned to the Army Air Base in Lincoln, Nebraska. So we came to Lincoln, and I was born two or three days later, so I mean that’s—what happened was he fell in love with the community. Started going to church and met some other people and he told a friend of his, “If you ever see a business opportunity.” My father was an engineer. “If you ever see a business opportunity while I’m gone,” and he left him $1,000.00.
So when he comes back, gets out and comes back, he discovers that he owns a lumber and coal business, so that’s what he did. He started as a lumber and coal business, expanded it, had hardware, and then he built houses and buildings. He was a builder.
What was your upbringing like?
Well, it was I would say dominated by a large, very large family. My father, orphaned, that was his desire in life, to have as many children as my mother would allow him to have.
So they stopped at seven, and so that’s, you know, that’s the big thing is that we—it was a big family. And you know, again, the circumstance here, birth matter, so, you know, I’m born in ’43, and the first time I saw television was 1953—came home from school to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.
So, you know, we grew up around a dinner table, and there was no television to watch, and even when television appeared, we—you know, the evening meal, the Sunday experience. We went to church every Sunday, and you know, family was the dominant thing in my life. I got very close to my brothers and sisters, and very close to my parents, and, you know, it’s like a friend of mine says, “I feel like I won the ovarian lottery.” [Laughs]
What about the SEALs? Did you know you wanted to be a SEAL once you had—
No. No. I mean I had—you know, as I said, I joined the Fleet Reserve. I volunteered for Officer Candidate School, went to Newport, Rhode Island, and I was intending to be a Line Officer. I mean when I came in, they inspired me to want to be a Line Officer, and they come around and, you know, I became friends with another guy, and we were both going to go to flight school—that sounded exciting. And he was, it turns out, had two things that were a bit of a problem for him.
One was his eyesight was a little off, so then these guys came around with underwater demolition, so we volunteered for UDT. And my friend, Gary, was also an engineer, and Admiral Rickover I think scoured the records of everybody at OCS, and called him down to Washington for one of his famous interviews.
And he got selected for the Nuclear Navy, so I went off to UDT on my own, and, you know, that was—I got out there in Coronado and, you know, after going through OCS in 1967.
I get out there in the summer, and there was, you know, it was the moment when the Vietnam war was being ramped up. And at the end of that 18-week program—during which, by the way, the instructors had permission to try to get as many of you as possible to quit—we all went to the back door of, you know, the compound where the training occurred, where they had the assignments, and I was assigned to SEAL Team 1, so. That wouldn’t happen today. It would be a much longer training program—then went to Army Airborne and Ranger School, and relatively short training program before we deployed.
So I didn’t go in with the intent of going to SEAL training.
Right. What did you know about Vietnam at the time, and did you have an attitude about the war itself?
Not much of any attitude, other than I was Administrative Officer of the teams, and I visited men who were injured at the hospital, so I had an opportunity to talk to them. And their accounts weren’t glowing at all, and I remember vividly when LBJ announced he wasn’t going to run for reelection in 1968, and now said he was going to negotiate with the North Vietnamese for agreement. And, you know, Martin Luther King was killed shortly after that.
That, to put it mildly, the riots that occurred after that kind of threw the chances of LBJ getting any kind of an agreement for a loop. You know, I would say it was pretty clear to people at the time, I think, that the chances are we’re going to finish second, because you’re negotiating for a peace with your enemy, and we knew what they wanted.
They weren’t going to stop until they had a unified country, so. I mean I had a pretty good understanding that I had a duty to go, but that it’s not likely that we were going to – that this was going to have a happy ending.
Were you scared?
Oh, probably. You know, probably somewhere—certainly would’ve—all in, I would’ve preferred not to go. It wasn’t like I was—this was a dream in life, to go to combat, or a dream in life to go into SEAL Team. I’m proud of the service, and benefit enormously from it. There’s hardly a day goes by where something that I’ve learned in the service isn’t applied in decision-making or behavior that I have still today. But I didn’t start off—I mean I—look, I was a pretty good student in college.
The only course I had difficulty with was Naval ROTC, and, you know, I just—I was telling my friend Jack as we were upstairs earlier that I don’t think I’d have done very well here.
I don’t—not very good at taking orders. And, you know, so it’s—I didn’t envision myself at an early age with a military career.
Your first deployment to Vietnam happens when, then?
Well, the platoon is formed up in the fall of 1968, so we trained together for a couple months before we went over in January ’69.
In January of ’69.
January of ’69.
And tell me about, now, the episode in Thanh Phong. Tell me the story.
Well, I’ve told the story before, so I’m not—you know, I don’t know how far I want to go into it here this afternoon. I mean it was a—it was a mission that was brought to us, and the context becomes important in this, because we were assigned to the swift boats.
And the previous—normally, what a SEAL Team Platoon would do is come over and replace another platoon that had been operating in a particular area, and accumulate as a consequence of that six months, and we were all TDY.
So that six months would give them a substantial amount of information about what’s going on in our little area of operation. We were assigned to the swift boats at Cam Ranh Bay, meaning we had the whole coast, and had no grounds for, you know, understanding what it was that we were supposed to be doing. And I think the Officer who was in charge of us was a little bit confused about it as well, and as a consequence, most—you know, this is after the fact as well.
We discovered that most of the intel that we were getting in the operations that we were assigned came out of a program that was known as Phoenix. That was a—I don’t know when it was started. You mind if I take a break and drink?
Not at all.
I don’t know exactly when it was started, but it was I think ’65 or ’66. And it was—I’m not sure that did any good. Don’t know I can get through this. Story isn’t choking me up—it’s a physical reaction to something. I mean we were—Phoenix Program, the whole object was to take out what was considered to be the middle-level Vietcong and their supporters, so the rules of engagement, to put it mildly, were very loose.
And, you know, Thanh Phong was an operation to go in and get some individuals who were a part of a group of Vietcong that were operating in what at that time was called a secret zone—an area where the government of Vietnam and the U.S. Forces weren’t typically operating. So we went in, and again, the object was to try to find these guys and pull them out.
And we were not able to do it.
What went wrong? Was the intelligence bad?
Oh, God—no, I think what went wrong, right from the beginning, is, you know, we had operation procedures who were inappropriate for the situation. They just were. I mean it was—and so we ended up in a situation where, first, we were killing people who were guarding this area. At least that was what the guys who were operating up at the front of the platoon were saying—and that was standard operating procedure for us on an operation of that kind, in order to make certain that—’cause there’s only seven of us.
I say platoon, but there’s only—it’s more like a small squad. And we had no helicopter support or no real, you know, fire battery support at all.
I mean it was just us. So when you find yourself in that situation, the operating procedure was to reduce the chances of anybody compromising the mission. So I would say the biggest mistake is just the operating procedures that we had in place, ’cause it led, in the end, to an excessive use of firepower. We took some fire, and we returned fire, and we ended up killing people that we shouldn’t have killed.
This would be the women and children that ended up making this a devastating story, for you personally, as well as—
I’m struck in the telling of the story, both by you here now and also by what I’ve read about it, by the phrase “fog of war.” I mean it just seems as though one of the things that was operating then was that there was no clarity to the rules or to the science that you were having to—
Oh, my point is, actually, that the rules were quite clear. It’s the rules that, in this particular case, that were the problem.
Rules itself—you mean that the rules—
Oh, yeah. You got to—basically, in a secret zone like this, a free-fire zone, with rules of engagement that would almost inescapably lead to this kind of engagement. And you can really see it in the numbers. You know, it’s a part of—at that time, it was a part of a counterinsurgency strategy that, in my own view, had an insufficient amount of control attached to it. Probably way too much civilian control and way too little military control, particularly thinking this is—you know, I now see the value of many of the changes that have occurred since Vietnam.
And probably the most important one is Goldwater-Nichols, where jointness is created, and much more unified command between Special Operations soldiers and the mainline force.
Whereas we were disconnected, and as a consequence, our rules were coming more from the civilian side than they were from the military side, and I think the rules would’ve been much different. Although I’ve had occasion now to talk to many people who were in the Army, and they at times were operating—particularly the Navy and the coastal boats—were operating with similar kinds of rules of engagement.
Would you think that this kind of experience was repeated in many other places, and just not as well-known?
Oh yeah—I think that’s exactly right, yeah.
Because of these rules.
Right. And by the way, we were fighting an enemy that had similar rules, so it’s not like we were—
Right, so. But it’s—yeah, I would say it contributed to many incidences of this kind.
Besides Goldwater-Nichols, though, do you think we’ve learned something about fighting insurgency since you mention this about an enemy fighting with different rules than we would normally attach our name to?
Have we learned something from this in what you’ve seen in how we fought Iraq?
Well, I think we have. I mean there was a very famous book that was written called Dereliction of Duty in I think the early ’90s. I think the guy’s still on active duty, so.
That’s McMaster, I think.
He’s actually—he’s often a colleague who comes in here—yes, yes.
So I think that was the most important lesson, although you look at Iraq and say that, with the exception of General Shinseki, you wonder how long that lesson survived. The first Gulf War, where Colin Powell, having had the experience of I think Generals unwilling to tell the civilians exactly what the likely outcome is going to be, and what the force was going to be—what force was going to be required.
I think Johnson made a terrible mistake, and, you know, found himself in a military situation with a military commitment way beyond what he expected it to be, and way short of what was necessary to actually get the job done, so.
It’s a classic American problem, though, isn’t it, because we built in this civilian control of the military for reasons—
It’s a classic military problem, and it’s also driven by very understandable—even during Vietnam, and particularly the early days of Vietnam. There was—there’s this rush of patriotism to support the war effort that oftentimes makes it difficult to have the kind of honest debate that you need to have. It’s difficult, because it’s, you know, it’s on the one hand, you want people to feel love for and respect for and support for the men and women who are serving. You want that in place.
But if it becomes sort of blind and caught up with, you know, I would say sort of unthinking patriotism, it can be a problem.
It can be a real big problem. And particularly coming out of World War II, you know, we had an attitude that said that we can accomplish anything. And in spite of many witnesses, including Eisenhower, advising against engaged in a land war in Asia, you know, the next thing you know, we’re engaged in a big land war in Asia, and the exit—there was no way of getting out, other than trying to negotiate and get a sufficient interval between the negotiations and our full departure.
So yeah, I would say there’s a lot of lessons at the senior level of the military that are likely to still be there, probably deepened from the experience of Iraq. I think there’s much better training and preparation, but you’re going to get these moments—even if the rules of engagement are perfectly aligned with Geneva.
You’re going to get these moments where a 22-year-old boy knows he’s just killed somebody, and even if he’s carrying a weapon on the other side, I know how that feels. And in the moment, it’s not a big deal.
But the older you get, you know, more—you know, the more you realize that you’ve buried something and you’re living with it, and it’s affecting your behavior in some time.
You mentioned—several times I’ve seen you quoted as saying that the scariest thing really is not being killed, it’s killing someone else.
How have the—how has the memory of Thanh Phong been something that you’ve coped with? How have you dealt with that as a combat veteran?
I actually don’t know, other than, you know, just realize the only thing I can do is live my life as fully as possible, and serve when I get the opportunity to serve, and bring as much honesty as I can to other decisions that are made, particularly when it relates to going to war.
Did you suffer any kind of what we now call PTSD, but was probably not even given a medical diagnosis back in the ’60s on this—did you suffer any—and now you talk about waking up with memories, and—
Well, yeah, I would say I’m one of the fortunate ones that have not suffered from the trauma. I don’t feel like I’ve got post-traumatic stress. I’m, you know, apparently one that genetically is not prone to addiction, for example, which is a blessing, particularly growing up in that era. I mean that era, I mean among the things I learned how to do is drink in the service. I mean they were—you know, if you didn’t have a story about something you did while you were drunk during that time, you really hadn’t done what you’re supposed to do, so.
But fortunately the military’s learned there. It’s a tremendous positive thing that they’ve done—probably the most pro-family thing that the military’s done is diminish the alcohol abuse. So fortunately I don’t have an addictive gene, and that kept me from doing anything that could’ve put me in a position, particularly early on, where I’d just go off the edge. ’Cause you get these moments, with or without a military trauma, you get these moments where you say, you know, you know, you suffer a loss of some kind.
Or even if you haven’t suffered a loss, you get up and say, you know, “Is it worth it,” you know—“what am I going to do next,” so. And I don’t’ care how deep your religious belief is, and how, you know, whether you believe in Jesus Christ, as I do, or whether you—whatever your belief system is, you’ve got this moment that when you’re awake, and you say, “Am I going to go on?”
You know, I remember vividly getting off the phone with Lewis Puller, Jr. I was in the hospital with Lewis. His father, Chesty, came in and saw me.
And I said to him—I said to myself, and I said to Lewis, actually, at the time, “Man, that has to be a bitch to have Chesty Puller as a dad.” You know, try to live up to that man? Five Navy Crosses, every single one of them could’ve been a Medal of Honor. I mean oh my God—I can’t live up to this. You know, it’s a lot easier to live up to a guy that ran a lumber and coal business than Chesty Puller.
Well, I remember hanging up the phone with Lewis and thinking, “Man, this guy’s in trouble,” and 24 hours later—less, you know—learned that he had hung up the phone from me, or maybe one or two people afterwards, and put on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and blew his brains out.
I think alcohol contributed to that. His disability contributed to that. But one of his neighbor friends said to me, “He made a good choice.” Stunning—you think, “What do you mean, he made a good choice?”
Well, sometimes it’s the right answer. And it’s actually, in my conversations with men—and I’ve had many since then—I never take it lightly since Lewis Puller, when somebody sounds kind of down and out, and particularly as they go into that cycle of self-pity, which is hard to get out of when you’re in it. You know, my typical response is, you know, “I know you’re thinking about suicide, and it is a choice, and it might be the right choice. But you really ought to size it, ’cause there’s no do-overs if that’s the choice that you make.”
And all of us, as human beings—and I think all of us that have gone to war—will have those kinds of moments.
Or maybe more frequent. I just have never suffered the trauma that I’ve seen other guys suffer, where it’s almost impossible for them to function. I mean the anticipation in Iraq and Afghanistan had to be doubly difficult than Vietnam, ’cause of the IEDs and the likelihood that something terrible could happen to you, you know. And the good news of saving people’s lives increases the chances that you could end up with brain damage and not dead, and plus the multiple tours.
You know, all kinds of things probably contribute to the higher than we certainly want of individuals who are suffering trauma of one kind or another.
But are there recommendations you have for combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, given what you went through?
How to live with that?
The thing that I got that was really important was I got wounded, and I spent eight months in a hospital, and I learned something in that hospital, and—that my idea of what it meant to be a man, and what you had to do to become a man, was wrong.
What was your idea of what it meant to be a man?
Tough guy—do it all on your own. Don’t complain, you know? That’s—you know, you don’t complain. Just do your job. And you don’t complain after the job. You had something bad happen you just get back at it. Don’t—if you’re in trouble, you figure out how to get it done and get out of it. And what I learned in the hospital, when you’re horizontal and you can’t do a simple thing like go to the bathroom that you got to ask somebody for help. And what I learned there—and it’s not easy—again, I think it’s harder for men than it is for women. That’s why they live longer.
You got to let somebody love you, and that isn’t easy. I remember talking to a kid when I was Governor who’d been burned in a oil fire on a oil rig in Wyoming, and his face is gone. And he’s just—I don’t know—20, 21 years old—hard to tell with that kind of burn. And the burns had healed, but they kept him in the hospital—that was before they threw people out of hospitals before they were really well. And he was pissed—he was angry—he was bitter—’cause he knew what had happened to him. And I said to him, I said, you know, “You’re—you’ve got to accept that your face is—by hard definition, it’s ugly.
“But you’re making yourself really ugly by the way you’re acting.”
Because, you know, ugly is something I want to get away from, and you can be beautiful on the outside, and if you’re ugly on the inside, nobody wants to hang out with you. I mean you cannot expect to have, you know, your life saved by somebody who’s constantly going to drive past that ugliness, so you got to let somebody love you, and you got to, you know, you got to trust, and you got to find somebody that you trust, and you got to talk.
And, you know, and then I think it makes it a lot easier to make those decisions in the morning when you get up wondering whether or not you’re going to make the effort, it makes it a lot easier to make the effort. You know, I remember—I remember—I hope a little bit of profanity isn’t a problem on this thing. I remember when I was Governor, and I had really particularly bad moment—I don’t know what, I can’t remember actually what it was. And I called a friend of mine, a woman out in San Francisco, and I said, “Nancy, I just—I just feel like a bag of shit.”
And she said, “Well, you are a bag of shit,” and all of a sudden, my mood brightened. Hell, that’s—that’s part of our challenge, you know, to get over the realization that we’re not perfect. That we’re not that beautiful thing that we’ve created in our heads, you know, and to ask somebody for help. I mean it’s not easy to do. It’s not easy to do, to say, you know, “I’m confused. I’m lonely. I’m sad. I’m angry.” And that’s the only declaration I need to make to somebody I trust enough to let love me.
Tell me how you were injured. Tell me the story of that.
Well, this was actually a good operation, because we had good intelligence, and this came from the Navy and from the Special Forces originally, that were operating up in Nha Trang. And they had some guys who were—who were sappers, who were running explosive operations against the civilian population in Nha Trang.
Some military targets as well, and we knew exactly where they were. There was a guy who had participated in a program called Chieu Hoi.
We were trying to recruit VC to leave and tell us, give us intel. And it was remarkable, and this guy had been fighting for six or seven years, and we interrogated him—put a little light bulb on him, and oh my God, you know, I’m over here TDY, the Army’s here 13 months. This guy stays till the war is over or he’s dead, and he wanted to go back to his family. That was the only motivation. He could have cared less about the American Open Arms Program, and he knew he has to provide us with some information, and he provided some information, and probably a personality problem—probably angry—of where these guys were.
And we made him—he said, “Well, I’m not going to go back in unless you’re with me.” So he went back in with us, and we scaled up the back side of the island, and he—he was able to locate the first sleeping group. And unfortunately, the second sleeping group awoke and were moving, and we ran into them. It was night. It was sort of coming into first light. And it was a firefight, and rather than pulling them all out, we ended up having to kill all of them, and then I was injured in the first blast. It was a explosive device of some kind, and I was injured in the first blast and medevac’d out.
And the injury was?
Well, it was essentially a traumatic amputation of the right leg below the knee, but it was—it didn’t actually—I went into a sort of what you call almost like a hurdler stance, where my right leg stuck out over the—over a rock, in a firing position like this.
And the blast sheared the leg and hit my hand, and fortunately, the rock protected my chest and most of my face, so there was no lethal injuries that occurred. But it was night—I couldn’t really tell. I knew I was injured. I could feel the damage—
So I tied off a tourniquet, and there wasn’t—you know, the body goes into a little bit of shock. It’s night, so I was able to continue to direct fire till things were safe. And by the time I got to Philadelphia—which is where they sent me, the Philadelphia Naval Hospital—the first time they broke open the cast, I could tell the thing—that’s the first real look, conscious look, that I had was I could see that they had tried to save as much as they could, but there was no saving it. So they did surgery that day and cut the rest of it off.
And that was the end of your Navy career?
Well, yeah, that was the end of my Navy career. It was interesting, ’cause I went back out to San Diego after I got out of the hospital.
Actually, that’s not—I’ve got it inaccurate. I went out there on one of the leaves that I had, and—’cause they informed me I was going to be the recipient of the Medal of Honor, so I actually went out there for a couple reasons. One, to have the conversation about whether or not it was going to be possible for me to stay in the Navy—and it was clear I couldn’t.
I mean the—it was another—it wasn’t until 1978 that I was really done with surgery. So maybe in today’s environment it would’ve been possible to recycle me, but there was a dirty enough injury that there was just—there was a lot of healing that had to go on.
Still give you problems now?
Yeah—you know, so. It keeps you awake.
And it—you know, it gives you cause to remember that it’s not a bad way to be in the day, to feel grateful about, you know, having the chance to still live, so. It could’ve been the other side, so it’s not a—I don’t consider it to be a burden. There’s lots of things that I can’t do.
And again, it’s one of the things that I would say I’ve had occasion to visit with both civilians and military people who have suffered similar kinds of injuries, and among the worst things that is said, was ever said to me, was, “You’ll be able to do everything you could do before. You’ll be as good as new.”
Well, it isn’t true. And so I always say to people, “You’re not going to be able to do everything you could do before. There are real limitations. You’re going to be able to do a lot, but you’re a different person.” In a lot of ways, the guy that—pre-injury is not the guy post-injury. I mean you can see things you didn’t see before. You’ll have compassion. You’re going to be able to do things that you weren’t able to do before, and it mostly centers on understanding what pain is, and understanding and being able to see when somebody else is hurting or suffering. Not a bad thing.
Do you think that that attitude informs your life as a politician?
Oh, not always, I mean, ’cause, you know, probably my problem is—I mean I actually have multiple problems. Probably the biggest one is I get about 2,000 ideas a year, and only 3 or 4 of them are any good, but they all feel the same when they come on me, so I’ve got to get somebody to talk me down when I get excited about something—
What I mean, though, is that I mean you were saying that—
Helps you feel some compassion for—and maybe there’s—
Yeah. Look, I mean I don’t—I’m not Gandhi or anything like that, ’cause I can be and behave like an asshole, like anybody else does. But yeah, first of all, it taught me that I ought to be grateful living in the United States. I’d be selling a lot of pencils on a street corner in lots of countries, because I didn’t write any checks to get the V.A. and the Naval Hospital to save my life and take care of me—the volunteers that came into the hospital in Philadelphia, and the V.A. where I got some care in Lincoln.
I didn’t have any right to claim that. I got it because of, you know, a generous nation, so it produces gratitude. That’s—you know, it—and also, it’s made me very passionate about health care, because, you know, I’m sitting here right now, I’ve got—I have a literal—under Federal law, I have a claim on both your incomes, any health care needs I’ve got. As I said, I’m not lazy as a result. I don’t have any illegitimate children. You can’t say that it’s produced bad behavior, and it’s made me passionate about wanting to do the same thing for 308 million legal residents and citizens.
We should have a claim on all of our incomes, so one big happy group, as far as I’m concerned. Yeah, and I think it’s less so in the policy side than it is just I can see my—if I see somebody limping, if I see somebody grimacing, if I see somebody move their shoulder or their hand, if I see a scar, I can—I know what that tissue looked like before it scarred up.
And so I can see things that I just couldn’t see before.
Where were you on 9/11?
With my wife in a hospital in Hackensack, New Jersey. We had—I was living in New York. Henry was born on the 10th of September of 2001, and I went for a run that morning. We’d lived in New York. I went for a run down to the World Trade Center and came back, and cleaned up and drove with a friend of mine, who actually worked for the New York Fire Department, over to Hackensack, ’cause my baby came, had to be delivered C-section ’cause he had started to breech.
So they took him to Hackensack, and so we arrived just after the first plane hit the tower, and we saw the second plane hit the tower from that hospital.
Wow. What a way to welcome a child into the world, huh?
Well, that’s—that’s the glory of it, you know. But yeah, no, it’s—you know, that and all—and he, you know, he grew up with it. It was more impactful for somebody who was four or five and would have an actual memory, ’cause you don’t have any memories until you’re two, three, four years old, so. Yeah, that whole generation grew up with it.
And you were asked to join the 9/11 Commission. Tell me about that.
Well, I mean first of all, it began when Tom Daschle called me and said, “Max Cleland’s in trouble.” And Max, as you probably know, lost both legs and an arm above the elbow in Vietnam, and Max and I are extremely close. And he lost his election for—his reelection campaign in 2002.
This is 2003, and so I called Max, and I’m thinking Lew Puller when I’m talking to Max Cleland. And he—I kept saying, “Max, what do you need?” And he said, “Well, I just need my friends and the good Lord,” and he kept saying that.
I said, “Max, the good Lord is not getting you through this. What do you need?” And what he needed was a job where he could get a couple people to help him, because he needed help. And he’s a phenomenally brave man. I mean after he was elected, when I campaigned for him six years earlier down in Georgia, his campaign manager called me the day before he came down. He says, “You going to help Max?” I said, “Yeah, I’m coming down tomorrow.” He said, “Damn, he’s just getting fatter and fatter,” he says, “he’s eating himself to death.”
So I went down there, and we had an event in Atlanta and an event in Macon, Georgia, and then I flew out and, you know, Max probably ate ten thousand calories in that seven hours I was with him.
Well, turns out he had sleep apnea, and he was loading carbohydrates in order to stay awake. And when I—just by coincidence, I ran into somebody in Washington and was describing the situation and Max, and he said, “He’s got sleep apnea.” I said, “Really? What is that?” And he said, “Well, you know, you can cure it, but you’ve got to put a device on your face that goes partially down your throat.”
Well, when Max was injured, his trachea was cut, and he came up and tried to scream, and all it was was a hiss, and he wouldn’t let anybody put anything down his throat ever again. Well, after he had—you know, after the campaign, and he knew he had to do it, he went through this extraordinarily brave process where he lost weight and he put the device on it and he got healthy again, and it was really quite a recovery. But the loss of the Senate campaign was devastating, so I was running the New School. My board now knows it, but I didn’t—I just did it without telling anybody.
We had a lobbying firm in Washington, and they plussed up our bill and hired two guys, and Max, you know, got that position.
And he then got—President Bush appointed him to the Export-Import Bank to that board, and there was staff—because they didn’t have any staff in the 9/11 Commission. He was on—the detail, I apologize, I left out—Max was on the 9/11 Commission, so we got that all done, and now he’s on the Export-Import. And then I get a call from Senator Daschle and said, “You got to take Max’s place.”
And I said, “Tom, I’m running a university in New York. I hardly have time to do that job.” And in the end, I said “yes.”
And what did the 9/11 Commission do, for the viewers, and what was your part in it?
Well, I came late to the proposition, so I think my first day was—I know exactly when it was—it was late, sometime late in December of 2003. And it—you know, I almost said “no” to it after saying “yes” to it, because it—what we were charged with is answering the question “what happened?”
“Tell us the story.” And what you’re dealing with is a conspiracy. There was a conspiracy to attack the United States that was at—you know, it was at least 20 years old, however long you want to track this thing down. But we had been—we were identified as the enemy of a extremely conservative, radical religious group—in this case, a Muslim group—who felt grievances going all the way back to the end of the Caliphate in 1920 within Turkey.
And they chose a religious path, and we became the enemy, in part because of Desert Storm, in part because of just who we are—the most successful liberal democracy on the planet.
But the Commission was charged with understanding what happened, how it happened.
How did—how could—yeah, ’cause you think, “How could this happen?
How could”—and because it was a conspiracy, it made it more difficult. That’s why so many alternative conspiracy theories have sprung up. But we had to answer the question, “How did it happen?” Congress had already investigated it. I think the American people trusted Congress slightly more in 2003 than they do today, but they didn’t trust their results. So they put together this Commission.
It was opposed, I think, by the White House in the beginning, and some other leaders thought it was unnecessary. They put this Commission together in an extremely partisan environment, and we got lucky. We, the American people, got lucky, because we got Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton chairing and co-chairing the group, and—because we were five Democrats, five Republicans, selected in an extremely partisan environment—again, probably less so than today, but that isn’t saying much.
Extremely partisan environment, and managed to—because of Tom and Lee, managed to produce a report that I think in general is seen as a answer to the question, “What happened?”
And what surprised you about what you learned about what happened? What—I mean you were a Governor, a United States Senator, aware to some degree to the threat to the United States, I would think, in the 1980s, 1990s, leading up to your time when you departed for the New School. What did you learn about the threat, what we did wrong, what we should’ve done, what we didn’t do?
Well, the first thing is not so much learning, but one more time, relearning how easy it is to see mistakes when you’re looking back on them. Every single mistake that we made, we made—pick a number—five or six mistakes that allowed these nineteen guys to highjack four planes simultaneously and kill three thousand people. You look at those mistakes, and any one in isolation, you’d say, “How could you do it? How could you not put the airports at alert?
“How could you let these two guys that you tracked and that were living in San Diego, talking back to a safe house in Yemen, plotting against the United—how could you allow these mistakes to occur?”
But that’s the way we are as human beings—we make mistakes. And it accumulated into a disaster, right, so that’s the first thing: it’s easy to see things when you’re looking back and ID mistakes. Second is the intensity and clarity of the thinking of the individuals who have identified the United States of America as an enemy.
The sentencing statement of Ramzi Yousef, who planned the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993—his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is the one who organized the—you know, he was the one who persuaded bin Laden to use planes and attack the United States. His sentencing statement is not the statement of a madman, and if you—my view, you characterize these mad, you know, whatever qualifiers you put on them, you make a mistake.
Because there’s a clarity and a passion behind what it is they’re trying to do, and you can neither reduce the threat by ignoring that clarity or passion, nor can you reduce the threat by failing to engage them in a way that allows them to know “you can disagree with our foreign policy if you want to—you can say whatever you want to about the United States. We don’t care. But the moment you make a decision that you’re going to try to target and kill us, we’re going to do the same to you.” And we didn’t do that. We, you know, they’re over in Afghanistan, he’s not a big problem.
You’re in—you know, we allowed dangerous people to remain at large longer than we should’ve, so. It’s a terrible story on both sides, because again, the—not again—the response, our response, is in some ways—the global response to terrorism, in some ways, is very similar to the Vietnam War.
You’re trying to identify individuals inside of where they live. Well, they’re living in Kabul, they’re living in Fallujah, they’re living—God knows where they’re living—but they’re living in a city.
And you know, if you’d had seen Mohamed Atta in a café in Hamburg, Germany—he was the guy who planned the attack on September 11th, was the guy who led it—if you’d seen him in Hamburg, Germany, in a café in 1998, planning this thing—if you and I were having coffee, and I said to him, “You see that guy over there? He’s dangerous,” you’d look at me like I was mad. Because there was nothing about his physical characteristics, nothing about his biography, that would make him appear to be dangerous.
He didn’t look like Clint Eastwood. He didn’t look like, you know, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He didn’t—his head wasn’t shaved bald and he wasn’t on steroids. He was a failed student, and didn’t look dangerous at all—but he was. And he was shopping for the best prices on flight schools in Hamburg, Germany, so—and that makes it doubly difficult to, you know, to try to engage in a war, because there’s such—
Well, what’s the lesson of that, then? Is it much more foresight and imagination about where our enemies may be, and what they may be plotting for us? And are we up to that?
Look, I think you got to—are we up to that? I think we are up to that, but that’s what—I just got back. I took three weeks, took my family over to India, and I’ve been to India before, but this is the first time I’ve been there socially. And as a result of being there socially, I did a fair amount of reading before I went over. Met the Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador Puri, and he recommended a book called India After Gandhi, all right, so.
And I knew this, but I didn’t know it in the way that I now do. The braveness of Gandhi in 1947, and Nehru—Nehru became sort of a demon in lots of ways ’cause he was pro-Soviet and pro-China. And the braveness—what he did was he said, “We’re not going to create a Hindu nation. We’re going to create a nation where all religions are protected.” And he was killed by a Hindu who believed he was pandering to Muslims. So if you—to—again, you have to conquer this understandable tendency to go too far with patriotism, and not allow alternative religions and alternative points of view.
And you know, we can’t just say that we’re protecting ourselves.
We have to recognize that we have to—we actually have to be the people that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others are saying that we’re not. And we have to be that, and it’s not easy, ’cause you have to simultaneously go after people that are dangerous and clear and present danger to the United States. It’s not an easy thing to do. You know, I’ll give you an example where I’m just—I think, “Oh my God.”
I mean some of the conversation about immigration is—it—I understand that we have a right to have a law that says, “You got to come into the United States in the following way.” We have a right to limit the number of people that we allow in the United States, particularly as popular a destination as we are for the rest of the world. And I understand that we have a right to enforce those laws—I mean I get all that. But God, sometimes the language is such that you think, “This is just—we’re”—we don’t want to create a place where we’re not welcoming other people.
And as I said, it’s not easy to do. It is not easy for us to do, so I mean, it’s—’cause you can’t send these guys off to kill and die for us, and then, you know, and then not behave in a manner that makes you feel like you deserve to have them do it for us. I mean every time I go down and visit the SEAL Team guys down at Dam Neck, Virginia, I come back and say, “Jesus, do we really deserve to have these people working for us?” I don’t know. And I’ve seen evidence that we don’t. And if you don’t behave like, you know, like you’re worthy of it, you’re not going to be worthy of it.
You supported the war in Iraq.
Tell me what prompted you to support the President in that—
Well, it was an old—it was an older effort.
I mean I got very much involved with the effort to maintain the no-fly zone, and so—and I followed, ’cause I was—
Back in the 1990s, you mean.
Back in the ’90s. We had a—we had a unique Security Council Resolution imposed on Iraq. And I voted against the first Gulf War and said that we ought to allow sanctions to go, and so I was on the Intelligence Committee at the time, and I followed what we did—precisely what we did. It’s now public knowledge that our—that we were—all the time from that moment in 1991 to 2001, we were attempting to kill Saddam Hussein, you know.
So my own view was you had to square up the open and the closed policy, so I wrote the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which said if you’re going to try to kill this man in private, you ought to say publicly that the Iraqi people can govern themselves.
And I believe they can. It’s not—we get in these arguments and people say, “We can’t impose democracy on somebody else.” That’s a false choice. It’s not an imposition of democracy to merely start off by saying you believe that the Iraqi people can govern themselves.
That they’re not condemned to have a dictatorship because there’s something genetically impossible for them to—whatever their constitution looks like, whatever their self-governing structure looks like. So I—yeah, I supported the President ’cause I—I didn’t—I never did buy into the weapons of mass destruction argument. I trusted in certainly there was evidence. All he had to do was provide evidence he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction when the sanctions came down, so you sort of think, “Well, God, he must have them, or he wouldn’t want these sanctions to remain.”
Then we discovered later that he was shoveling all kinds of money to himself in the Oil for Peace program, and actually was doing quite well under the sanctions, so.
But the weapons of mass destruction was not, to you, the motivation for war. It was planting the seed of democracy—
Right. Right. Not planting the seed, but supporting those who were both arguing for, particularly the Kurds in the north, but also Shi’a in the south, that believe that Saddam Hussein was a threat to them. They didn’t like the fact that he was throwing many of them in prison. That he attacked them after the Gulf War. They were making an argument that they could govern themselves. They were making the argument that a dictatorship was unnecessary.
Do you still feel support for the war in Iraq, now we came back?
Well, if you—you have to alter the question, if you don’t mind me falling back into my political mode of—
It’s all right.
Being able to change whatever question’s asked to suit me.
If you’d have told me that the Powell Doctrine was going to be thrown overboard, told me that they were going to shut down the Iraqi Army and kick everybody that had any Baathist connections out, and create the environment for sectarian violence, I probably wouldn’t have done it. Probably would’ve said, “Look, what we ought to be doing is ramping up the support for indigenous forces, locally. They will eventually get the job done.”
Because once you bring a couple hundred thousand people in a violent environment, then have to provide their security at the same time, because the Iraqi Army’s been, Police Force has been shut down, we become their police force as well. Again, it’s—
So your answer would be that it—
I would say if you give me all facts in about how we were going to conduct this thing, I think I’d have voted “no.”
But that it was—it’s more because it was mismanaged.
Not because of the original—
No, I—yeah. On the other hand, I do think that, you know, for those who fought in it, I still believe it was a very good cause. I do think there’s a liberation that occurred. I don’t buy the argument that the Iraqi people were better off with Saddam Hussein. I don’t buy it at all, and believe that we’ve ignored that negative impact of these dictatorships in the Middle East for a long, long time, and, you know, so I think the men and women who served in Iraq fought a good cause. It was a—it was a fight for freedom.
Do you think it has a relationship to the Arab Spring that’s happened in the past couple of years?
In other words, did the war—
Unleash some sort of forces that—
It was—our success in—I mean in Iraq, our initial success in Iraq, was humiliating for our opponents, because we crushed them.
You cannot get—you can’t ignore that. You have to stop and say, “Oh my God.” As excited and enthusiastic as we are with Shock and Awe, those who are being shocked and awed don’t feel excitement—they feel humiliation—and my guess is, for a short period of time it actually made things worse in terms of getting people to say, “We can do this on our own.”
Because they’re not doing it on their own—somebody’s doing it for them. I think that the biggest driver in the Arab Spring is likely, by the time it’s all sorted out, to be technology.
Much like it was for the end of the Cold War.
Much like it was for the end of the Cold War. Yeah. I think it’s apt to be just this technology. You’re able to organize and put hundreds of thousands of people into rear without much difficulty.
And you can sustain it, so I think that is apt to be seen as the, you know, the most important factor. But, you know, the fact that you’ve got an election in Iraq. You know, neighborhood’s a big deal, so if I’m living in Egypt, and I can say, “I hated what the Americans did, and I dislike them, but damn, they just had an election in Iraq, and you know, they’re in control.”
A real election.
A real election—they’re controlling their own destiny, you know. I think Obama’s speech in Cairo probably had a big impact. If I’m sitting in that audience, I’d say, “Wait a minute. I look just like this guy. He’s President and I’m unemployed. What the hell’s wrong with this picture?” And he could’ve just stood up there and said nothing, and apt to have had a big impact. And he’s Barack Hussein Obama—President Barack Hussein Obama. There’s something wrong with what people are telling me about the United States if the United States can elect Barack Hussein Obama.
“They’ve been telling me how bad America is, and how bad democracy is, and, you know, it can’t be, you know.” So I think probably there were a number of factors that led to Arab Spring.
One last question: since leaving the service, you’ve ended up leading a life of leadership, and—
One of the things that we teach here is leadership.
What did you learn as a leader of men in the Navy SEALs that you draw upon in your role as a Governor, as a member of the U.S. Senate, as the President of a major university?
Well, I mean first of all, I still think in five-paragraph patrol orders, so—and I got that from Ranger School, and I’ve never forgot it, you know? Paying attention to detail, I’ve never forgotten. Learning that you can’t delegate responsibility, I’ve never forgotten.
You know, I would say the experience of following people and learning how—you know, how it feels to follow, ’cause, you know, I was in a school the other day, ’cause of this new job that I’ve gotten. And this really remarkable principal—
What is your new job, just so we know?
I’m managing an education technology company.
So this teacher says to me, she said, “I hate managing adults.” She’s the principal of the school, high school. 60 percent Title I—tough kids. 95 percent graduation rate—she’s moved the needle, all right? So I’m saying so she’s a success. “I hate managing adults.” I said, “What’s that mean?” She said—and I got this from the service as well—as much as we have chain of command and you got to follow chain of command, a good leader wants people that don’t have to be managed.
And that’s all she was saying. She manages, but she manages better if you’ve got people that are taking initiative and trying to figure out how to solve the problem on their own.
And you got to acknowledge in that kind of an environment that every now and then, you’re going to make mistakes. You can’t get a batting average much over 500, and myself, you know. And I think and try to enjoy yourself while you’re—whatever it is you’re doing. Taking pleasure from life all the way along the way is not a bad thing, either.
Okay—thank you very much.
|Leadership Medal of Honor PTSD
|12 February 2012
|University of Nebraska
|SEAL Team 1