Ask the Boss, He'll Tell It Like It Is
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2002 Question-and-answer sessions between mid-level career officers and top brass normally are rather rigid affairs, but that's not the case when Donald H. Rumsfeld's runs the show.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the defense secretary has earned an international reputation as a straight- talkin, no-nonsense kind of guy. He tells it like it is, and when he doesn't know the answer, he's not afraid to say so.
Students at the National Defense University recently found out the reputation is well deserved. About 500 lieutenant colonels, colonels, defense civilians and international students packed Eisenhower Hall at Fort McNair here Jan. 31 to hear Rumsfeld speak about the war against terrorism and the need to transform the armed forces.
After his speech, the secretary asked Army Gen. Tommy Franks, U.S. Central Command chief, and U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to join him at the podium. Rumsfeld told the students they'd answer, "or at least respond to," questions.
"This is an awful smart group," he said with a grin. "And so I'll answer the ones I know the answers to, and I'll respond to those that I don't."
Thus setting the tone, the defense secretary took the lead.
"I know you're all shy, and you're afraid to be the first one to ask a question," he said, "so I'm going to ask the first question." As the audience laughed, Rumsfeld turned to Franks, the commanding general of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"This country was attacked on Sept. 11," Rumsfeld said. "You began the attack on Oct. 7. Kabul was captured by anti-Taliban forces on Nov. 13. What in the world took you so long to get out of the quagmire?"
The crowd heartily applauded the secretary's dead-on approach.
Franks, obviously caught off guard, responded by telling the group: "Many will characterize Secretary Rumsfeld as a very good secretary of defense. I'll stand here as a combatant commander and tell you I certainly agree with that. But I can also tell you he is a hell of a secretary of war."
From then on, the repartee bounced back and forth among the defense leaders and students. Yet, along with the quips and jabs, the students asked serious questions about missile defense, and the defense leaders gave serious answers.
"In regard to the war on terrorism, how do we know when we've won the war? "What indicators are you looking for?" a lieutenant colonel asked the secretary.
"I'll let you know," the secretary gruffly declared.
Then laughing, he added, "No, that's not fair. It's a tough question.
"Our goal is to be able to live as free people," Rumsfeld said, "and to be able to get up in the morning and go out and know that our children can go to school and they'll come home safely." Americans should not have to carry weapons or give up freedoms because "some other group of people has imposed their will on us," he noted.
"The real concern at the present time is the nexus between terrorist networks and terrorist states that have weapons of mass destruction," the secretary said. "What we're dealing with here is something that is totally different than existed in previous periods, and it poses risks of not thousands of lives, but hundreds of thousands of lives, when one thinks of the power and lethality of those weapons."
Rumsfeld said the war against terrorism will not be quick, nor will it have an end where we can relax our guard. "There will always be people who will attempt to work their will against their neighbors and against the United States," he said.
As the secretary had noted earlier, this was "a smart group" of people. Most of the officers and civilians who attend the National Defense University have at least 20 years service under their belts. They posed no 'softball' questions.
Do you intend to stabilize the science and technology budget? What areas do you think are important to push? Can you see investing in hypersonic engines? Do you envision that operations in the transformed military of the future will shift from kinetic systems to cyber warfare?
Several times Rumsfeld urged the students to question Franks and Pace. A lieutenant colonel complied, asking Franks how the military can maintain both low-tech and high-tech capabilities. He was referring to the contrast between U.S. special operations forces riding horses in Afghanistan while unmanned aerial vehicles and stealth bombers flew the skies.
"Intellectual malleability," Franks replied. "Thought. Flexibility. Never denying the possibilities when one considers the human spirit -- the spirit of men and women in uniform. One of the things we don't want to leave behind as we move toward tomorrow is the ability to think, the ability to adapt, the ability to do things that the Soviet Union was not able to do."
In line with the session's light-hearted spirit, a Navy commander posed a question to the Marine general.
"General Pace," he said, "the question I have for you, sir, is: what question would you like me to ask the secretary?"
Quick on the mark, Pace replied: "Never let a promising career stand in the way of a good joke." Rumsfeld and everyone else laughed. "Oh that's wonderful," the secretary chuckled.
On a more serious note, Pace responded to a question on transformation. Of all the things the Defense Department aims to accomplish, which is the most important, a Navy captain asked.
"If I could only pick one thing," Pace said, "I would pick 'mindset.' I will tell you categorically that if we change none of our toys and simply change the way we think about how to apply them, we will have transformation on a very fast path."
After nearly an hour, with a humble, crestfallen expression, Rumsfeld told the group he'd been "given the hook."
Boos and hisses filled the auditorium. The troops didn't want the boss's unique 'Q and A' session to end. They stood and began applauding as the secretary made his final statement.
"Thanks to you for what you do for our country. Goodbye," Rumsfeld said and left the stage.