Military Leadership in a Changing Society
 James H. Webb, Jr., '68
 Naval War College Conference on Ethics
 November 16, 1998

     My current professional endeavors offer me a great vantage point from  which to observe the forces that are shaping the world.  I travel a lot, and often  find  myself in discussions with people of widely varying backgrounds regarding  the  turbulence within our society, how other countries are reacting to us, and  what has happened to leadership within our government.  Sometimes these  exchanges assist me in the conduct of my trade as a writer.  At others  they  help me when I pursue business opportunities.  And always, because of my own life's journey, they bring me to think of the United States military.  Where  is its place in this changing world?  Where does it stand among its own  people?  How do those on the outside view it?  Where are current defense  leaders taking it?  And how are its own leaders honoring their sacred duty to preserve the standards handed down through the generations?

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

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

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

      I myself, like the majority of this nation, subscribe to a different view,  in  effect the reverse of that syllogism,  because when it comes to leadership  as  opposed to law or medicine or engineering the logic is indeed the reverse:  the hotter the fire, the tougher the steel, and the more reliable the  leader.  And also because in a democracy it is a given that the more one has  benefited  from the fruits of our nation, the greater is his obligation to serve.  But it  is important to recognize that our elites abandoned this position during  the  Vietnam war, and it has affected policy for an entire generation.  As one  example of this disparity, Harvard lost 691 alumni in World War Two, while  in  Vietnam it lost a total of 12 out of all the classes from 1962 to 1972.  This  notion of special privilege has spread, not abated, over the decades  following the Vietnam war.  For most elites who make policy or provide  commentary on it, you are little more than an intellectual issue.  Just as  the  crisis in public education is for them a matter to be worried over in  removed  policy terms rather than directly experienced by their own privately  schooled  children, almost no one in a position to affect policy has a direct human  stake in the outcome of a military engagement.

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

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

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

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

      Next, the general public.  In the aggregate they like you, they support  you,  and they respect you.  But in reality they know less and less about what  you  are actually doing, and fewer and fewer among them have a human stake if  what  you're doing goes wrong.  When we had the draft, families throughout the  nation paid close attention, because nearly all of them were at risk when  troops were sent into harm's way.  Additionally, a constant stream of  veterans  was returning to communities throughout the country, and despite  persistent  media reports to the contrary they were bringing home a positive story  about  military service and the challenges of wearing the uniform.  Those who are  veterans are still able to communicate these messages, but with a smaller  military, longer enlistments and higher retention the veteran population  is  dwindling.  As one example, a thousand World War Two veterans are dying  every  day.  And what of the "new Americans?"  Our country is so vastly rich and  powerful, so dominant in the world's cultural centers through its impact  in  film, music and fashion, that it is difficult for many newcomers to  understand  that it was built from nothing, on the backs of individuals who carved out  a  wilderness, designed a unique system of government, and along the way had  to  be willing to take time from their lives and serve the larger good.  Many  recent immigrants come from cultures that do not respect their military,  or  from societies where the military is viewed as corrupt and authoritarian.  They do not understand the deep sense of patriotism and tradition that is  at  the bottom of our most dedicated military people's service.  Indeed, they  have  been given no reasons to see military service as a duty of citizenship.  And a  lost opportunity lurks here -- the chance to embrace these new Americans  as  equal citizens, and to reinforce the notion that being an American brings  with  it a shared history, no matter at what point one's own family arrived, as  well  as an obligation to serve the greater good.  Being  an American is more  than  paying taxes and obeying the speed limit.  The sacrifices of the past  inform  the greatness of the present,  and the sacrifices of the present provide  security for the future, and it is above all the military services which  connect us all in such a way.

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

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

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

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

      But who benefits from it?  And who pays if these sorts of miscalculations  go  wrong?  A memory lurks here, of World War Two soldiers lamenting that the  Japanese artillery coming their way was made from scrap metal that  American  businessmen had sold a few years earlier for a profit.  But let us now  speak  of the present, and of the future.  Does our nation have a strategy in the  wake of the Cold War?  How is the military being used, and positioned for future use?

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

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

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

    This is not to diminish the difficulties of the Army and the Air Force,  which  have seen dramatic reductions since the end of the cold war.  But these  changes were largely the product of our reduced presence in NATO Europe,  and  that presence was a historical anomaly for the United States.  Never  before  1949 did our country occupy large positions in foreign countries solely  for  the purpose of local defense.  By contrast, for more than a century we  have  recognized that the navy connects us to the world and is essential to its  day-  to-day security as well as our own.  Just as Russia, China and Germany are  traditional continental powers, the United States is a maritime nation, by  virtue of its geographical position, economic and security interests,  cultural  ties, and treaty obligations with other countries.  The NATO reductions  were  actually a return to historical normality for the US military.  And it  should  be remembered that in the decades before World War Two the navy received  roughly half of the national security budget.  The end of the cold war  brought  very few changes to the obligations faced by the navy.  It must operate  continuously in the present low-threat conditions, and it must be capable  of  doing even more at the turn of a switch.  Its presence around the world on  the  calmest of days is a signal of global stability, a message that the United  States is looking after its economic and security interests.  Its ability  to  maneuver and respond at crisis points is the single most important measure  of  our day-to-day credibility.  If the threat increases, the Navy-Marine  Corps  doctrine of amphibious power projection in the littoral regions of the  globe  allows us to assert our interests without the diplomatic frustrations and  operational vulnerability of ground bases.  And the capability of putting  a  sustainable logistical train in place during major engagements, coupled  with  the power of the fleet, is an essential ingredient of national strategy.

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

      By FY 2001 the navy will have reduced the size of the fleet by 45 percent  since my resignation -- if it meets its procurement goals -- and funding  for  procurement is lagging far behind those goals.  Since 1992 alone, the size  of  the fleet has decreased by 31 percent while optempo has increased by 26  percent.  More than half of the ships in the navy are at sea on any given  day,  and a majority of those are forward deployed.  The aircraft mishap rate is  nearly double last year's, the highest level in the last five years.

      Recruitment is dramatically off, 7000 below requirements, the worst of all  the  services.  Enlisted retention is below requirements and all the officer  warfighting communities forecast serious retention problems.  Funding for  ship  and aircraft modernization has decreased by more than 50 percent since  1990.  The people who are leaving cite more and more frequently that their  greatest  reason is a disappointment in the quality of leadership they are receiving  from above.

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

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

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

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

      Those leaders who comfortably claim that the notion of civilian control  precludes them from arguing their own case should study the success of the  Marine Corps, for this is exactly what it did in the late 1940s when it  was  threatened with extinction, and in different form it is what Marine Corps leaders continue to do today.  Military subservience to political control  applies to existing policy, not to policy debates.  The political process  requires the unfettered opinions of military leaders, and military leaders  who  lack the courage to offer such opinions are in my view just as accountable  to  their people as the politicians who have secured their silence.  The  silence  of the admirals as the fleet shrinks and their sailors continue to do more  with less has not gone unnoticed.  A recent Naval Institute Proceedings  article pointing out that only one in ten navy junior officers in a recent  study aspires to command -- and that number not even addressing the issue  of  quality -- is an ominous warning.  A lot of reasons were given,  but two  messages came through loud and clear.  The first was that money alone  won't  solve the problem.  Americans have never been mercenaries, and although it  is  the duty of their leaders to provide for their well-being, they can't  simply  be bought.  The second was an overwhelming disenchantment with the Navy's  senior leaders.  I recently heard these same two messages again and again  during a discussion with junior aviators in Japan.

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

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

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

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