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Shelton Outlines Role of Military in 21st Century

By Kevin F. Gilmartin
Special to American Forces Press Service

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Jan. 21, 2000 – "The military makes a great hammer in America's foreign policy toolbox, but not every problem that we face is a nail," the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told more than 200 people at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government here, Jan. 19.

Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton spoke about the intersection of force and diplomacy and discussed the importance of the American public's support for any use of America's military abroad.


"As a world superpower, can we dare to admit that force cannot solve every problem that we face?" Shelton said. "I think that the decision to use force is probably the most important decision that our nation's leaders can make. Of course, it has to be a civilian decision. It has been, and hopefully always will be, based on sound military advice.


"Let's be realistic," Shelton said, "I think that in any intervention that we face, anytime that we use our forces abroad, we are going to face opposition here at home. This is not only the nature of American democracy, but it is at the very heart and soul of our very system."


He said America should set clear parameters as to when the use of military force is appropriate.


"The fundamental purpose of our military forces is to fight and win the nation's wars," the chairman said. That's not the only purpose, however. "The military can do a lot of other things in support of our foreign policy and national interests, including maintaining America's presence around the globe, providing deterrence where appropriate and intervening if necessary."


He outlined three categories in which he believes military intervention could be used: vital national interests, important national interests and humanitarian.


"By vital national interests, I mean things that will really directly impact our way of life such as the safety of American citizens abroad, the security of our territories or that of our allies, the protection of our economic well being.


"That's seldom an issue," he said. "Those issues are very clearly discernible as vital national interests. Of course, we'll do whatever we need to do to protect these interests; and force, when applied in combat, will be done in an overwhelming and decisive manner."


The second category, important national interests, includes "those things that are short of our national survival, but nonetheless, will affect our nation," Shelton said. "If there is a threat to our important interests, then military force will be used if the cost and the associated risks are commensurate, and if there is not another element of our national power that might be more appropriate for the mission at hand."


Using America's military in humanitarian efforts is sometimes appropriate, the general said. "The appropriate use of our armed forces can bring a solution to the immediate problems at hand and set the stage for international leaders to address the longer term, more systemic deficiencies," Shelton said.


When the scale of conflict dwarfs the ability of international aid agencies to respond, "such as we saw happen in Rwanda, then the military can be used, and should be used, in a very efficient and effective manner," Shelton said. He also cited the effective use of the military in relief efforts for national disasters, such as support of Turkey after earthquakes there last summer.


Such efforts should be "limited in duration ... have a clearly defined end state ... and they should entail minimal risk for our troops," Shelton said. "They should be designed to give the affected country the opportunity to restore its own basic services. At the same time, we have got to ensure these efforts should not jeopardize our ability to respond to direct threats to our national security in other regions of the world."


Regardless of what type of threat America's forces are responding to, sustaining these forces abroad requires the support of the American people, Shelton said.


"Needless to say, any operation that we do is not going to be without risk to our troops, and insertion of armed forces always carries with it the potential for casualties," he said.


Therefore, Shelton said, each situation needs to be subjected to what he calls the "Dover Test," named after Dover Air Force Base, Del., the point of entry for the bodies of service members killed in action. "We have to ask the question, 'Is the American public prepared for the sight of our most precious resources coming home in flag-draped caskets into Dover Air Force Base?'" Shelton said.  This should be among the first things raised by Washington decisionmakers.


During the past decade, the use of America's armed forces in situations around the world has increased dramatically he said. The overriding lesson from these operations "is that we must bring all of our resources to bear - our political, diplomatic, military and economic - if we expect to be successful solving non-military problems, especially those that are rooted in religious, cultural or ethnic strife," he said.


"Sometimes providing assistance and help is exactly what this nation should do," Shelton said. "But it is also always prudent, I think, to consider the unintended consequences which may accompany well-intentioned impulses to use our strength for the good of the international community. We may find out that sorting out the good guys from the bad is not as easy as it seems. We may find that getting in is much easier than getting out. I think that these are the types of issues that we should confront up front before making a decision on whether to commit our military forces."


(Editor's note: Gilmartin is the chief of media relations at the Air Force Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass.)

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Related Sites:
Biography: General Henry H. Shelton

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