What Happens When U.S. Military Leaders Fail to Live Up to High Expectations

Americans hold U.S. military officers to a high ethical standard and propriety. Judy Woodruff talks to Richard Kohn of the University of North Carolina and retired Col. Andrew Bacevich on whether these standards are reasonable and why the U.S. is fascinated by the recent scandals of Generals like David Petraeus and John Allen.

Read the Full Transcript


    And we turn back to one of the topics raised in President Obama's news conference today, the investigation of former CIA Director David Petraeus. The former military leader's resignation after admitting to an extramarital affair raises questions about the standards to which Americans hold U.S. officials and military officers.

    We take a look at that with two who follow civilian-military relations closely. Richard Kohn is professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina. During the 1980s, he was the chief historian for the U.S. Air Force.

    And retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich is a research fellow at Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

    We thank you both for joining us.

    And before I begin, I just have two items to share, late-breaking items in the news on this story, The New York Times identifying the FBI agent in Tampa who was originally given the information from Jill Kelley about threatening e-mails. His name is Frederick Humphries II. He's said to be a veteran counterterrorism investigator.

    The second item, The Associated Press is reporting that General John Allen is saying he intends to fully cooperate in this investigation. He hopes to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible, hopes that authorities do.

    But, Colonel Andrew Bacevich, let me — let me start with you. What is your overall reaction to this, to the Petraeus story, the potential involvement of General Allen, although we don't know about that? How do you — how are you taking this all in?

    COL. ANDREW J. BACEVICH (RET.), University of Notre Dame: Well, I think it's very useful to be reminded from time to time that four-star generals are not gods, but mere mortals.

    And, as mortals ourselves, perhaps we can, therefore, assess their performance, stand in judgment. And if you consider the performance of senior American military leaders over the past 10 years of war, it seems to me that it's been rather disappointing.

    The expectation that when the — when we send U.S. forces to fight that they will achieve victory, that expectation has not been met. And we have ended up with two very long wars, one of which has now ended in something other than victory — I'm referring to Iraq — and a second war, Afghanistan, which will ultimately end, and nobody expects it's going to end in victory.

    It seems to me it's fair to ask why have we gotten such disappointing results, after such tremendous exertions by our soldiers? And part of the answer, just part of the answer it seems to me is defective, disappointing, mediocre senior military leadership.


    Well, I don't know that we can get into a full discussion here of whether the wars have been successful or not.

    But, Professor Kohn, mere mortals, is that what we're looking at here?

    RICHARD KOHN, University of North Carolina: Well, it is, Judy, except that we do hold these mere mortals to a very high standard. They hold themselves to a very high standard.

    After all, we give senior military leaders our children and grandchildren, and entrust them with the national security of the United States because they exist in a hierarchical organization. And because the demands of combat and the stresses of waging war are so great, they have very high standards. They hold themselves to it.

    And so it's a kind of an extra tragedy when people of such prominence and such apparent success, or at least celebration, have a personal fall like this, or at least in the case of General Petraeus. We don't know about General Allen.


    Professor Kohn, do you believe that General Petraeus should have been required to step down from the CIA?


    Well, yes, I do, because to have a secret affair even if it becomes public puts him in a position of being able to be blackmailed.

    The questions that are asked of intelligence officers and officials are always about things that could embarrass them, and such that they could be compromised by enemies of the United States. And because the CIA holds its people to such standards, I think his credibility would have been undermined if it had been public. And if it was private, then he could have been compromised.


    Colonel Bacevich, what about that particular question of whether General Petraeus should have been required to step down because of what happened?


    Well, I have to say, it's not clear to me he was required to step down.

    If I understand the sequence of events, he went to see his immediate boss, General Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and Clapper said that Petraeus ought to step down. But subsequent to that, Petraeus went to see the president, his real boss, and I don't know for a fact that the president said, you're out of here. You're finished.

    It seems that the president actually was somewhat reluctant to accept the resignation. I would accept General Petraeus' explanation at face value that he was ashamed, I think rightfully ashamed, at his conduct and felt that on that basis that he shouldn't go forward.

    Now, Professor Kohn is absolutely correct that there are some security issues here, and that's why I think it will be very interesting to find out what the FBI learns as they try to determine where the classified documents that Paula Broadwell has in her possessions, where those came from. That's a major unanswered question.


    That's right. And there's so much we still don't know about this. We learn more every day. There's still so much.

    But, Professor Kohn, how much — how much confidence, how much admiration should Americans heap on these military leaders? And I guess you could say that question applies to anyone in public life. But what about these individuals in whom we entrust the lives of young men and women who go off to serve in our wars overseas?


    I think we need to give them great confidence and great respect, but I'm uncomfortable with the idea of adulation.

    These men and women serve the United States. They have high responsibility. They're trained. They rise to their position almost exclusively through merit. And so they deserve our respect.

    But at the same time, they have to be held accountable by their own armed services, by the Department of Defense, by the White House, and particularly by the Congress, which has a different, but somewhat equal role in the supervision of the military.

    And I think the American people deep down recognize that. This enormous reverence that we have had for the military in the last 25 years is not the norm in American history, particularly the professional military.

    Our tradition really is one, for most of our history, of citizen soldiers, with some respect, but also some suspicion of the professional military.


    And just quickly to both of you, Colonel Bacevich, how do we get this back — how does the country get this back in some balance, and what effect do you see this having in the long term potentially on the public's view of the military?


    I think Professor Kohn put his finger on it, that there is a tradition which we have — we abandoned in the wake of the Vietnam War, and especially since the 1990s, of skepticism about military institutions and military power.

    Certainly, we have an obligation to support the troops. In particular, we have an obligation to support the troops when they're committed to a war. But supporting the troops is not inconsistent with asking hard and critical questions about the way wars are being conducted and what we are getting in return for the vast investment of blood and treasure.


    And, finally, Professor Kohn, how do you see the effect on the military going forward and getting all this in some balance?


    Well, I think it joins another stream of thought and discussion in public about the way in which we develop our senior military leadership.

    Are we choosing the right people on the right criteria? I don't think there's any question that we don't want people violating the trust of the American people. And that goes in their personal lives, too. But it raises, I think, other issues that the public and the government need to consider.

    And this might restore, I think, some balance and understanding and remind the American people that, wonderful as these people are, indeed, they're only human.


    Professor Richard Kohn, Colonel Andrew Bacevich, we thank you both.


    Thank you.


    Thank you.