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Mississippi Tribute to Armed Forces
Remarks by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Biloxi, Miss. , Monday, October 19, 1998

Thank you very much. Thank you.

Trent, I could listen to you all evening. (Laughter) And for a while, I thought I was going to listen to you all evening. (Laughter) I looked at the schedule that said five minutes for the introduction and I just checked my watch, it was almost 18 minutes. But this is Senate time and this is Lott time and it takes a long time when you’re talking about Lott time.

But let me say what a real pleasure it is for me to be here and to be with Senator Lott. He has given you the history of our relationship, which goes back to 1973. We have been together virtually all of that time until the time I decided to leave the Senate. And I must tell you, he came to the House as a very ambitious young man and he proved that ambition is something that can be a very noble trait indeed. And he came to the Senate and within a very short period of time, he became the leader of the Senate. And it tells you something about what his ambition is about. It’s not about being somebody, but it’s about doing something. And this relatively young man has done a great deal in a very short period of time in his career in the United States, the Congress and the Senate. And I think the people of Mississippi and certainly the country have been the great beneficiaries of Trent Lott’s dedication to public service. (Applause)

Dr. Williams, Congressman and Mrs. Taylor, Under Secretary Hultin, active and retired members of the armed forces, Trent gave you a little bit of my history. And I can’t really elaborate on that other than telling you that I have found that over the years, he also has a great sense of humor. He did, in fact, make his way to Maine and I explained to him that it was just north of New Hampshire and he figured that out on one of his trips through northern New Hampshire to test the waters up there. And I found that he was campaigning for my successor, Susan Collins. And some wag, on one of the walls, we had some graffiti on one of the walls and some wag had written, "Is there intelligent life on earth?" And as Trent was riding in the car with me, he said, "Stop the car!" He jumped out and he wrote, "Yes, but I’m only visiting." (Laughter)

And he mentioned Thad Cochran. Thad has been a great friend of mine as well. And you really do have tremendous combination of power in the United States Senate with Thad serving as a senior member of the appropriations committee. So between Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, you really have it locked up in the Senate.

And with respect to Gene Taylor, I have to come before his committee over in the House, the House National Security Committee. And I can tell you when I come before that committee and I come before Gene, there is no dividing line along partisan politics. There can be no dividing line on Democrat or Republican policies about our national security interests. And Gene continues to demonstrate that every time that I’ve come before him. He’s tough in his questions, but he’s fair. And he is as committed to building this country’s national security interests and system as any other dedicated member of this Mississippi delegation. I want you to know it’s a pleasure for me to appear before his committee as well. (Applause)

There’s another young man in the audience, Joe O’Keefe. He’s from Biloxi. And he’s now working with me in the Pentagon. And I want you to know that I’m told if you come down this way and you don’t know somebody in the O’Keefe family, something is wrong. He’s one of 13 children, 36 grandchildren. And Joe’s father was the mayor of Biloxi. That’s just a little bit bigger than Bangor, Maine, the third largest city in Maine, where I used to be mayor. And he and his family are here tonight. And Joe, I’d like to have you and your family stand up if I can see where you are. We can pay tribute to you. (Applause)

I must tell you that whenever I come before a new audience like this, I feel a little bit like Henry Ford, who after making all of his millions in this country, decided he wanted to go to his fatherland in County Cork, Ireland. But, of course, his reputation for wealth had long preceded his arrival. So when he finally got off the plane, there was a group of local town officials waiting to seek a contribution for the construction of a local hospital. And Ford was quite accustomed to being touched in that fashion. He pulled out his checkbook and he made out a check for $5,000. And the next day in bold print, in big headline print, it said, "Ford contributes $50,000 for the construction of local hospital." And the town officials came rushing to him. They said, "Oh, we’re terribly sorry, Mr. Ford. You know it was really not our fault. It must have been a typographical error and we’ll be happy to see to it that a retraction is printed in tomorrow’s paper." And he said wait a minute, I have a better idea. And that’s where that phrase came from: "I have a better idea." (Laughter) He said, "If you give me one promise of something that I really want to do, I’ll give you the balance of $45,000." They said, "It’s an offer we cant’ refuse. What is it you want?" He said, "I want, when that hospital is finally completed, to have a plaque over the entranceway with a quote taken from the source of my choice." They said, "Anything you want." He gave them the check for $45,000, and the hospital was built. There is, in fact, a plaque over the entranceway with a quote taken from the Book of Matthew. And it says, "I came unto you as a stranger and you took me in." (Laughter)

So I hope that you will take me in. Not quite in that fashion, but that you’ll take me in this evening.

I also am mindful of -- we were talking about sons up here. Trent and I have a son about comparable ages. We’re both grandfathers this year. And so we have that in common as well. But my son, when he was a senior at Bowdoin College, a small liberal arts school up in Maine, talked about the most popular professor on the campus. He was a religion professor. And he was popular not because he was a religion professor, but because he always asked the same question on the final exam every year: discuss the wanderings of St. Paul. And the students, of course, loved him. They loved him because they could wait until the night before the exam, they could go in there and cram all night long, walk into that exam and then just ace it, everyone of them. Until my son’s senior year. They walked into the exam, they sat down and within about 30 seconds, everybody’s hands started to tremble. There were butterflies in the stomach. Most of them felt nauseous. Almost all of them got up and left within a minute or two except for one student. Who sat and he wrote and he wrote for the full three hours in his blue book to the astonishment of his professor. At the end of that three-hour period, he passed in his blue book, he turned around and he walked out with what Mark Twain would call the calm confidence of a Christian holding four aces. (Laughter) Because instead of the question of discuss the wanderings of St. Paul, the professor had asked: "Discuss the meaning of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount." So as he passed his blue books in and turned around and walked out, the professor looked down and it said, "To the experts, I leave the meaning of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. As for me, I should like to discuss the wanderings of St. Paul." (Laughter)

So I would like to wander just a little bit with you this evening and I won’t take too much of your time.

I’m here also to express my thanks and admiration for the outstanding work that the men and women in our armed services have really performed on behalf of the people of this region. I have looked most of you in the eyes today. Trent and I had a chance to get around and meet with virtually all of those who were involved in the clean-up effort after the hurricane, which really threatened to do devastating damage to this region. And it did. But it could have been much worse but for the work of all of those in the military. What you did before and what you did after is truly outstanding. So I wanted to come back and say thank you for flying those C-130’s. Thank you for arranging for a hundred thousand gallons of drinking water. Thank you for the two million pounds of ice that you provided, the 200 operations of helping to save people in their homes, the 1.2 million sandbags that you actually packed and stacked. And if you think about it, if you took those bags and you stacked them six high, they’d reach all the way from the Coliseum all the way to the Superdome. And you did that within the matter of a couple days. There is no other organization in the world that could have performed what you did in a very short period of time, so we thank you for that. (Applause)

I’d like to talk just a few minutes this evening about something that I’ve been involved with, working with Congressman Taylor and Senator Lott and Senator Cochran and so many others. And Jerry [Hultin], I want to thank you as well for being here because you’re going to stay on and spend a couple of days and really dig into some of the things that we have to do to help here. I’m not sure we can pledge any more Naval facility strength, but we’ll do our best. But it’s something called the Quadrennial Defense Review that we passed last year. We really produced a strategy for the future. If you think about our role in the world, I go back to Admiral Stockdale. Remember him, when he got up in front of the stage and he was suddenly picked out of the blue to be the vice presidential candidate for Ross Perot. And he made a very solitary and I thought a moving presentation, something that was really out of his experience in the past as being a terrific military man, a prisoner of war. And he got up on the stage and he said, he asked, two things. He said, "Who am I? And why am I here?" And those are two very existential questions for him -- to try to define who he was to the American people.

But that’s really the kind of question we ask ourselves: Who are we? Who are we as a nation? And why are we here? And why are we over there or wherever? We have to ask those questions because we have to assume a great deal of burden in this world and we have to be willing to understand what the role of a major superpower is after the fall of the Soviet Union. And so we have to know what are the burdens, what are the benefits, how much do we have to pay for how long, and what do we get out of this. Those are the kinds of questions that we are trying to address when we formulated the so-called QDR strategy.

And that strategy consists of three very simple words: shape, respond and prepare. We repeat it like a mantra. Every day in the Pentagon. And the shaping part really comes down to our engagement in the world. How many of you here ever read that little novelette called "Jonathan Livingston Seagull"? Anybody here read that novel? Remember the wonderful story about this seagull that was always trying to go faster and faster and he would start at cloud-high level and go diving down toward the ocean and go into these terrible tailspins. And finally, the mystical seagull shows up and says: "Jonathan, you don’t understand. Perfect speed is not a matter of going faster and faster. Perfect speed is being there." And he was talking, of course, in a very transcendental sense of the word of being there.

But I use that example as something that’s very important for us in terms of being forward-deployed. There is no substitute for our being forward-deployed in the various regions of this globe, be it in the Asian Pacific region, over in Europe, be it in the Gulf. Wherever it is, we have to be forward-deployed. Because when we are forward-deployed, we are shaping. We are shaping people’s opinions about us. We are shaping them in ways that are beneficial to the United States. We are shaping people’s opinions when they look and they see the military men and women that we have. They make judgments. They look at how bright they are. They look at how well trained they are, how well disciplined they are, how well led they are, how well equipped they are. And they come to make a judgment: this is a country that I want to be on its side. This is a country that will help defend my interests as well as its own. This is a country that will be enduring in terms of its commitment. And so when we are forward-deployed, we’re able to really influence and shape people’s opinions about the United States of America. And we have to continue to be forward-deployed even though there are some in our country who say let’s just come home. Remember that expression back in 1972, "Come home, America"? And we have that coming from the Left. We have some coming from the Right today say, "Come home. Let’s just take our business here in the good old United States." Well, that can’t happen anymore, if it ever could. We have to be out there because when we’re not out there, there are other people who are filling the void. And if we were ever to disengage from those commitments, others will move in quickly and they will be trying to shape things in ways that are adverse to our interests and would be to our detriment. So shaping is part of our obligation and part of our destiny and we are keeping the peace. We are maintaining stability in a world where there are a lot of unstable nations and regions which, if left unchecked, will pose enormous threats to our security.

And we’ve seen, for example, we’re so inter-related. When you have the Asian financial flu that takes place over in either Thailand or Indonesia or Malaysia or any of the countries in Japan, it doesn’t just stay over there. It comes over here. We catch a cold over here as well. Everything is interconnected. And so we have to be forward-deployed in order to maintain that ability to shape people’s opinions in ways that are favorable and to send a signal to those who would oppose us, be it Saddam Hussein or North Korea or in Kosovo, wherever, that this is a country that you really don’t want to take on. It’ll be a big mistake on your part to take these men and women on because they are the best fighting force in the history of the world. And so those are the signals we want to send and continue to send. It keeps us free, and it keeps us prosperous. So I want to thank our military men and women who are shaping world opinion in ways that are favorable to us.

Secondly, we have to be flexible. When I say the word respond, we have to be able to respond to the entire spectrum of crises. We talk about people who suddenly need to be rescued. Our people in the Congo, for example. Suddenly, you have ethnic conflicts and rivalries that break out and we have to get American citizens and pluck them out. We send our military men and women in to get them. It’s called a non-combatant evacuation, an NEO. We have to be capable enough to do that: to keep peace in Bosnia, as we’re doing; to be able to take on North Korea should it ever try to attack the south; to be able to take on Saddam Hussein should he continue to try to build up his chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons or pose a threat to the region. We have to have that full spectrum capability, so we have to be able to respond. And we can.

The third part about preparing is the most difficult. That’s where we have been short in terms of our past behavior because Trent and Gene Taylor and others will tell you, the military year after year would come to Capitol Hill and say, you know, we have to spend much more money on procurement. We have to build more systems for the future. The problem is we really can’t afford it. We’re only at $42 billion dollars this year, we should be at $60 [billion], but maybe next year. And it sounds something like a great Red Sox fan -- next year, we’re finally going to win the pennant. The problem is next year comes about and we still don’t have the money. And for the first time this year, we have moved that scale up. We have moved the arrow up from where we were. We increased it by 15 percent for the procurement of future systems.

But what I want to say is while we’re doing all of this, we still recognize there are some deficiencies. And Senator Lott has pointed those out this evening. There are major concerns on the minds of the men and women who are serving us. We are the best fighting force in the world, not only because of the equipment, not only because of the leadership, not only because of the training, but we are the best because of the people. And we have to keep those people in our military. We have to recruit them in the first instance, we have to retain them in the second. And we’re having some difficulty in this regard in both accounts because of the strong economy that we have. It’s the strongest it’s been in 30 years. We have a balanced budget for the first time in 30 years. And so, we are having some difficulty competing with the private sector right now. So we’ve got to do better than we’ve been doing as far as treating the men and women in our military with the kind of compensation they deserve. And we’re going to do better. That’s something that Trent has been working on. I know that Congressman Taylor has been working on it. We’re all going to be doing better to try to narrow the gap between where we are and where we need to be.

Secondly on retirement. Senator Lott has talked about this. This is something that we changed back in 1986. We were all a part of that. We were part of that because we tried to revise the system in a way that would give an incentive for people to stay in longer. Not shorter, but longer. It’s had just the reverse effect. As a result of the change we made back in 1986, we have people who are now leaving because of that system. So it’s got to be changed. And we’re going to work on that and hopefully, we’ll have some kind of a plan to present to the Congress, to the President, by January of next year.

In addition, there are issues such as operational tempo, personnel tempo. We’re changing that as well. A number of major changes are underway that we can manage better so we don’t over-utilize the men and women who are going out, coming back, then going back out again. And their families are saying, "This isn’t working. I don’t see you. Your sons and daughters aren’t seeing you." We need to have more time so they can spend some with their families. So we’ve go to manage the operational tempo and the personnel tempo in a much better fashion then we have to date and we are also working on that.

There are other issues which I could talk about this evening, but I can see that I’m exceeding my own time. And just let me touch upon them quickly. Healthcare and housing. Again, we come down to quality of life issues which really have an impact upon your life. And when you aren’t satisfied that the quality of the housing or the healthcare or the other issues allow you to really concentrate on your jobs, then you’re not going to be as ready as you need to be. We have the readiest forces in the world today. I’ve just come back from the Persian Gulf. I can tell you those forces out there are the most ready forces you will find anywhere in the world. We want to keep them that way. And so they can’t be concerned about what’s taking place back home and are their families getting the right kind of treatment and healthcare and so forth. We’ve got to address those issues.

Trent mentioned the $9 billion, the first time certainly since the Persian Gulf War, there’s been any kind of an increase and this is a significant increase. But as he indicated, it’s only a down payment. We’ve got to look at ways in which we can raise that top line to a level that will make sure that we keep the forces that we have today in the best fighting condition that they can possibly be, and we’re going to work on that.

I would like to say just a couple of words about Stephen Ambrose. He was going to try to be here this evening, but he could not be here. And we have the deputy director of the Eisenhower Center Anne Wedekind, who is here representing him. I just want to say a couple of words about Stephen Ambrose because Trent mentioned "Saving Private Ryan." That was one, I think -- I think it’s probably the best movie ever made about what war is really like. I don’t know that anybody has ever walked into that movie theater and come out of that theater and said it tried to glorify war or tried to demean it. It tried to represent exactly what it was. And for me, it was perhaps the most emotional movie that I’ve ever seen during my lifetime. We paid tribute to Steven Spielberg a short time ago. He came to Washington, came to the Pentagon. The Department of the Army gave him an award. And I must tell you he was overwhelmed with that evening. He got up and he said he didn’t really appreciate the fact it would have such an impact upon the people of this country. He didn’t really appreciate what it would mean to the men and women. And he’s been inundated with tens of thousands of letters. And he was so emotional in his presentation that evening.

It was a night to remember, but I recall the evening because of what Stephen Ambrose had said in his book, "Citizen Soldier." Spielberg had hired Stephen Ambrose as a consultant for this movie. And in the book "Citizen Soldier", what you have is Ambrose asking the question: How is it possible? How could you take a bunch of young people out of every facet of our society all over the country, put them up against a mechanized evil like fascism or Nazism during the Second World War and have them prevail? And what Ambrose said in his book in the final chapters, he said, "Ultimately if you look at it at the core, our citizen-soldiers knew the difference between right and wrong. And they were unwilling to live in a world in which wrong triumphed. And so they fought and they prevailed and we and all of the succeeding generations are the beneficiaries of their great sacrifice."

But he raised the question that Senator Lott raised this evening. Are we really worth the sacrifice that our fathers and forefathers made for us? It’s a question that is left hanging at the end of that particular movie. I’d like to think that it is, that we are worthy of the sacrifice that was made.

I think of the book that was written by Alistair Cook, another favorite author of mine. Cook, in his book about America, compared us inevitably to Rome. And he said that we, like the Romans, are in danger of losing that which we professed to cherish most. He said, "Liberty is the luxury of self-discipline. Liberty is a luxury of self-discipline and those nations who have failed to impose discipline upon themselves had it imposed by others upon them." He said, "In America, I see the most persistent idealism and the blandest of cynicism. And the race is on between its vitality and its decadence." And then he paraphrased Benjamin Franklin. He said we have a great country and we can keep it. But only if we care to keep it.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you, day after day, I have the opportunity by the grace of God to be able to go out and meet the men and women who are serving us in our military. And I can tell you that we are going to keep this great country because we have the young people, the officers, the leaders who are determined and who care enough to keep it. And they are in this room this evening.

Thank you very much for allowing me to come and share this special evening with you. (Applause)