Harry Summers Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Military Strategy; Conversation with Harry G. Sumers; 3/6/96 by Harry Kreisler

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Do you think the political leaders are too focused on elections too much of the time? That elections lead them to build up expectations, promise solutions to problems that they find it very difficult to do anything about once in office?

Their basis of power rests with the American people, and therefore they have got to be responsive to the wishes and desires of the American people. So what we would see as domestic politicking, they would argue is sort of the nature of the beast. Richard Neustadt wrote a book on alliance politics, and in talking about the Suez Crisis, he said that all politics is domestic politics -- there's no other kind -- because politicians get elected or defeated at home, not abroad. So that every action, international action or military action, has a domestic political edge to it.

Some presidents handle it better than others. Certainly, Franklin Roosevelt had to worry about the domestic reaction to Pearl Harbor -- or to the Battle of the Bulge, for that matter -- when it looked like we were about to screw it up in Europe. He handled it very well. Initially, Truman handled the Korean War very well, but then screwed it up on the Chinese intervention. With LBJ and the Vietnam War, because he didn't handle it very well, it lead to his own defeat. So again, domestic politics has to be part and parcel of military policy. It has to be factored into everything, and there's no way you can separate out the two, not in a democracy.

It's interesting that Clausewitz goes into this a hundred and fifty years ago. He said that military counsel in the councils of wars is the least important of all, that the political counsel, what he calls "the interaction of peoples and their government," is the governing factor in war. The military's job is just to execute the policy that the people and the government come up with. We don't want to involve the military in domestic politics. Part of Johnson's problem, and it was Kennedy's problem, is that he did that with Maxwell Taylor. When John Paul Vann came back from Vietnam to testify that things were screwed up in Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor forbade him to talk to the Joint Chiefs, and General Bruce Palmer said it was obvious that he and McNamara were playing domestic politics because the presidential election was coming up. That should be intolerable. As General Ridgeway, who was our leader after the Korean War, had said, a military advisor's job is to tell the president the truth in clear and unvarnished terms and not cut his advice for any reason.

That's essentially what General Powell has done as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and to some degree what General Shalikashvili has done as well. Powell did it more flamboyantly; Shalikashvili has done it more quietly. But they've tried to give the president the best military advice. Yet once the decision is made, our system says it's time to either resign or execute it. No more quibbling about the orders once the decision is made. That's what we're seeing, I think, in Bosnia. The military has been against it from the very beginning for a lot of reasons. They were told to do it. And they'll do it to the best of their ability.

We seem to have gotten things right in the Gulf War. Is that correct?

I think so. We almost went wrong. In one of the accounts of the Gulf War, the decision was being made whether or not to go to Congress to seek their approval for the war. And the legal advisors were telling the president to follow the Korean War example, fall back on his authority under Article 2, as commander in chief with the authority to commit troops, as Johnson had done and as Nixon, ultimately, had done. And to his great credit, Bush refused to do that.

(Barnes) He played basically by the War Powers Act.

By the traditional rules laid out by the Constitution. And he went to the Congress for their permission. It was a near thing: he just barely got it. But I thought at the time, "We're finally back on track." And Bush hammered and hammered and hammered and hammered on the objective of what we were trying to do: eject the Iraqis from Kuwait, restore the government there, and provide for peace and security in the area.

And he kept hammering and hammering on it. So the American people basically understood it. They understood precisely what were the goals. Ironically, the revisionists afterwards have gone back and said, "Well, you didn't seize Baghdad." And the answer is, "We never intended to. That wasn't one of the objectives." So again, that World War II syndrome of the apocalyptic victory is coming back to haunt us, even by people like General Bernie Trainor, who ought to know better.

(Barnes) He was a Nimitz Lecturer here a couple of years ago and, in fact, he made that very, very clear when he was here.

He said that the military should have done this, that, and the other. He should understand, and I'm sure he does, that the objectives were political, not military. And when the political objectives were realized in Bush's mind, the war ended, as it should have.

So even though some could argue that there was a long-term political failure in that Saddam Hussein was not overthrown, you're saying that it was still a military success because there was a more limited political goal that the military followed and achieved.

The only legitimate measure of military success is the attainment of the political goals they set out to achieve. Anything beyond that doesn't make any sense. The military's job is to attain the political goals set by the administration. And they demonstrably did that in the Gulf. Part of the problem that people don't seem to understand is that we are committed to coalition warfare and we can no longer unilaterally set the objectives of the war. One of the reasons why the objectives in the Gulf were limited is because our allies insisted on it. They didn't want the United States occupying Baghdad. They didn't want the US to be the king-maker in the Persian Gulf, and neither did the Soviet Union, who was probably our most effective ally in the conduct of the war even though they committed no troops. So our objectives were limited by very real political considerations. And once those political objectives were realized, the military objective was obtained.

How do you evaluate the media's role in educating the people about the military's role in our society?

Because we are a trinitarian military, the glue that holds the trinity together is the media. At the end of the Vietnam war, the idea was we'll do away with the draft and just enlist the great unwashed, and if we get them killed, who gives a damn. The elitists who were saying that thought that, because they not only didn't know anybody in the military, they didn't know anybody who knew about anybody in the military. But the media wouldn't let that happen. And when those marines were killed in Beirut, their pictures were on the front pages of all the papers, and reporters were talking to their mommies and their daddies and their sisters and their brothers. They were not nameless faces. The same phenomenon in Somalia and Mogadishu, and the same phenomenon not only in the Gulf but in Bosnia today. So the media serves as the glue that holds together this trinity of the people, the government, and the military. And for that, we owe them a great deal of credit and praise, although I don't think most military people see it in that light.

In the job of educating the American public, the media has not done a very good job. In the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows has a piece on the limitations of the American media. For one thing, they don't understand the military very well. It's not so much anti-militarism as just sort of benign neglect. I worked for US News for a while after I retired, and I didn't find any great anti-militarism there, but I found a great apathy about the military -- and pure ignorance. In fact, they take sort of a perverse pride in not being "captured" by the military-industrial complex.

I was on a panel for the Twentieth Century Fund after the Granada invasion, and a great many witnesses came. And what was developing was an enormous gap between the military and the media. One of the great anomalies of the Vietnam War was that the military hated the media in general and liked them in the particular, because they liked the people they knew. When my first book came out, Dan Rather held it up on CBS News and talked about it for three minutes. It was unbelievable, and I said to a friend of mine, "I can't believe that the Communist Broadcasting Company would give me that kind of air time." And he said, "What the hell are you talking about? Dan Rather was with me in the highlands. He went on patrols with us." And so he thought the world rose and set with Dan Rather -- a view that I didn't share because I didn't know that.

But after the war, all the war stories about the media began to take hold, and the media became the devil incarnate. And somebody in the press says, "You've got to talk to me. I'm an American reporter, a Time reporter. I'm an American reporter." The guy says, "You're not an American reporter, you belong to Time Inc., the international conglomerate." And of course, there is some truth in that. When Dan Rather was criticized during the Gulf War for talking about "our" tanks driving forward, a lot of his colleagues in the media said, "You can't say our, you've got to be sort of the imperial media above it all."

So, there's a gulf, and the military has tried very hard to close that gulf. War colleges and staff colleges have media days, and they bring the media in to talk to the troops and this, that, and the other. But of course, on the other side of the equation, there is no "media" -- that's just an abstraction. You've got the New York Times, the L.A. Times, and you've got all these different organs and there's no connector between them. You can't deal with the media as a block; you can only deal with them as individuals. We have a core of reporters -- Broder of the L.A. Times, Molly Moore at the Washington Post, you can go down the list, and Rich Atkinson is another one -- who are very good and who know what they are talking about. But when a crisis occurs, suddenly you get this deluge of part-timers and all the rest who come in and who don't know the difference between Abrams and an Apache.

One final question. You've said that military strategists have to understand their country: its culture, its people, its history, the functioning of its democracy. So it sounds as if a liberal arts education is a good place to start. Is that correct?

I couldn't agree more. Clausewitz said that to understand the relative forces that are involved, you've got to take into account the character of the people, their will, their motivation, their history, and their background, as well as the means of war, the tools, and so on. And he ends up by saying, "Even Newton himself would quail before the mathematical equations thus involved." But I think that we cannot afford to have an officer corps chaired by technicians who understand the mechanics of war and purely that -- that is, the military academy graduates. My son's a military academy graduate, and he's certainly not that limited, but I think we need the sort of liberal educated background of an officer corps.

Fred Weyand is a case in point. He was the last commander in Vietnam and the Army Chief of Staff and a Berkeley graduate, class of 1939. Those are the kind of people we need at the helm where, instead of a stab-in-the-back theory coming out of the Vietnam War, Weyand said to the Army, "Well, anti-militarism is a train that makes us what we are. We ought to be proud of it. We ought to understand it, instead of being agitated by it. We're not going to be loved; at least we can be respected." That kind of a reaction, coming out of his liberal arts background and education, prevented the kind of disaster that overtook Germany after World War I and France after the Algerian War. It has enormous payoffs, and we ought not to jeopardize this liberally educated officer corps for the sake of rather narrow, parochial issues that are really of no import over time.

Colonel Summers, thank you very much for being with us today. And thank you, Professor Barnes. And thank you all for joining us for this "Conversation on International Affairs."

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