Address to the Nebraska American Legion Annual Convention
Thank you very much. Where's Bob Lowry? Lowry, I was told that you're the oldest living veteran in the world today. (Laughter)
Good morning. It¹s nice to see all of you. Many of you are dear friends, old friends. Many of you have been a big part of my life for many, many years....even before I had the privilege of serving in the United States Senate. I am grateful, as always to be back with you because of who you are and what this institution represents to this country, and to those now serving in our armed forces.
I want to reflect on an issue that¹s important to all of us, the American Legion. Then I want to talk about some of the issues of our day, specifically Iraq, our Armed Forces and the future of our country.
This morning I was preparing to get on a plane and fly down to Grand Island from Omaha. It happened that my office had brought some pictures over that they had found as they were reorganizing some of the desks in our Omaha office. I started thumbing through the pictures. There was a picture in the album taken of my father when he was the Commander of the American Legion Post in Ainswoth back in the early 50's. Actually, I think my father was a three-time Commander of the American Legion Post in Ainsworth and my mother was a three-time President of the Auxiliary. As I was thumbing through that album, I remembered my father preparing for meetings, various events, 4th of July, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, parades, cemetery ceremonies, and I remembered that when he was first elected Commander he did not have a full Legion suit. Many of you have the full Legion suit. Many Legionaries don¹t wear them anymore. But I have my father's Legion full suit..the wool pants...and I keep it..my mother had it, before she passed away. I remember my father being very concerned that he had just been elected Commander and he didn¹t have a suit. When most came back from World War II they didn¹t have a lot. And my parents were not dissimilar from most young people starting out after World War II. They immediately had children and they had to make their way to a normal life with their family. And I remember my mother saying to him, Charlie, we'll get that suit. We're going to be able to do that. So that suit has an awful lot of meaning to me because it is symbolic of this institution.
As has been noted by the Commander, I have been a Life Member for 37 years of the American Legion. When I came back from Vietnam in December of 1968, the Post that I am a Life Member from, Post #84 in Columbus, gave me my first American Legion membership (I think most Posts did that for guys who came back from Vietnam). I kept it up, paid my $100 or whatever it was and I'm a life member.
This morning, I also recalled a time when I was sitting in a beautiful building in Paris, France when I was President of the World USO. The World USO in Paris was located in the building where the American Legion was born. Many people are shocked to know that you are a product of the French. (Laughter) It's a hell of a thing. (Laughter) The American Legion actually was born in that building in Paris, France after World War I, it's where the documents were signed and the great plaques are there. There is a wonderful bust of General John Pershing.
I was thinking at the same time about my father's suit and the Legion...what that meant for our family....how our lives revolved around my father's activities in the Legion. As many of you know, serving in the 50's and 60's when I grew up in Nebraska, most of the little towns activities centered around the Legion Club or the VFW Club. That spirit of contribution, patriotism, who we are as Americans....I got that, as did my brothers...through veterans organizations. There was an assumption that you served your country. An assumption and a responsibility. A responsibility as an American. As automatic as going to school. That fabric that was sewn together in those days and that integration of commitment and service and responsibility to a cause more important than one's own self-interest, and the nobility of that has really anchored our country in ways we¹re still trying to understand today. It is as American as any one part of our culture.
I say that because it's important for you to hear that occasionally. You spend a lot of time doing what you think is right in your communities...contributing in your state organizations, associations, spheres of influence. Certainly you are here today, not to hear me, but to do some important business for this institution. It does have an impact and it does make a difference.
Our veterans organizations are more important today than maybe at any time in the history of our country. I say that because, when you look at Congress or the White House or across the landscape, there seems to be fewer and fewer veterans who make up the leadership landscape of the country. That doesn't mean that you have to be a veteran to be smart, or wise, or a good leader. That¹s not the point and I¹m not implying that. What I am saying is that we are all products or our experiences...we are products of our environments...we are products of where we come from. We bring that experience base with us as a frame of reference to draw on. Regardless of your job or philosophy, we are shaped and molded by those experiences. If you go to war or talk about committing a nation to war, veterans are careful because they understand there is no glory in war, there is suffering. Veterans also understand that sometimes there is no other alternative....sometimes there is no other course than war. But we¹ve learned over 200 years that war has unintended consequences. War is always unpredictable. It is dangerous, complicated and difficult. The veterans organizations can help frame up not just issues of war and peace, but health care and issues that affect veterans. You can frame that up better than anyone because people will listen to you.
Your involvement and judgement and participation is as important today as it has ever been. It will become more important. We are losing an edge and perspective in the Congress because of the lack of an integrated veteran voice.
I am a strong supporter of the all-volunteer force. I was a strong supporter of it in the 1970's when President Nixon brought it in. It was the right thing to do for the right reasons. It has produced the finest military the world has ever knownbest equipt, best trained. These are individuals not committed to making money, but to making the world better. They are committed to a lifetime of service and sacrifice. That is a very rare commodity. The military and veterans reflect that.
As we look to this next generation to serve, this voluntary military has separated our warriors and military from the rest of society in many ways. Most of you were not professional military people for your career. Most of you were integrated into our social fabric. You went in...you served...you came back to farm, ranch, own a small business, or be a doctor, banker or a lawyer. That fabric was and is important. There is a disconnect developing from our voluntary/all professional service and the rest of society. That¹s no reason to undo the all-voluntary Army. We shouldn¹t go back to the draft, but the fact is, we have a manpower problem. We have a force-structure problem. Partly that¹s a fact of being, I think, over committed around the world. We are in 140 nations with the smallest standing force structure of any time since World War II. We have more commitments around the world than at any time since World War II. Something is going to break. We are already seeing strain on our National Guard and Reserves. I don¹t think the way to fix that is to offer more and more bonus money. $50,000 is not why these men and women join the Army. If you start brining people in who are there for the money, you are going to destroy the fabric and soul of the all-voluntary Army and they won¹t stay. Do people join institutions to enhance their education and their careers? Of course. But people don¹t join the Army and the other services because they want to make money. It doesn't happen that way. Their motives are far bigger. They want to help change the world. They can and they are.
I say that as a lead-in to a couple of points I want to make about Iraq. I have said recently that I think we are losing in Iraq. When you say something like that, you get people¹s attention. I said that for a lot of reasons.
I've always thought it is the responsibility of an elected official, especially someone who has some experience, to guarantee as best we can that any policy that sends men and women into war and many don¹t come back is worthy of those men and women we asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. That policy has to be worthy of their families. If it¹s not, then it¹s the wrong policy and you should stop it.
I know there are comparisons made between Vietnam and Iraq. I don¹t think there are a lot of comparisons to be made there, but there are some parallels.
There is only one currency that matters in life with your spouse, friends, or business partners, and that¹s trust. If you debase that currency and people don¹t trust or believe what you've said, then you've lost. We learned that in Vietnam the hard way. You don¹t need be reminded anymore than listening to the tapes of President Johnson and Senator Russell back in the 60s. President Johnson confided that we couldn¹t win in Vietnam, but we can¹t pull-out. He didn't know what to do. Senator Russell said get out. It was unfair to project this country into a situation where on the outside you¹re saying, stay steady, stay the course, the lights at the end of the tunnel, we can win when privately you are saying we can't win because you don¹t want to be the first President to pull-out of a war. That¹s wrong. That's how policy gets to a point where the American people and the Congress eventually don¹t believe in it.
What happened? In 1975, thirty years ago last April....I was in Washington working for Congressman John Y. McCollister, the Congress said they'd had enough and abruptly pulled the plug on Vietnam. Within hours the North had taken Saigon. It didn¹t have to happen that way. It should not have happened that way. It happened because eventually the American people felt they were lied to and the Congress reflects the American people.
A policy must be sustainable. For a policy to be sustainable, you must be honest. You must be honest about what¹s going on.
In Iraq, the insurgency is up...more insurgents coming across the border, more American casualties, more Iraqi casualties, more civilian casualties, we¹re pumping less oil than a year ago, there is less economic development, less electricity, there is only one Arab nationEgypt with an Ambassador in Baghdad, only about 5-10% of the funds that were committed by 60 nations have been sent to Iraq. The point is I think we are going to have to make some adjustments or we will lose.
You know what the polls say. Never should any President, member of Congress, or any elected official govern by polls. That isn¹t the point. The point is that the President is losing support on his Iraq policy.
I talked to the President last week. I talked to the National Security Advisor. I¹ll talk to more this week. I am not against the President. No one can be against the President. We want our country to win. But this war should never be framed as a Republican or Democratic issue. I got a lot of criticism because I asked a lot of questions before we went into Iraq. Who is going to govern Iraq? What is our role going to be? Who is going to train? What does this have to do with Afghanistan? How is this going to affect the Middle East? I got no answers. I got criticized for being a disloyal Republican.
Ladies and gentlemen, I take an oath of office not to a President or a political party, but to the Constitution and the people and country I represent. You can criticize my judgement or my votes, but we can never allow this country to be defined by political parties when we are talking about war and peace.
That's what happened in Vietnam. What happened in Vietnam is as much the fault of the Congress as any one institution. The Congress was essentially quiet for years...they said nothing...didn¹t ask any tough questions.
This Senator is not going to let that happen as long as I am here. We cannot fail our troops. Who always suffers? It¹s the troops. Who speaks up for the riflemen?
All these smart people develop this grand policy and then they turn it over to the Marines and the Army and say, well, you guys go figure it out. They are the ones who have to do the killing and the dying. We have put an intense burden on our military. They don¹t complain. Generally morale is high. That¹s not the issue. These are Americans. These are professionals. They are going to try to do the job. But we need to assure that whatever policy that puts them in that situation is as good a policy, as smart a policy and winnable a policy as we can provide for them. To do anything less is wrong. To do anything less is wrong.
I think we have time to re-calibrate and make some changes. One of the things I¹ve talked to our people about is focusing more on the local and regional dynamic of local security. Why is that? Whether Algeria, Vietnam or any insurgency in the history of the world, if you don¹t have the people you¹ll lose. That¹s the way it is. I didn¹t make that up. They will outlast you and keep sending bodies to die against you. Eventually, you won¹t be able to sustain a policy. You¹ve got to have the people.
There is some good news in Iraq. The good things that have been done are in the areas where we've focused on local and regional cooperation. Where people have been able to see an improvement in their lives since the Untied States has gotten there. Unless people think their lives are getting better and there is a reason to support the government and the Americans then they¹ll probably hold on. If people are living in a state of despair, radicalism, fundamentalism, and some of that will develop into terrorism.
I think we can be doing much more with allies in helping to defend our borders. Abizaid testified before the Senate Armed Services that more and more insurgents are coming across those porous borders.
We've got to have a clear objective of what it is we want to do in Iraq. We went into Iraq and it was all about regime change, weapons of mass destruction, and that Saddam was not complying with UN mandates. Now the objective is to fight terrorists. That wasn¹t the objective when we went in. There were no terrorists. As bad as Saddam was, and he was bad and needed to be taken out, but he was not in league with terrorists. Did Saddam like it when they killed an American or a westerner? Of course. But the last thing Saddam wanted was any terrorists in his country. Why? They were a threat to him. He was brutal about keeping them out. Terrorism wasn't even an issue when we went into Iraq. Now terrorism is the objective in Iraq. We have to be clear about what the objective is. What is the objective?
We cannot fail in Iraq. If we fail in Iraq.....If in fact we see another Vietnam develop that will be reflected in the Congress. The stakes are far higher in Iraq than they were in Vietnam. Even though we chewed up 58,000 lives, we lost the war, the most humiliating loss in our history, and made things worse for 30 years in Vietnam....the consequences are far more dangerous in Iraq today. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, obviously terrorism giving them an opportunity to say they won, oil, energy, geo-political relationships.
Afghanistan is still in trouble. I think we made a mistake going into Iraq with about 1/3 of the troops. A lot of the problems we are having in Iraq.....Colin Powell was always right. Go in with maximum force. It¹s the way you protect your people. That ought to be the first principle. Protect your own soldiers. We don¹t have enough to protect our guys. Many of you were in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. How many times in Vietnam did we take a hill a village or a hill and two days or two weeks later, they came back. The same thing is happening in Iraq. Why is that? We don¹t have enough people. Get some of our allies to help us on the borders. Free some of our guys up. We don¹t have the capacity to control those borders. That¹s one of the reasons oil production is down. We don't have enough men to stop insurgency attacks on the oil.
Like any of these situations, the Iraqis will determine their future. It always ends that way. We must do a good job of trying to work through the training of our Iraqi police...we¹re doing that. The August 15th constitution will be critical, the October 15th referendum on it, the December 15th election for a new government. I think if we can hold all those things together for the next six months, then we¹ve got a chance of coming out of this.
Bottom line is this: our policy must be worthy of the young men and women we are sending out there. 1,725 have been killed. Over 13,000 wounded. It¹s not good enough for me when I hear from some of the Generals, actually, we should be losing a lot more men. Well, that doesn¹t make me feel better and I don¹t think it makes Americans feel better. But that¹s the kind of talk you hear...we actually should be losing more men. No we shouldn¹t. No we shouldn¹t.
I appreciated the invitation to come before you today. I wanted to explain some of my thoughts. I want you to know I am committed I told the President this on Tuesday I¹ll do everything I can to help. But I am not going to stand by and let our young men and women get chewed up for a policy that may not work...and probably will not work and in the end blame it on someone else and say we¹re sorry, but that¹s the way it is. I can tell you, not only as a veteran and a member of the Legion, but as a United States Senator, that is wrong. I fail you, I fail the country, and I fail these brave young men and women and their families if I take any other position than being honest, straightforward, and let the American people know what¹s going on. If they know that, they¹ll stay committed. What we don¹t want is for this to end up like another Vietnam. The consequences will be catastrophic in so many ways. The damage done to our country and the danger set loose in the world if we don¹t do what¹s right will be hard to calculate.
Again, I am grateful for what you do. I am grateful to be in a country where I have an opportunity to be a part of it. As I said in the beginning, this organization has meant an awful lot to me. It has framed me and shaped me in ways that everyday I feel a new sense of. That is as it should be. That is the mark of an institution worthy of a great society. Thank you very much.