Proceedings : Really?
Schlesinger : Yes, which is not the Navy’s normal reputation.
Proceedings : Specifically, how is the Navy being more joint than it ever was?
Schlesinger : We didn’t get into that. But I think it’s in terms of a new world in which we are not going after big foes, and we’re not going after them in a nuclear way unless something occurs that would require such a response. We’re going after the likes of Iraq in a joint operation. The Navy, having seen that, has gone with the flow more than the other services.
Proceedings : Given all the precision-guided weapons in the arsenal, how important is the Navy in the grand scheme of fighting a modern war?
Schlesinger : That’s been a matter of evolution. As you may recall, the Navy was slower to pick up precision-guided weapons than was the Air Force. And that was reflected in Desert Storm, in which the Air Force carried the bulk of the work. That has not always been the case. The Navy has done some marvelous things in the past. If you’ll remember, the Sidewinder [missile] was developed at the Navy’s laboratory at China Lake. But in that period leading up to 1990, the Navy was less characterized by its understanding of jointness and in collaborating in the air war with the Air Force. In the intervening decade, the Navy transformed itself. The recent collaboration between the Navy and the Air Force in Iraq was tremendous.
The great advantage the Navy has, of course, is that its platforms are at sea and not dependent on negotiations with any sovereign power. Our long negotiations with the Saudis over the use of the Prince Sultan Air Base showed a political vulnerability. Air operations, in the case of the Navy, are not dependent on any host powers.
Proceedings : One of the current debates in Congress and the Department of Defense is the size of the force. One side asserts that we are spread too thin and wants a larger force; the other asserts that if we’ve bought into technology, the force can be more efficient and thus smaller. What are your thoughts on that?
Schlesinger : The hypothesis that we need a larger force is one that we should consider and examine carefully. After careful study, we may indeed—because of the larger responsibilities we’ve acquired in the Middle East and elsewhere—decide to expand the force somewhat. But that depends on a study that would demonstrate that we need such larger forces. That’s the first point.
Proceedings : Is such a force-structure study under way?
Schlesinger : I don’t know whether such a study is under way; I suspect one will be under way as a result of the discussions you describe.
The second point is this: the most expensive part of the force structure is manpower. That is, in a sense, the down side of the all-volunteer force. Training and pensions are extremely expensive. It might be possible to economize on the use of personnel, particularly Army personnel, by using private contractors, by employing more civilians in the Department of Defense and replacing people in uniform with people who are not in uniform. That needs to be part of the study. There is a great deal of inefficiency in changing tours of duty. We spend a lot of time and money moving people back and forth. And that too needs to be examined.
I think after we’ve looked at many of these matters, we may decide that the force structure needs some expansion. It’s the Army that basically has been stretched too thin. During this operation in Iraq, the Navy had extended periods at sea. But that condition looks as if it may not be permanent. In its occupation or liberation duties, the Army may have a permanent strain that was not anticipated when it was sized to its present force structure.
The third point is that this is an all-volunteer force. If people are required to spend 10 months on carrier duty without coming home, at least their families will put on pressure for them to get out of the military. And if people in the reserve are called up more regularly, they will begin to consider what that’s going to do to their civilian careers.
So there are vulnerabilities in excessive strain on an existing force that may be reduced if the force structure were larger. But that comes only after careful study of how to make the most efficient use of military manpower.
Proceedings : Can we afford to deploy our military forces on peacekeeping and humanitarian aid operations, which haven’t traditionally been part of the mission? Or have they?
Schlesinger : You’ll probably find people who are more proponents of humanitarian aid than I am. And we should be very cautious about becoming peacekeepers. But the situation in the Middle East is critical for the future of the United States as a world power—indeed, the future of the security of the United States, simply because we have been attacked. One must recognize that we were attacked in the name of Islam, and that much of the Middle Eastern population sympathizes with Osama bin Laden. We’ve got to turn that around. That means we must make a success of what we are doing in Iraq. We must see to it that Iraqi society prospers, that it stabilizes, that standards of living begin to rise, and that Iraq becomes a normal country. If we fail to do that, having engaged in the way we have, we will forfeit our position in the Middle East and worldwide.
That particular peace-enforcing role is one that was forced on the United States partly by the events of 9/11 and partly by our decision to go into Iraq. But that decision is behind us, and we must now make a success of it. Whatever it takes, we should be prepared to pay. We used to pay 8% of the gross domestic product for the Department of Defense; we’re now paying just over 3%. In World War II, of course, we paid about 25% of the gross domestic product to prosecute the war. We can afford whatever we need to afford, if it involves the security of the country, and we ought not to forget that. We must recognize that and not try to do what are very delicate operations—from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond—on the cheap.
Proceedings : In what capacity do you serve as a consultant to the Department of Defense?
Schlesinger : I’m a member of the Defense Policy Board, for one thing. And this meets periodically with the Secretary and Deputy Secretary. In addition, Secretary Rumsfeld has made a number of us consultants to him. From time to time, we meet to discuss specific problems that he may pose for us.
Proceedings : Sometimes Secretary Rumsfeld is quite vocal about his views on foreign policy, and some see that as State Department business. How do you feel about that?
Schlesinger : One can’t draw a clear line between State and Defense; they’re both engaged in interactions with the outside world and with individual countries. Anything that is going to spill over in requirements for U.S. forces is going to impact on the Department of Defense. It is perfectly natural under those circumstances for the Secretary of Defense to be keenly concerned about the consequences of our foreign policy and how they may impact his department. So there must be a level of mutual understanding between the two departments, which, regrettably but understandably, does not always materialize.
Proceedings : What is the difference about the way the Department of Defense runs today from how it ran when you were Secretary?
Schlesinger : The most interesting changes are three. First, there is a keen understanding today of the need for jointness—that no service should try to operate on its own; that all four services depend on access to national assets, in particular overhead reconnaissance, satellite communications, and the like; and that the kinds of engagement we are in are not going to be strictly the Marines taking on Tarawa, or the Army taking on the Wehrmacht, or the Navy fighting against the Japanese Fleet. The services must collaborate closely. In the years when I was Secretary there was much greater resistance on the part of the services, and I’m happy to see they are moving in the right direction. Perhaps most notable, the Navy has moved in the right direction.
The second big change, of course, has been in the area of technology. The services now can rely on precision-guided weapons; intelligence capabilities that are just marvelous; the ability through intelligence to identify targets; to communicate those targets quickly; to attack aircraft or ground forces; and through precision-guided weapons to destroy those targets.
As a result, we are able, in combat, to destroy enemy forces at a very low casualty rate, comparatively speaking. There is a down side to that, curiously enough. The American public has grown to believe that you can fight a war, as we did Desert Storm, with only a handful of casualties, or Kosovo, where we had no casualties. And there are those who believe that the public’s tolerance for casualties is very low, but I’m not sure the public, if it sees a national interest, is not prepared to stand higher casualties. This low tolerance, perceived or not, has made our forces rely on high technology to the extent that we must stay ahead of potential foes in that field.
The third area is the significant change in the balance between ground forces and air forces. Not everybody in the Army will accept that change, but it is a reality demonstrated most dramatically, I think, in Gulf War I and Gulf War II. The Army people are quite correct that you need boots on the ground. But you can hold down casualties, Army casualties, to a substantial extent by the use of air power. In terms of operations, that is perhaps the most significant change that has taken place.
Proceedings : If you could redo anything you did as Secretary of Defense, what would it be?
Schlesinger : The fact is, that was an interesting period. Our combat mission was over in Vietnam. Indeed, in the summer of ’74, the Congress prohibited the Department of Defense from taking any military action in the successor states of the former Indochina. As we came out of Vietnam, it was very important to rebuild our forces in Europe, restore NATO, and create a credible, conventional deterrent. It was important also to tie together our strategic forces with the defense of Western Europe, which had come under question, particularly during the Vietnam period.
Our decisions, I think, with regard to the use of manpower and how weapon systems would be employed in the future were all very good. We developed stealth and the global positioning system, all to the good.
The great regret I have is, of course, that I was perhaps too comforted by the stories I heard from Southeast Asia, about the improvements that were coming in the self-defense capabilities of the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam]. It turned out, in 1975, that the ARVN was a frail reed when unsupported by American air power. My great regret was to see the fall of Phnom Penh and Saigon. I think both should have been prevented.
Proceedings : What do you think of the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security?
Schlesinger : We are forced to make decisions in this country, and we’ve made that one. One must recognize there are significant frictional costs in establishing a new department, because you’re bringing in elements from different departments. Culturally speaking, this is a much harder transition than was the creation of the Department of Defense, and certainly much harder than the creation of the Department of Energy in 1977.
Proceedings : Let’s talk about Midway. Your address at the annual Midway Night in June was a call to arms for the United States and its citizenry to erect a national memorial to the World War II Battle of Midway. Exactly what tangible thing would you like to see?
Schlesinger : I’m not sure that it is yet tangible; it’s intangible. I would like to see greater recognition of the worldwide historical significance of Midway. The victory at Midway permitted [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt to follow what was the preferred strategy: to deal with the greater threat first, namely, from Germany and Adolf Hitler.
Midway stopped the Japanese offensive, which was rolling southward toward Australia and westward toward Burma and India. As a consequence, we could focus on defeating Germany in that period before the Soviet Union either was conquered or overran Europe. Midway was a crucial battle of World War II for the Europeans.
Proceedings : What can the average citizen do to support this effort?
Schlesinger : I’m not sure. The average citizen must be aroused first. That means the historians, Navy veterans, Midway survivors, and the Navy in general must make clear how significant Midway was in the overall prosecution of World War II and indeed in the postwar fate of Europe. This was one of the U.S. Navy’s greatest triumphs, probably equivalent to Trafalgar in English history.
Proceedings : Some would say that the European Theater gets more attention from historians than the Pacific Theater. Why do you think that is?
Schlesinger : It is true. Europe was the priority theater, partly because Britain was under pressure and remained so until 1943. Remember that resupply operations were very risky, and they were going badly. Until 1943, we had not won the Battle of the Atlantic, which meant if Britain failed to survive, the position of the Allies—the United States, in particular—would have deteriorated. And Germany would have been able to exploit the industrial resources of the entire European continent. Of course, the Japanese were making substantial progress in the western Pacific, but mostly they were taking over colonies that were raw-material producers. They would not have had the industrial might Germany would have acquired if it had dominated in Europe and if Britain ceased to stand alone as it had.
Proceedings : The current Defense Appropriation Bill includes a provision for making the D-Day Museum in New Orleans the National World War II Museum. What do you think of that?
Schlesinger : The D-Day Museum deserves its honors, but it is not the National World War II Museum. Once again, we were attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, and we were in a critical position for the first six months of the war. That turned around at Midway. To focus on the D-Day Museum as the exclusive World War II museum is just a false, incomplete interpretation of history.
Proceedings : What is the process for erecting a national Midway memorial? It needs some sort of congressional support, right?
Schlesinger : I think it needs congressional support. I also would like to see it have presidential support. In a way, it’s a surprise to me. You mentioned, quite accurately, that Europe has received most of the attention. But think of recent Presidents of the United States: Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, and George H.W. Bush served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II. Yet the overall attention continues to be paid to the war in Europe. None of these Presidents did very much to raise the profile, as it were, of both the Navy in the Pacific and the signal importance of the Battle of Midway.
It’s partly because the threat from the Soviet Union was against Europe. So what had been the war against fascism continued into the war against communism. But now that the Soviet threat is basically gone, we can stand back and see more clearly—even though Europe was a battleground from 1939 until 1989—that critical to the outcome of both World War II and the Cold War was the Battle of Midway.
I like to say that if there were no Midway there would have been no D-Day. The D-Day anniversary happens to coincide with the anniversary of Midway. In a way, it’s easier to pay greater attention to D-Day; there was the massive landing of the troops on the Normandy beaches, and there are many more veterans of that operation around. Generally speaking, the Navy has failed to underscore or to publicize the importance of the Battle of Midway, except within the Navy itself. It has, in this respect, been the silent service.
Proceedings : We hear criticisms occasionally that the Navy does not care enough about its history. It lives more for today and the future. How important should history be to the Navy?
Schlesinger : Oh, it’s not just the U.S. Navy; it’s American society. We have a very poor grasp of the importance of history in this society. You’ve read the studies in which half of college students don’t know in which century the Civil War took place. Contrast that, once again, with the longtime emphasis and honors placed on Trafalgar by the Brits. We have a much more casual approach here in the United States. A lot of people in this country do not know that in World War II we were fighting the Germans and the Japanese. They think of them as our allies during the Cold War, and they’ve forgotten about World War II. If one does not really understand what World War II was about, one does not appreciate its historic turning points and the impact they had on the way we live today.