Gen. Barry McCaffrey says the Vietnam War’s legacy continues to shape both the media and the political class, making each critical of the same U.S. Armed Forces the public overwhelmingly trusts.
McCaffrey spoke to Breitbart News and other assembled press Tuesday as part of the biannual Television Critics Association Press Tour, which is holding it summer session at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. The general attended to promote the new National Geographic special American War Generals which airs in November.
The two-hour event features candid comments from 11 generals, including Colin Powell, Stanley A. McChrystal, David Petraeus, Wesley Clark, Raymond Odierno and McCaffrey, who joined executive producer Tresha Mabile on stage in the Hilton’s International Ballroom (home of the Golden Globes) to answer questions.
McCaffrey–who retired from the U.S. Army as a four-star general in 1996 and has worked, among other things, as a military consultant and TV analyst on national security and terrorism issues–reiterated some of the criticisms he had of how Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld conducted the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent Iraq War, which are featured in the film.
But he was also asked about current events. Here’s some of what McCaffrey had to say …
On defaulting to the military option when others are available:
“I tell people this bluntly, there’s 2.3 million men, women in the Department of Defense, and they’ll follow your orders if you’re the Commander in Chief. So, they’ll deliver mail. They’ll take 10,000 Cuban refugees. They’ll take down a foreign government. They’re a tool that’s responsive. Frequently, it’s the wrong tool. And by the way that you use military power, the outcomes are always unpredictable.
“Part of the challenge is, how do you respond to a sort of a CNN-news mentality? We’re seeing that on the border right now of the children coming across the frontier. Let’s put the National Guard in there to control our frontier.’ But reaching for that military tool is very tempting. We’ll follow orders. We’ll go 7,000 miles way. We take our own water and medical care, and we defend ourselves, et cetera. And not always for warlike operations. Pakistan’s giant earthquake–you name it, they’ll do. So we do have a problem.
“We have other institutions of government that are anemic compared to the Department of Defense–USAID, Border Patrol, State Department. These are tiny organizations, and you have to frequently persuade them to do something.”
On the current situation in Iraq, with terrorist group ISIS overrunning areas previously secured by the U.S. military:
“I think everybody’s disappointed. We had a lot of people killed and wounded there. Essentially, we got in there with one purpose, which I thought was OK, to take down the Saddam regime. It was a danger to its own people and its neighbors. The six neighbors of Iraq were all fearful of Saddam and his despotic regime. But at the end of the day, we tried to institute a modern democratic state with an incredibly complicated constitution–this applies in Afghanistan also–on top of a culture that was ill-disposed.
“Now, I listen to the Obama team right now talking about Putin, and he doesn’t understand. He’s talking 19th-century power politics, and so he’s out of sync. If you’re in Iraq, and you’re Maliki, you’re not about to create a valid, inclusive government. It would be madness. The Sunnis mastered them for 25 years. And the Kurds — the Kurds will never allow an Iraqi division for 100 years to set foot in a Kurdish autonomous zone, with good reason.
“So, Iraq is coming apart, and I think in the long run, Richard Haas (president of the Council on Foreign Relations) has a pretty good explanation of it, as does (“American War Generals” executive producer) Peter Bergen, that we’re seeing fault lines develop on World War I geographical boundaries that inadequately identified national entities.
“So, in the coming 10 to 12 years, the Middle East is going to arrange itself in some pretty unpredictable and very bloody ways. Shia, Kurd, Christian, you name it. The same thing is going to go on in Afghanistan. The central federal state won’t work with boundaries that don’t encourage inclusive kinds of regimes.”
On the likelihood of a draft:
“It will never happen until there’s another major conflict. We’ve actually had a draft in every conflict in which we’ve had extensive casualties. And as much as I hate to say it, 60.000 killed or wounded, we have not had extensive casualties in these wars (meaning Iraq and Afghanistan). So we haven’t had to. And guys my age group, we love the draftees.
“At the height of the Vietnam War, 14 percent of the armed forces were draftees. That’s it. When you got to my company, it was 100 percent. The first sergeant and I were the only, to include the lieutenant, non-draftees. And we loved them. Hey, they’re nice boys, teenage boys, 19. They were splendid combat soldiers. We still love each other to this day.
“Charlie Rangel and some senator from South Carolina are always funny about it. They’ll blindly be: ‘If you Republicans didn’t start these wars, us Democrats wouldn’t have to fight them.’ But that’s just a tease line. There won’t be a draft. There won’t be universal service. That’s another (thing) to drag people off the argument.”
On why most in the media and Hollywood just don’t appreciate the military the way other Americans do:
“The last slide I use on every public lecture, Harvard of the Army War College, whatever it is, is to put up the Gallup Pool on the degree to which you have trust and confidence in the following institution. And I call it a bad-news slide for democracy. The least trusted institution in American society, normally in the single digits, is Congress–the centerpiece of our government.
“Overwhelmingly, the most trusted institution in our society is the U.S. armed forces, no matter how you ask the question. That’s because they’re boys and girls who are writing mom and dad and their high-school football coach and telling them this is an institution of honor and courage, and they care about me as an individual. So it’s a tremendously trusted institution–and the young reporters are not in this mold.
“There’s still a legacy of antipathy between the Vietnam-generation media and the political class, in some cases, and the armed forces, that we’re still dealing with, in the aftermath.”
On dealing with the Veterans Administration healthcare scandal:
“Well, VA’s a tough one. Rick Shinseki has been a young friend of mine for years. I was advising him on and off during this last crisis, leading to his resignation (former U.S. Army Gen. Shinseki was, until recently, the United States Secretary for Veterans Affairs), which was the right thing, for him to leave. He wasn’t ever going to be able to fix this.
“VA’s the second largest department of government. It has a gigantic budget. It’s actually one of the most modern, supportive healthcare institutions in the world, if you’re inside it. So the veterans, like my brother-in-law, a Vietnam buck sergeant, simply loves the VA hospitals. They’re treated beautifully when they’re in it.
“But now, they’re completely overwhelmed, particularly by PTSD, behavioral-healthcare problems. It’s micromanaged by Congress. It’s an antiquity, and it won’t get fixed until we give veterans a healthcare card that has a microchip on it, that says, ‘Barry had the following seven things wrong with him when he left the armed forces. Here’s what he’s authorized as healthcare.’ You can take that, as a military retiree, and go to any healthcare provider in the country. We’ve got to change that.
“We’ve got three giant VA hospitals in Baltimore; three more of them in Chicago. it makes no sense. It’s going to require congressional action. It will never happen until the next presidency. Too bad.
“But, by and large, the VA is a very caring, professional organization. They’re administratively just going under. And the secretary doesn’t run the department. He can’t fire people. He can’t move money. It’s a congressional sinecure system of funding it.”
On his wife’s reaction following her husband’s Vietnam service:
“I tell people — and it’s sort of a laugh line, but it’s true — at the end of my Vietnam experience, my wife despised American reporters, politicians and generals, and she hasn’t changed her mind about any of them since.”