WASHINGTON, Jan. 10, 2011 — As the military enjoys tremendous support from the American people, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today, now is the time to step back, assess the impact of 10 years of war and ensure the institution remains on course.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, opening a leadership conference at the National Defense University at Fort McNair here, called for a proactive self-examination –- institutionally and as by individual leaders –- and appropriate course corrections, as needed.
The chairman called today’s all-day conference — titled “Military Professionalism: Introspection and Reflection on Basic Tenets and the Way Ahead” — “an opportunity to begin a conversation and debate about who we are, what we have become, and how that matches up to who we should be.”
“For something like this, which is at the heart of who we are, we can’t do enough self-examination,” he told the attendees, key leaders of the military education and training community.
“This is not self-flagellation,” he added. “This is examination to make sure we understand it and that we keep feeding it back to raise those who will lead, in the not-too-distant future, our military and, in fact, our country.”
Echoing a message Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sent during a speech at Duke University in September, Mullen cited a growing chasm between the American people and the military that depends on their support for its very survival.
Gates noted during that speech that less than 1 percent of the U.S. population has shouldered the national security burden, and he expressed concern that Americans are losing contact with those who make up its military.
Today, Mullen said that although most Americans have tremendous goodwill toward their men and women in uniform, by and large they have little true connection to who they are or what they represent.
That’s a dangerous situation for the military, which can’t survive without public support, Mullen said.
“Our underpinning, our authorities, everything we are, everything we do comes from the American people,” he said. “And we cannot afford to be out of touch with them. … To the degree we are out of touch, I think is a very dangerous course.”
The chairman cited changes in the American public’s perception of the military during the span of his own career.
During the 1970s, he said, the public largely blamed the military for failures in Vietnam, resulting in deep organizational scars that remain today. Then, during the 1980s, personal accountability began to erode within the military, the chairman told the group.
“We were much more focused on the image of who we were, the communications of who we were, particularly when things got tough,” Mullen said. “And I saw too many not stand up who should have stood up from an accountability standpoint. And it bothered me to no end. … For me, accountability is at the heart of this.”
In the 1990s, incidents such as the Tailhook scandal — sexual misconduct by officers during a 1991 private organization convention — exposed questions about institutional responsibility, Mullen said, and the importance of putting the good of the military institution over that of individuals.
While declining to speak about the recent firing of the commanding officer of the USS Enterprise while an investigation continues, Mullen said situations like this underscore the need for self-assessment within the military.
“We have to have a true compass ethically. We have to have a true compass morally. We have to have a true compass inside our profession,” he said.
Mullen emphasized that he has no reason to believe the military has deviated dramatically from its “true compass,” but he urged leaders to act now to take stock of gradual changes within the organization.
Just as leaders learn from their successes, he told the group, they also must learn the important lessons of their failures. He noted “difficult times” during the past 10 years when they may have faced moral or ethical challenges, or situations in which leaders fell short. He also recognized instances when the military has failed to live up to its responsibility to remain apolitical.
“There were things that were outside who we are as a country, who we are as a military,” he said. “The true measure … is how you pick yourself up off the deck, dust yourself off, learn the lessons and move forward.
“It goes to this accountability discussion,” he added. “All of this is tied to: ‘Who are we? What is our profession? What are the principles we care most about?’ ” Mullen said. “And in everything we do, we have got to keep those principles front and center –- for ourselves and for those that come along.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)