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Mullen Addresses Policy, Strategy Issues at Harvard

By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Nov. 18, 2010 – The nation’s top military officer discussed issues of military policy, strategy and the costs of war with a Harvard University audience here yesterday evening.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addresses the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Nov. 17, 2010. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

“The logic of war is unforgiving -- and not always logical at that -- and may require policymakers to alter their strategic objectives or change their military approach,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told his audience. Celebrating its 375th anniversary next year, Harvard is the nation’s oldest institution of higher learning.

Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a graduate of Harvard Business School’s advanced management program, addressed a gathering of about 400 traditional and mid-career graduate students, undergraduates, faculty and members of the public during a John F. Kennedy School of Government Forum.

The United States was emerging from the Gulf War when he completed the advanced management program at Harvard in 1991, Mullen said. Since then, he said, the armed forces have been involved in operations ranging from full combat to disaster relief.

“But we must also scan the horizon for emerging trends as we confront today’s challenges at full speed,” the chairman said.

Mullen told the audience that during his 42-year military career he has formulated three conclusions about the proper use of modern military forces. First, military power may prove to be the best first tool of the state, but it should never be the only one.

Second, when military power is employed, it should, to the maximum extent possible, be applied in a precise and principled way.

“And third, we must recognize the process of matching military strategy to national policy is iterative,” he said. “It must be constantly informed by events on the ground, adapting as necessary to defeat a thinking enemy and achieve our ends.”

Policymakers should guide the conduct of war to achieve their political objectives, and the Constitution ensures civilian leaders, not the military, determine national policy and whether a war is worth fighting, the chairman said.

“My primary job is to advise the president -- the commander in chief -- of his military options as he sets policy and approves strategy,” he said. “I do this candidly, but privately.”

Mullen said he, the joint chiefs, and senior military commanders must be candid when called to testify before Congress, the elected representatives of the American people.

Senior military leaders, the chairman added, also “must be clear and direct” about the limits and risks of military power and what it can achieve within a given timeframe.

“This is all the more difficult,” Mullen said, “because war is not predetermined, nor is it linear in shape. It never has been.”

The enemy “gets a vote” in deciding how he will respond to U.S. strategy, the chairman said, and while strategic estimates take into account the enemy’s leaders, culture and will to fight, such estimates are exactly that.

“You don’t know for sure how an enemy will respond, and even then, you can’t be certain how long the war will last,” Mullen said. “War, then, is discovery of a most-lethal sort.”

The Taliban are a case in point, the chairman said. Will they continue fighting to overthrow the government of Afghanistan? Will they turn against al-Qaida and deny terrorists safe haven? How many “foot-soldiers” can coalition forces separate from extremist leaders?

“The reality is, we learn as we go,” he said.

It often surprises strategists to find that their politically acceptable ways and means are insufficient to defeat a determined enemy, Mullen said.

“This reveals the creative tension within the policy-strategy relationship that makes the process necessarily iterative, and yet, ultimately triumphant,” he said.

Wars are typically the most costly and destructive endeavors a nation may pursue, Mullen said, noting that the cost to the United States for World War II would amount to approximately five trillion of today’s dollars.

“In terms of human cost, the toll was much higher, causing more than a million casualties, including nearly 300,000 combat deaths,” he said. “All the while, President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt -- like all wartime presidents -- had to balance many other domestic and fiduciary concerns as well.”

Achieving this balance is particularly acute in conflicts that are fought for more limited aims or in a more constrained environment, such as those the United States is fighting today, he said.

Mullen said three historical examples highlight how “the logic of war” can cause a change in strategy or military approach. For example, he noted, President Abraham Lincoln said at the outset of the Civil War that if he could save the union without freeing a single slave, he would.

However, after years of bloody conflict, “Lincoln chose to free the slaves, and then only after he knew he had enough military victories behind him,” the chairman said.

The Korean War is likewise instructive, Mullen said. Following the successful landings at Inchon in September 1950, he said, the Truman administration developed a new policy goal of unifying the Korean peninsula under a democratic government. When the Chinese intervened and raised the costs of continued conflict, Truman reversed himself and went back to a goal of restoring the boundary at the 38th parallel.

“Finally, there is the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which shows in terms stark and clear why policymakers should approve military strategy,” Mullen said. “When the generals recommended an invasion of Cuba, President [John F.] Kennedy refused, deeming it not worth the risk of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.”

In each of these examples, the chairman said, military leaders provided their civilian masters with candid professional judgment in a constantly evolving strategy development process. And in each case, he added, a president decided what best served the national interest.

Mullen said that Dr. Ashton Carter, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, characterizes such interplay between strategy and policy as a continual process of “sense and adjust.”

“That’s a great way to put it, and we must recognize that our enemies are doing the same -- adapting to our strategy, as we adapt to theirs,” the chairman said.

Mullen said the Cold War, a 40-year struggle against the Soviet bloc, offers a clear demonstration of national leaders’ policy and strategy adaptation over time.

The Truman Doctrine gave way to the “New Look” policies of Eisenhower, Mullen said, while Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis was followed within a decade by détente with the Soviet Union.

Finally, the tough Reagan doctrine of the early eighties ultimately yielded to Perestroika and Glasnost in the Cold War’s closing chapters, he said.

“As we look back, the end of the Cold War seems inevitable, but to those of us who lived it, it was anything but,” the chairman said.

Mullen emphasized that some of the biggest “leaps forward” during the Cold War -- opening relations with China, or brokering the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union -– “came when our leaders chose to shift approaches based on changing conditions.”

Today, “our nation faces grave challenges that require that same courage and flexibility,” Mullen said, “like executing a new START treaty with Russia, finishing our mission in Iraq, and striving for success in Afghanistan.”

The correct strategy is being employed in Afghanistan, the chairman said. “I can assure you we have the strategy right,” he said. “We have the right resources in place and we have the right leaders in charge. And we are committed to success.”

President Barack Obama devoted an extraordinary amount of effort during the Afghanistan strategy review last fall to understand the fight and the direction he wanted that fight to take, Mullen said.

“Together, his national security team took a more narrow focus, identifying very clear goals to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their return to either country in the future,” the chairman said, noting the strategy also shifted the military’s emphasis to training and increasing the size of Afghan security forces so they can eventually take the lead in securing their country.

“Now, as many of you know, we will all be sitting down again next month to evaluate our progress one year later -- again recognizing the need to constantly assess performance,” he said.

Mullen said he suspects that if any changes take place at all, they will be in specific areas of implementation rather than to the strategy itself.

“But the fact that the president wants this evaluation, and is willing to make changes should they be warranted, speaks volumes in my view on his firm belief in -- and understanding of -- the changing nature of war,” Mullen said.

He said that while the Afghan people are feeling safer and the Taliban’s momentum is slowed, “even this progress is not enough.”

“Good governance must follow security gains, and while that is the case in some areas, it still lags behind in others,” Mullen said. Ultimate success in Afghanistan, he said, will be achieved over time.

“I believe we will meet our operational objectives, just as we

[have] in Iraq,” he said. “These wars will end. But we must be ever mindful that successfully ending wars is more difficult than beginning them.”

The willingness to review, to reassess and re-decide, is not merely healthy, it is essential, Mullen said, noting, “The day you stop asking the hard questions is the day you start losing.”

Mullen then asked the audience to remember the costs associated with “the lofty realms of strategy and policy.” The questions aren’t just theoretical, and they have real consequences, he said.

“The brutal truth is that this has been a tough fight, and tragically, we’ve lost some tremendous young men and women,” the chairman said.

Servicemembers who do come home find their lives forever changed, “with consequences for our military and veteran health care system, our national employment and homeless rates, and who we are as a nation,” Mullen said.

“So at this school and community that personify leadership, service and a commitment to others, I say to you that this will be the defining public policy challenge of this era,” the chairman said. “We need your help now, and when you graduate, in supporting our returning warriors, their families and the families of the fallen, whether in your free time and or in your professional life.”

Mullen recited a quote from John F. Kennedy: “‘A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.’”

The chairman then thanked his audience for “remembering, honoring and supporting our men –- and our women –- in uniform, and their families who have given us so much.”


Contact Author

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen

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